Originally published in Cycle World Sept 13 2012

The 2012 Cannonball proved the toughest vintage motorcycle rally I’ve ever attended, as well as the most fun.  How can that be?  I entered the Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run – as it’s officially called – a whim in January 2012.  The urging of a stranger over dinner in Las Vegas convinced me, despite it being well after the entry cutoff date. Perhaps the odd circumstance of my own Cannonball ride was a warning, as most riders spent years preparing their machines for the ultimate vintage bike test, as the first Cannonball proved to be in 2010. After only a month’s preparation, my ride was a brief and glorious 4 days through the Rockies – the most scenic roads on the trip, luckily (read it here in Cycle World).

Shot over the Teton Range in Wyoming, official Cannonball photographer Michael Lichter makes me look like a hero! [Michael Lichter]
I covered that first 2010 Cannonball from afar, not having a pre-1916 motorcycle; friends who participated were unanimous in their tales of difficulty and frequent misery, and the event’s demands. Daily rides of nearly 300 miles on Century-old machines sounded insane, and the Cannonball’s premise, a reprise of ‘Cannonball’ Baker’s cross-country forays back in the ‘Teens, seemed ludicrous. Baker’s bikes were new when he rode them, when no roads traversed the US, whereas in 2010, the bikes were already 100 years old, but the roads billiard-smooth(ish).

The very first mile in Newburgh, New York, en route to the Motorcyclepedia Museum, my 1933 Velocette KTT Mk4 stuck an exhaust valve.  As it had just been rebuilt with new guides, I assumed a little more clearance was in order.  I was wrong… [Paul d’Orléans]
One hundred years later, Baker’s challenge was inverted. Rumors circulated of ‘1915’ Harley-Davidsons gutted for new-and-improved internals; would this be a farcical competition between basically new vs. genuinely old motorcycles? And so it proved, as stalwart antiquers like Pete Young (1913 Premier) and Shinya Kimura (1915 Indian) spent night after night battling mechanical demons in ugly Midwestern parking lots, while a cabal of new/old bike riders adjusted chains for 10 minutes, then slid into a bar for an hour of joviality before retiring to an early bed. To be sure, there’s a place for every kind of motorcycling in The Vintagent’s world, but the Cannonball wasn’t a level playing field; two very different events ran concurrently – an outrageously difficult old bike tour, and a cross-country jaunt on new machines which looked old.

Shinya and Ayu Kimura in their support van on the day Niimi rode their 1915 Indian twin. [Paul d’Orléans]
What shone in the 2010 Cannonball were the riders of Real old machines who finished with perfect (or very high) scores, meaning, they’d conquered the damn thing! Foremost among them Katrina Boehm (1911 JAP single) deserves a special place in the Old Bike world. This wasn’t a test of a perfect restoration, which granted can involve years of determined parts scrounging and self-education, and it wasn’t about rarity or fascinating provenance; none of that mattered in fact.

Jeff Decker and ‘Fass’ Mikey Vils with his 1928 Harley-Davidson JD. [Paul d’Orléans]
What those riders of genuine machines achieved speaks to very heart of The Vintagent, laid plain on the bottom of every page since the first day in October 2006, “Ride them as the maker intended.” And, having completed (sort of) my own Cannonball in 2012, the importance in this event to my motorcycling values overshadows the years spent as Concours judge and commentator and collector. While I expand our historical understanding of motorcycles in culture, motorcycles as static relics are ultimately dead things; I’m a rider first, and I prefer to ride old motorcycles.

Chris Knoop’s Invincible-JAP with wicker sidecar…which was soon ditched, along with his long-suffering wife! [Paul d’Orléans]
Every Old Motorcycle event is important to keeping the global vintage community healthy, but the riding events are the most important; a bike in motion is a live animal, gives its owner unique pleasure, and, because parts break or wear out, riding keeps vital spares in production. It also nourishes that ephemeral body of ‘knowhow’, the secrets and tricks which make maintenance easier, and good running possible.

