Friday, September 28, 2012


Shot over the Teton Range in Wyoming, official Cannonball photographer Michael Lichter makes me look like a hero!
I've posted the 'wet plate' photos in Oily Rag, written online articles for Cycle World, and will shortly have print stories in MCN and Café Racers (France)... even the roving Vintagent has to make a living...but patient readers of The Vintagent get a different spin on the Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Rally, an event I entered on a whim last January, well after the cutoff entry date, at the urging of a stranger, over dinner in Las Vegas, during the big motorcycle auction week.  Perhaps the odd circumstance of my Cannonball's genesis was a warning, as some riders spent fully two years preparing their machines for the ultimate Vintage bike test, as the last Cannonball was back in 2010.  After only a month's preparation, my ride was a brief and glorious 4 days through the Rockies -the most scenic roads, actually (read about it here on Cycle World online).
En route to the Tetons; Michael Lichter photo
I covered that first 2010 Cannonball from afar, not having a pre-1916 motorcycle; reliable friends who rode it 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 100 years old, but the roads billiard-smooth(ish).
The magnificent Grand Tetons, shot in a lucky, and very happy moment, by Michael Lichter
One hundred years later, Baker's challenge was inverted.  Rumors soon circulated of 1915 Harleys gutted for new-and-improved internals; this would 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 parking lots, while a cabal of new bike riders adjusted chains for 10 minutes, then retired to the 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.
Geo Roeder tranforming a Panhead valve into a Velocette item...
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, Brad Wilmarth (1913 Excelsior) and Katrina Boehm (1911 JAP single), deserve 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.
The very first mile in Newburgh, New York, en route to the Motorcyclepedia Museum
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 defend and expand our historical understanding of motorcycles in culture (laid plain in my 'mission statement'), motorcycles as static relics are ultimately dead things; I'm a rider first, and I prefer old motorcycles.
Doug Wothke, who camped with his Indian Scout most of the Cannonball, standing by one of 14 Excelsior-Hendersons entered
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 'know how', the secrets and tricks which make maintenance easier, and good running possible.
Outside the Harley Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, with a posse of strangersT
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 world, 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).
An exhibit of ghosts in the HD Museum...
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...
Riding over an 8500' pass into Yellowstone; a fantastic feeling
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.
Making valves in the evening twilight...
Team Vintagent is in the USA, so can only speak to domestic entries; I had 3 souls included; 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.  I spent ~$4500 completely rebuilding my ca.1930 Velocette 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!
Artist Jeff Decker and 'Fass' Mikey Vils
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.
Chris Knoop's Invincible-JAP lost its sidecar (and his wife!) early on...too much strain on the weak Albion gearbox
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&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.
Debbie Macdonald, production manager at The Vintagent, and team driver
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 from Alabama, and camped!  Always an option for the hearty, although the temperature did drop to 25 degrees in Yellowstone National Park.
Nice to run into Fritz Simmerlein, of Harleysons MC Germany, at the HD Museum
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 the 'wet plate' shots - stay tuned for a print project using our images. I was sponsored $3000 by 'Oily Rag' publisher Douglas Blain, hoping to use the Cannonball to launch interest in the new magazine, of which I'm editor in chief.  Please 'like' Oily Rag on Facebook here, and read it online here - it's good stuff, and most of my 'wet plate' photos are posted there.  Bonhams, my principal sponsor for The Vintagent website, 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.
Lichter captures the Pickle place...
Another Lichter photo; there's a lot of this across America...
The BMW invasion
Claudio from Italy on his lovely Sunbeam Model 5
Bill Buckingham and Chrys Pereira check over the JD...
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!'  
Angel #2 Geo Roeder as a cutout...
The source of all my trouble...

I spent my 50th birthday in this exotic locale in Iowa...

Mike Wild on his Rudge
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.
Sean Duggan with morning coffee...
Team Vintagent/Oily Rag, stopped for milkshakes, somewhere in rural Pennsylvania
Shinya and Ayu
Shinya's 1915 Indian
Lots of soybeans across America... 
Angel #1 Steve McPhillips
Hilarious trailer of 'The Ochos'; Spanglish Cali nonsense...
South Dakota vignette...

Waiting for the morning's timed start; each class had a specific check-in time

The remarkably reliable 1913 Excelsior...

Brad Wilmarth, with his 1913 Excelsior, with which he's won both Cannonballs.  Brad is the Cannonball King.


mp said...

I like it!
Wish I could do that shit as well.
nice one

Anonymous said...

You mean to say that this Wothke fellow RODE his antique Indian 800 miles from Alabama to New York for the start, then RODE nearly 4000 miles across America for the competition, then RODE another 2500 miles from California back to Alabama?!?!

This man is the hands-down winner in my view. Cycle World, Motorcycle Classics, Classic Bike, Motorcyclist - where's the feature article interview on this man?

I nominate him motorcyclist of the year. What a feat!


Charles Statman said...

good on you for trying, for publicizing, and ? for travelling the country and having a pretty fun time it appears! rock ONward

Anonymous said...

Great posting on the Cannonball. This is what I call excellent. You should do the same – honest and transparent – about Pebble Beach et al. I doubt if I will read anywhere such a honest and direct report on the Cannonball rally. Serious kudos.

Love reading your postings lately. Thanks P. You're a damn fine writer.

Anonymous said...

Nice to see some honest comments from someone who had a go.
I am keen to have a go in 2 years but only on a genuine bike. No modern day wolf in sheeps clothing for me, must be the real deal.

doug said...

Hey Paul
It was great to meet you, Debbie & Susan. I had a great time on the CB, and hope to see you in 2 years on the next one!


The Vintagent said...

I hope to see you before then! Perhaps your motorcycle hotel in Romania...

Anonymous said...

I love your site! Nothing like keeping the old stuff on the road. I have a 1960 hand built "H" modified racecar - called Thundermug - with a Crosley in it. The builder, Dale Tholen, built a three-cylinder two stroke motor for it originally. I have the original motor but we're missing one of the carburetors. I saw your "haul" of Dellortos' from a swap meet and was wondering if you have a SSI 30A in the bunch. It doesn't have to work, I just want one so I can re-assemble the original three-cylinder motor. I can be reached at
if you have a mind to. Thanks!!!

Anonymous said...

Doug is known on the ADVRider board as RTW Doug, this is one of many of his adventures on motorcycles. He has ridden all over Europe/Russia on old or self built motorcycles, he is an adventurer in the spirit of the word.

Grandpa Jimbo said...

If the burnt valve is the source of all your troubles, does that mean that from birth up to the Cannonball you were trouble free??

I strongly doubt it.

Jim A., Tucson, AZ

Anonymous said...

Nice piece of writing Paul. You captured it's insanity and nobility at the same time. Great to have you buzz by my escort service on highway 1 before and after Stinson. It was all I could do to keep myself in check as I really wanted to savor your flying Sunbeam up close. It sure went thru the swervery with style and grace not to mention the fine song it was singing! Methinks you relieved some of your frustrations on that final stage. Once a hooligan always a hooligan.

Jerry K

Anonymous said...

LOVE the image of Joe..that is most excellent!! but i thought Claudio's Sunbeam was the smallest...see, i learn something new everyday. thanks Paul great article!

- Felicia

Charlie101 said...

Retro repro is what most already do more or less in these rare machines, and there is many nearly complete repro bikes out rolling. A few even in both CB's. Some think it's wrong, but I'm of different opinion. My take is that it is the original constructers and technology of the time that is celebrated not the metal in it self. That's why damage reports are so interesting in my mind.

American motorcycles said...

Paul, your post in summing up the Canonball event was great reading.

Personally I was lucky enough to get daily memorandums from the race, thanks to Perry Ruiter on Doug Feinsod`s Henderson team.

Indeed are those participating on genuine machinery the real heroes, imagine if the canonball had been launced on roads as crappy as those Canonball Baker once rode when crossing the US.

Then there would have been frame and fork fatigue too, in addition to the engine troubles you guys faced.

Look forward to the oily rag magazine.


hedrives said...

Paul, thank you so much for this post (and all the others, of course). I've wondered what the actual costs were and am not surprised to see they are about the same as running my bike at Bonneville Speed Week. Keep up the great work.


Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,

I wanted to say that I am a fan of your website. Of the motorcycle centric blogs i read on a regular basis, yours is the only one where I find myself not only intrigued by what the articles are about but also about the writer.

I believe in one of your blogs awhile back you wrote about whittling away your worldly belongings to better afford the vintagent lifestyle. You hear so often of people getting stuck in the rut of daily life that they become shells of their former selves, that they lose that spark and the sense of adventure. Its good to read from a writer who I feel still has that sense of adventure. I find it inspiring.

I was wondering if I would get an opportunity to meet you at the Barber's vintage motorcycle festival this year. Imagine my disappointment when last year it wasn't until I made it home and read your blog that I found out that you had also made it to the event. I hope you make it to Barber's and that the cannonball run hasn't completely drained your adventure funds for this year.

I'm also interested to see your wet plate photography in action at the museum.

- Stephen

The Vintagent said...

Hi Stephen,
thanks for your kind words. I can't do Barber this year, I have family commitments in Cali, but next year! The best place to find me after that will be the big Las Vegas auctions in January...
And I'll keep everyone posted on where the Wet Plates end up!
- P

Anonymous said...

Fabulous story. We should do one in Oz from Perth to Sydney but 3,000 miles of straight roads without any backdrops but plenty of road trains would scare everyone away. 2 or 3 great photos of you riding the Velo taken from overtaking vehicles has clarified a small conundrum for me. I've always wondered why the Indian Warrior has its timing chest on the left side of the bike. Its because you drive on the right side of the road and passing traffic can see its handsome side when its broken down.


Mike Wild said...

Hi Paul
Great photos Paul.
They really capture the true essence of the Cannonball.
Only problem I have got, why is my Rudge so blurred.
Mike Wild #25
ps I got it, I was going so fast, and you couldnt keep up.
Belated happy birthday by the way.

Anonymous said...

I have been a fan of your various projects for a long time and wanted to comment on your recent adventure.
I found your first report on the CYCLE WORLD site to be rather negative. I know you were having a hard time
with the Velocette, but you seemed really put out with the big money teams. I don't like the idea of traveling machine
shops and replacing entire engines either, but it is obvious that one must have a machine that has been thoroughly tested for a lot
of miles before entering. Your attempt with the Velo seemed to me quixotic at best. The photography side
of your adventure was very successful and I enjoyed the photos. Your later writings were certainly more up beat, and
you seemed to have got over the disappointment with the bike. Trying to do the photography and the ride may have been
too much on a first effort. I do hope you will try again, with a well tested bit of kit next time. I'm busy keeping old Brit machinery
running also.

- CP

The Vintagent said...

Quixotic indeed!

I wasn't resentful of the big rigs, more awe-struck really, as I've done a LOT of long rallies, and long-distance touring on old bikes, and have never seen such a mobile machine shop. I did attempt to remove my cam using the Carson's trailer, but they didn't have a press, so I was stymied. They certainly used the shop to good effect, keeping several other Britbikes on the boil...

The KTT was a bit to sophisticated in its needs though, so a full machine shop, in Sturgis, was required to sort it out. Shame my new cam was apparently made of butter, as the bike ran flawlessly otherwise...

The Mule will be back in action this winter, after I have Megacycle sort out a cam and followers. I've been invited to run it at Montlhéry in May, in which case I'll leave it at the Ruby boutique until June, for Wheels and Waves...stay tuned.

Chris Bartlett said...

Heavens to Murgatroyd, that motorcycle is beautiful. love the all brushed metal. Wow. said...

Heavens to Murgatroyd, that's a beautiful motorcycle!! said...

Heavens to Murgatroyd, that's a beautiful motorcycle!!

Toadeus Maximus said...

I know this is an older entry but it's what came up when I searched your site for "motorcyclepedia".

We stumbled onto the place a couple of weeks ago while driving the Hudson Valley. Any thoughts on the place and will you ever be writing about it? Asking because I too turn to get the straight dope on vintage motorcycle stuff.

All the best,

The Vintagent said...

Hi Todd,
I'm overdue to write about Motorcyclepedia - it's an excellent museum, and they've offered to help with my next book!