By all outward appearances, when you first meet Cris Sommer Simmons the first thing that comes to mind is how laid back she is. But you soon realize that she can be equally animated and is a bright, articulate woman who is fiercely independent and determined with a fantastic outlook and a great sense of humor. As it happens, all of these traits would come to serve her well in her life one day, whether she ever suspected it herself or not. Cris is one of only two women to not only compete in the Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run, but to actually finish it.
While Cris was in Daytona recently for Bike Week 2012, we were able to catch up with her at the famous artist David Uhl’s tent while she was there on one of the many legs of her book signing tour after having recently published her The American Motorcycle Girl’s Cannonball Diary, an account of her activities in connection with the event from the time she was first informed of it ‘til the bittersweet end as she made her way onto the Santa Monica Pier at the conclusion of it to cross the finish line.
When you ask Cris if she ever envisioned herself taking part in an event like this herself as an actual rider, she unabashedly and with little hesitation says no. She explains that when she first heard about it she immediately thought of her husband, Pat, who is also an avid lover of antique motorcycles. When she first broached the subject to him of his taking part in it, she was disappointed to learn that due to scheduling conflicts and time constraints Pat didn’t think he’d be able to do it and was more than a little surprised when in the very same breath he suggested that she do it.
Although Cris has been riding solo for 35 years, she’d never ridden an antique of the age that was required for the 2010 Cannonball Run departing from Kitty Hawk, NC and had never ridden a bike with a foot clutch before. With a little encouragement from Pat, she began to seriously consider the daunting task before her and even began to revel in it. Soon she was sold on the idea and could think of little else. Her and Pat immediately set about deciding which of their vintage bikes would not only qualify, but would be best suited for the trip.
They settled on a 1915 Harley 3-Speed Twin that would soon become known as Effie and the love of her life – besides Pat, of course. Effie’s namesake, Effie Hotchkiss, turned out to be her hero in a roundabout way, and if you’re curious as to why, then you’ll have to read her book or try and catch her in person at one of the many events throughout the country she’ll be attending this year in conjunction with the bike, the book, and the run itself. Once the issue of the bike was behind them, it was full speed ahead.
Fast-forward to Kitty Hawk in September of 2010 and a very nervous Cris with only 65 miles under her belt at this point on that foot clutch, and you begin to get a picture of the inner strength this woman has. She was not about to let her inexperience or the fact that all eyes were upon her and Katrin Boehner as the lone female entrants on the run to stop her from trying. She had already concluded it wasn’t about winning or prizes or trophies for her. It was about having a dream and living it. And that she did.
When asked if there was ever a “what-was-I-thinking moment,” she laughs and says there were many, and the first few days of the ride were laden with them after having her foot run over the first day out and little time to eat or sleep. Not that the eat or sleep factor improved much as time went on over the next two weeks, but she steeled herself to the notion she was going to succeed and willed herself along with the help of her husband, her three kids, and “Team Effie,” without whom she doesn’t know if she could have made it.
We went on to ask her what the best and worst parts of the trip were, and she replied just making it into the hotel parking lot every night was a joy and that watching people drop out of the run along the way was the hardest part for her personally. She marvels still at the camaraderie they all shared. But for her the most poignant and bittersweet moment was when she arrived at the pier to see her crew there and all the other riders who had endured along with her the satisfaction of having made it and the dawning reality that it was all but over and the feeling of sadness that accompanied it. She doesn’t regret for one moment her decision to enter the event, though.
For anyone interested in reading her behind-the-scenes account of the run and all that she and the other Cannonball riders themselves went through on their memorable journey, autographed copies of her book will be available on her new website www.cannonballdiary.com where you can go for more information or to contact Cris.