One for the history books
PORTLAND, MAINE., SEPT. 8–23—When Lonnie Isam Jr. first started daydreaming about riding antique motorcycles across these great United States, he had no idea what his fantasies would eventually bring. These days, a full eight years since he nurtured his dreams into a hardcore reality, the Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run has become a household name among motorcycle enthusiasts of every stripe. Founding father Isam passed in 2017, making 2018 the first time the famous visionary was not present for the event, but the grueling transcontinental run that he cultivated continues under the guidance of Jason and LeeAnn Sims, and riders from around the world still sign up to pit themselves and their machines against the arduous routes laid out by Cannonball route master, John Classen. For the September 2018 iteration, qualifying machines had to be built before 1929.
Over 100 brave souls from around the world committed to piloting their 90-to-107-year-old motorcycles across America last fall. And as they took their positions along the shores of Portland, Maine, to wait for the green flag, the thrill of seeing hordes of magnificent machines held the crowds gathered at Big Moose Harley-Davidson breathless. It’s rare to see so many functional antique motorcycles gathered together, after all, and the occasion is certainly worthy of inclusion in recorded history for future generations. But besides all that historical stuff, the Motorcycle Cannonball is notoriously fun for everyone, including those who go out to meet the traveling museum at stops along the way.
The run was originally mapped as a Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, course after Sims and Isam had discussed the route in 2016, but the promoters were surprised to discover that the city of Portland, Oregon, was less than receptive. Apparently, as locals informed us, the City of Roses isn’t too keen on motorcycles, antique or otherwise, so negotiations broke down completely and an alternative, more congenial location was found, despite the fact that advertising and press had announced otherwise. Organizers rerouted the course and the Cannonball clan was treated to a beautiful finish at the more gracious and incredibly gorgeous Skamania Lodge in Stevenson, Washington.
In between the start and stop, the course took a northern route that had entrants watching cold-weather warnings and gloomy skies while wondering what they were thinking when they signed on to flog their valiant machines across the tiny two-lanes of America’s heartlands. By Stage 3, weather had washed out the day’s route, officially cancelling the entire day, an unprecedented but warranted call by the “rain or shine” event since safety is always the first priority for the adventure-seeking promoters. The ride was mapped along obscure roads but included parties at several Harley shops, the Indian Motorcycle factory in Spirit Lake, Iowa, and museums like Hemming Motor News in Vermont, Kersting’s Cycle Center and Museum and the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa. The cities of Pierre, South Dakota, Sturgis, South Dakota, and The Dalles in Oregon hosted Cannonballers with warm welcomes and huge parties. The Dalles went as far as blocking off their city streets and grilling up fresh local salmon with all the accoutrements of a gourmet meal served al fresco. There was even an old-fashioned Ferris wheel, live music and dancing in the street. The entire affair was reminiscent of a celebration straight out of the pages of Cannonball Baker’s own memoirs and befitting the glory of road-weary warriors having successfully labored across 14 of the 15 states the group would eventually ride through.
During each of the five MC runs, there have been records set and plenty of remarkable “firsts” to be tallied, and 2018 was no exception as more than 100 riders turned their roadworthy machines west, ready to face the challenge of navigating 16 days of hard riding. Never before had a woman rider completed all the miles, yet there were three determined ladies who arrived at the finish line with perfect scores. The youngest woman to ever enter, Jody Perewitz, along with the mother of an infant, Kersten Heling, and commercial airline pilot Andrea Labarbara, all arrived safely after completing every mile. Cris Sommer-Simmons, the matriarch of the Cannonball women with three prior runs under her belt, did not make all the miles but rounded out the total of four dedicated dames who competed this year. Kersten, it must be mentioned, was also the daughter half of the first father/daughter team to ever enter the run, though there were an unprecedented six father/son teams battling along the byways last year.
Equally impressive was the fact that never before had a single-speed, single-cylinder, Class I machine made all the miles. But after completing three prior Cannonballs, California competitor Dean Bordigioni crossed the finish line in Stevenson, Washington, with a perfect score on his 1914 Harley-Davidson, a machine he had ridden in 2016. Combined with the fact that he was also aboard the oldest bike with all the miles meant Dean took home the original bronze by Jeff Decker and bragging rights to one of the most momentous achievements of all the Cannonball runs. Of course, nudging an underpowered, belt-driven single over the peaks of Glacier National Park with a few of your closest riding buddies as a snowstorm swirled behind you is certainly one for the books, too.
The struggle of keeping a cantankerous old motorcycle chugging along every day for thousands of miles is its own brand of battle, and riders spent all their time wrapped up in tending to their machines. If they weren’t listening to the steady pounding of the engine for signs of wear, they were turning wrenches to prevent damage and constantly checking the oil and making adjustments. Some had rebuilt entire engines. Others, like rider #19, Michael Gontesky, simply pulled off the course at the first sign of anything awry. Somewhere in the middle of acres and acres of cornfields we found Gontesky waiting for a sweep truck to fetch his precious 1924 H-D. “I heard some rattling and found several loose bolts and a few other issues. It’s just a couple of hours worth of tightening and adjusting, but it has to be done,” he said. That kind of attention to his machine is at the core of the endurance run and is the very essence of what founder Isam had in mind. It is, after all, all about the motorcycle and the challenge to ride ‘em, not hide ‘em, but to also respect the ancients. By the end of the run, sweep drivers presented Michael with a “Frequent Flyer” award for a record-setting 905 miles over six days spent riding on the sweep trucks, proving that recognition comes in many forms during the run.
Not everything is about coming in first. For some, like Mike Carson, it’s more about finishing at all. Having crashed his 1928 H-D during Stage 5 and breaking his shoulder, Carson refused to heed doctor’s orders and chose to continue on. Despite his injuries, #15 was pushed to the checkered flag with an official DNF (Did Not Finish) after logging 2,390 miles. However, not all was lost. Mike’s son, Buck Carson, managed a perfect score for the first time since the father/son team first entered the run back in 2012, proving that perseverance does pay. Perseverance was also proven effective when 23-year-old rookie rider #47, Aaron Loveless, took to his knee to ask his beloved to marry him during the final banquet. Madalyn Price gleefully accepted as Director of Operations Jason Sims beamed from the sidelines. “I guess the next Cannonball we’ll be having a wedding,” he said. It seems the 2020 Motorcycle Cannonball is destined to be another one for the books.
For more information on past and future Cannonball runs, go to www.motorcyclecannonball.com.