“You meet the nicest people on a Honda.” That simple phrase, which was Honda’s then-risky, yet wildly successful, advertising campaign in the early 60’s, won over a multitude of Americans who were either indifferent to motorcycling or thought of bike riders as the dregs of society. Since then, there have been many ambassadors of our sport, from champion racers to motorcyclists’ rights activists to benefactors of a wide range of charitable causes. But few have done it in such a unique way as those involved with the biennial Motorcycle Cannonball coast-to-coast endurance run.
The original concept was for the Motorcycle Cannonball to be a one-time event, inspired by the records set by Erwin “Cannonball” Baker, who first rode coast to coast in 1914, on a 1914 Indian, in 11 days. To the uninitiated, riding coast to coast might not seem like a big deal today because most of the roads we travel are paved. But back in 2010, during the first MC when I realized that these century-old machines were not designed for hundreds of miles a day, for days on end under less-than-optimal conditions, the challenge became very real to me.
It takes a unique, committed, and some might say obsessed person to have the willingness and the wherewithal to participate in the MC. And reading daily reports on social media and websites was a lot more exciting than anything on TV or in the news. Until recently I knew only a few of the competitors, but still I hung on every word, experiencing the ups and downs of the daily drama that played out over the duration of each of the past three runs.
This year, for the first time, I was able to participate in several of the events leading up to the run, starting with the mid-week open house that fellow AMCA Colonial Chapter member Rob Nussbaum held at his shop, Retrocycle, in Boonton, New Jersey. In fact, Rob provided much more than a party; early in the week he cleared the shop lifts and offered Cannonballers and their support crews a place to work on last-minute fixes before Saturday’s start.
Felicia Morgan, a Contributing Editor for Thunder Press magazine and the MC’s media director and photographer since its inception, stayed at my house for a few days prior, and on Wednesday we made the quick trip over to Retrocycle. Felicia, of course, knew nearly everybody there. It was truly thrilling to see these magnificent machines up close and personal and to meet their pilots and crew.
Rob’s band Out of the Woodwork played a few sets, there was plenty of food and drink to go around, and I met as many Cannonballers as I could. Everyone was in high spirits—except maybe the crews for one or two of the bikes that were still not quite in tip-top shape—and I began to get a sense of the camaraderie among everyone involved. Way too soon, the festivities drew to a close as riders and crew began to make their way south to Atlantic City, Felicia leaving with them.
The next morning, I rode from Retrocycle to Atlantic City with my friend Joe Sparrow, one of the Cannonball volunteers. When we arrived at the host hotel we saw that the MC had taken over a large parking lot across the street, and teams had formed makeshift pits to perform last-minute maintenance, repairs and test rides.
There were some rather rare bikes on display, and I met quite a few interesting characters such as the famed—and sometimes elusive—pinstriper Alton Gillespie who was putting the finishing touches on a 1915 Norton entered in the run. What talent that man has, and what stories! In fact, everyone there had a story to tell; this was a different breed of folk, not the normal get up, go to work, come home and sit in front of the boob tube type. Everyone had their own reasons for entering; some were inspired by those who competed in prior years, some took it as a personal challenge, and some just wanted to know whether their century-old bike could really make it cross country in the designated timeframe. Teams came from all over the U.S.—in fact, all over the world—to compete. The time, effort and expense, not to mention personal motivation necessary to accomplish this feat is staggering—and that’s just to get to the starting line!
Friday night at the riders’ banquet I got to meet even more of these inspiring folks and enjoy the quips, stories and good-natured taunting among themselves. Saturday the entrants rode the two miles from the host hotel to the iconic Atlantic City Boardwalk where the run was set to launch. The boardwalk has a rich history of its own, having been built nearly 150 years ago, and was the perfect place to assemble the 90 intrepid riders who would soon test their mettle, not for fame or fortune, but to prove to themselves that they, and their bikes, could complete the run.
Finally, it was time for the riders to set off for the West Coast. They departed one by one, class by class, and then it was quiet. The crowds that had gathered started to dissipate, and I left for home. For the next 15 days, I followed their progress via websites, blogs and Facebook entries posted by officials as well as competitors. This year the MC felt much more personal to me, having met so many fine folks and witnessing the start. Over that 15 days there was drama, danger, heartbreak, disappointment, jubilation, and suspense. And at every place the riders traveled, they attracted crowds of both young and old, spreading the antique bike gospel by welcoming the curious as well as the enthusiast.
I can’t wait until 2018 when they do it all again. And I know I’m not alone.