Outside the Harley Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, with the broken Velocette KTT a posse of strangers. [Susan McLaughlin]
The Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Rally is the most important vintage motorcycle event on the planet. Free of glamour, free of exclusivity, free even of decent food or coffee, the Cannonball has emerged as the ultimate statement of one’s commitment to keeping old bikes alive – 3956 miles of riding the hell out of them. No other Vintage event comes close; the Cannonball is the 800-pound gorilla of the old bike scene, and it has already piqued global interest, with 14 different countries represented this year (South Africa, Japan, England, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Brazil, France, Poland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Texas, and the USA).

Sean Duggan with his oily-rag 1928 Harley-Davidson JD. Sean started the rally with one set of riding gear, and never changed over 17 days. At the end, it was he who was ‘oily rag’! [Paul d’Orléans]
In that vein, I have one suggestion for the next Cannonball, if there is one (always a question with old bike events run by individuals…vide the Legend of the Motorcycle show). Keep the dates and rules the same; ban non-riding mechanics. I think you know what I mean…

Is The Cannonball Expensive?

And how much does the Cannonball really cost? Here’s information you won’t get anywhere else; an honest accounting of the expenses and sponsorship for a Cannonball run. Team Vintagent is in the USA, so I can only speak to domestic entries; I had 3 souls in the team; myself, van driver/Vintagent manager Debbie Macdonald (who drove to New York and back!), plus Susan McLaughlin, my photographic partner for the ‘wet plate’ images taken across the country. – check out our website MotoTintype. I spent ~$4500 completely rebuilding my ca.1928/33 Velocette Mk4 KTT, which included parts (mostly from England) and some machine work, although vintage stalwart Fred Mork built my crankshaft without charge, as a sponsor and friend. Thanks Fred!

Ghost in the machine: a 1904 Strap Tank, purportedly the oldest Harley-Davidson in the world, displayed in the Harley-Davidson museum. [Paul d’Orléans]
Transporting the Velo from the Vintagent warehouse in San Francisco to New York required 5 days of Debbie’s fuel and hotel/meal expenses in my Sprinter van, ~$1600. From Newburgh onwards, hotel, fuel, and meal expenses for the 17 days came to ~$3500; many meals were provided by sponsors/supporters of the Cannonball across the country, we only occasionally had to buy our own lunch or dinner, while breakfast, if you can call industrial pastries and crap coffee such, was usually gratis in our motel. Entry to the Cannonball was $1500. Fuel on the return trip across the US was ~$750, one-way plane tickets to NYC from SFO were ~$250 each.

Team Vintagent driver (and Vintagent Contributor – she mails the books you order) Debbie Macdonald. [Paul d’Orléans]
During the ride, I required skilled hands and facilities to help make repairs, or modify parts. The first angel was Steve McPhillips of Mac’s V-Twin in Newburgh, NY, who helped sort a seized valve on my very first day, and charged nothing. After another exhaust valve seized, Geo Roeder of Roeder Racing and Service in Monroeville, Ohio made a new inlet and exhaust valve for me on specs given over the phone as we approached the state, barely making it before his closing time. Geo, a former flat-track racer and second generation champion, worked late on a Friday night to help me out, and didn’t charge a penny. I repaired my cambox using facilities at J and P Cycles in Anamosa, Iowa, with the help of Joe Sparrow and his brothers, who have earned my eternal gratitude, working late in the spirit of goodwill, also without charge. Finishing my cambox machine work waited until Sturgis, South Dakota, where Lonnie Isam Sr opened the door of his Competition Distributing facilities; we had free access to all his machinery and even lifts, as well as his super-dry and crusty humor. When I thanked him after rolling my Velo off the lift, he smiled and said, ‘Get out.’ Lonnie and his mechanics stayed late for two nights, and charged nobody anything. Amazing.

Geo Roeder tranforming a Panhead valve into a Velocette KTT exhaust valve, which is still in the machine. [Paul d’Orléans]
Totalling up, my expenses were approx. $12,500, and I reckon few could have done it cheaper. I already had the Velo, a van, and volunteer helpers. One who did it for less was Doug Wothke, who rode his Indian 101 Scout solo from Alabama, and camped. Always an option for the hearty, although the temperature did drop to 25 degrees in Yellowstone National Park. Who paid for it? Much was from The Vintagent’s pocket. The photographic expenses (and half our hotel bills, plus my entry fee) were paid by Susan McLaughlin, who saw the value in such a unique photographic opportunity to take ‘wet plate’ shots. I was sponsored $3000 by The Automobile publisher Douglas Blain, hoping to use the Cannonball to launch interest in a new magazine, of which I’m editor in chief, ‘Oily Rag’.  Bonhams, my principal sponsor for The Vintagent website at the time, gave $500. Jared Zaugg at Bench and Loom asked the week before the ride if I needed good boots, and I did; he sent a beautiful pair of Tank Strap boots, which kept the oil off my socks, and didn’t give me blisters! Private White V.C. sent a gorgeous blue-with-copper trim waterproof jacket designed by Nick Ashley, which you can see in the sidebar ad; I didn’t need to wear it as my ride was rain-free, but you’ll see it on me in the future. Les Ateliers Ruby provided my carbon-fiber Pavillon helmet; at least my head was swathed in luxury while the rest of me was often freezing over the Rockies! Eternal gratitude to all my sponsors; I couldn’t have done it without you.

A life-size cutout of Geo Roeder in his Harley-Davidson dealership in Ohio, plus a poster from his factory racing days. The tail section of the H-D/Aermacchi streamliner is at the bottom; Geo set a Land Speed Record with it at 177.225mph in 1965. [Paul d’Orléans]
Lichter captures Paul d’Orléans at the Pickle place…somewhere in Wyoming. [Michael Lichter]
Another Lichter photo; there’s a lot of this across America… [Michael Lichter]
The BMW invasion…none of these bikes made every mile. [Paul d’Orléans]
Claudio Femiano joined the rally from Naples, Italy, and spoke almost no English. But he enjoyed his ride on a lovely Sunbeam Model 5. [Paul d’Orléans]
Buck Carson on his 21st birthday. After the piston melted on his BSA sidevalver, Buck pushed his mount across the Golden Gate Bridge; ‘no way is my bike going across the bridge in the van!’ [Paul d’Orléans]
Nothing like spreading an overhead camshaft top end all over a stranger’s workbench. [Paul d’Orléans]
I spent my 50th birthday in this exotic locale in Iowa… [Paul d’Orléans]
Mike Wild on his Rudge. [Paul d’Orléans]
After a night of wrenching, the Rum. Note ‘Kum and Go’ shorts….that’s actually the name of a Gas station chain; amazing, had to have ’em. [Paul d’Orléans]
Sean Duggan takes his morning coffee… [Paul d’Orléans]
Team Vintagent/Oily Rag, stopped for milkshakes somewhere in rural Pennsylvania. Debbie Macdonald and Susan McLaughlin. [Paul d’Orléans]
Shinya Kimura’s 1915 Indian, a veteran of many Cannonballs. [Paul d’Orléans]
The first angel of my troubled start of the Cannonball: Steve McPhillips of Newburgh, New York, who helped ream my exhaust valve guide gratis. [Paul d’Orléans]
South Dakota vignette… [Paul d’Orléans]
Waiting for the morning’s timed start; each class had a specific check-in time. [Paul d’Orléans]
A stop at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee. [Paul d’Orléans]
The remarkably reliable 1913 Excelsior of Brad Wilmarth, on which he’s won two Cannonballs. Brad is the Cannonball King.  [Paul d’Orléans]

Paul d’Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.


Related Posts

The Vintagent Selects: 2018 Motorcycle Cannonball

The world's toughest vintage motorcycle…

Cyclone – 2006 Legend of the Motorcycle

A pre-dawn stroll through the grounds…

Legend of the Motorcycle Attire

It was an event that changed the…

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter