It takes nearly a village to run a bike in the Motorcycle Cannonball.
For Team Vino out of Santa Rosa, California, it takes two mechanics — one from Brazil, one from Sweden — to keep the skinny little rough-looking 1914 single-cylinder Harley-Davidson pumping out its 8 horsepower to maybe hit 40 mph.
It’s one of the older — and its team says it’s the most original Harley — among the 105 or so motorcycles on the two-week, 3,500-mile Motorcycle Cannonball endurance run from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon that stopped in Pierre Saturday.
That was the longest day, in terms of miles, of the two-week tour, with 314 miles covered, says Felicia Morgan.
She’s the public relations director of the Cannonball and works for Thunder Press, a motorcycle magazine published in Minneapolis and spends most of her year out on the road.
Morgan watched as hundreds of visitors came to Steamboat Park late Saturday afternoon in Pierre to look at the “ancient iron,” as she calls it, lined up in the shade on a sweltering day with temperatures in the 90s.
“This is a rolling museum,” Morgan said, as people oohed and ahhed over the old Harley-Davidsons, Indians, Triumphs, Hendersons, Nortons, BMWs, Excelsiors, and less familiar names: a Neracar, a 1913 Thor U, a 1926 Brough Superior.
These are not “cherry” bikes. They must be built before 1929 and the more original paint — or ex-paint — and other parts, the better they look to these aficionados.
One skinny, worn-looking Harley Davidson built in 1914 takes a rider, two mechanics, a ramrod and maybe one or two others on Team, said Kurt Campbell, who is the team coordinator.
Every day, there’s a lot of maintenance needed. These machines are not cherry, not pimped up, not restored.
The 1914 Harley, really just “a motorized bicycle,” is about the most beautiful thing Robert “Swede” Gustavvson — late of Sweden, now of California — and Chrystiano Miranda of Sao Paulo, Brazil have ever seen, they say. They are the two mechanics who travel with Team Vino out of Santa Rosa to keep winery and motorcycle owner Dean Bordigioni on the Harley every day on the transcontinental trip.
“This is the original paint,” said Swede, pride in his voice. “I think it looks great.”
Part of the secret is “everything coated in oil,” he said with a smile as big as his 6 foot, 5 inch frame.
The idea is to keep the bikes the way they were, as much as possible.
This Harley, made the year World War I started, has a drive belt, not a chain, or direct drive, like modern bikes have.
Originally the belt was leather, running on the friction of a leather-covered drive-wheel.
Now they use a nylon-reinforced leather belt, but it still will start slipping in the rain on the road. No problem: the rider can tighten it on the go with a lever on the left side.
This belt lasted through the last Motorcycle Cannonball in 2016 and has made it halfway through this one, Swede said. But in case it fails, there’s a spare belt wrapped tidily under the seat. The rider can make a quick roadside change without the mechanics, if need be.
One of the rules of the Cannonball is that support vehicles and staff can’t be with, or help, the rider during the day’s run.
Team Vino follows the riders in a big Dodge pickup truck pulling a big van trailer that is a rolling garage.
It’s at night they go to work.
“We can overhaul the engine if we need to,” Miranda says.
But there are lots of lesser things to do. This bike has an oil tank next to the gas tank. The oil has to be changed every day and often gets too hot during a run and leaks through a petcock, a sort of relief valve.
On Friday, the problem of the day was a carburetor spring that gave out and needed replacing.
“We’ll be wrenching all night,” said Gustavvson.
The teams have to be self-sufficient on the road.
“You can’t get a petcock for this at NAPA,” said Kurt Campbell, the Team Vino ramrod.
The bike is pretty simple. “No front brake and no suspension,” Swede says. “The only suspension is this (spring) under the seat.”
“This is the most original Harley in this Cannonball,” Campbell said.
A 1911 Excelsior is probably the oldest bike in this year’s Cannonball.
Ciro Nisi came over alone from Italy for the 2018 Motorcycle Cannonball, bringing his 1919 Harley Davidson with him, doing all the customs checks on his own, despite not speaking English. He was able to hook up with Team Vino to get some needed support, especially those do “wrenching” at night..
“It’s like a big family,” said Swede Gustavvson.
Some of the bikes are worth six-figures, riders and wrenchers say.
A few years ago in Washington, a few of the Cannonball bikes were stolen. But in a show of the respect the antique bikes engender among all bikers, local clubs with heavy names helped in the investigation that turned up the bikes a couple days later, Morgan said.
The challenge is not without danger. Three riders have crashed and had to drop out of the race, Morgan said. No one was hurt critically. But there’s danger with these machines, slow as they might go.
Mike Carson of Houston was riding his 1917 Harley on Thursday in Iowa when, to avoid his son on his bike in a maneuver, “I had no choice but to take it into the ditch,” he said Saturday, holding a Jack-and-Coke in a plastic glass with his good hand in the sweltering heat.
“I broke my shoulder bone. I broke four ribs, bruised my lungs, got a concussion,” said Carson, who is no spring chicken.
But his bike is ready to again and so is he, Carson said.
“I’m going to try it Sunday,” he said.
But Morgan said Carson probably would have to rest more, with those injuries. A main concern is the safety of the riders and other people on the road, she said.
On Saturday, about 52 miles east of Pierre, Shinya Kimura crashed on the 1915 Indian Hedstrom that has been the only bike that completed all four previous Cannonballs, Morgan said. The old-fashioned way that tires fit on motorcycle wheels can come apart dangerously fast on the road and that’s what tipped over Kimura, Morgan said. He got some “road rash,” but she hasn’t heard an official report on his condition yet, she said.
On Sunday, the Cannonball took a swing through the Badlands, the Black Hills, including a stop at Mt. Rushmore, before pulling into Sturgis. That’s where Lonnie Isam started the biennial Motorcycle Cannonball in 2010 as a way to get antique motorcycles out on the road where they belong, Morgan said. Isam died of cancer in 2017 and Jason Sims of Sturgis took over as coordinator of the Cannonball.
The riders will take Monday off before resuming their trek into Montana,
Getting across the Rocky Mountains is going to be difficult for Team Vino, said Gustavvson. Fortunately, the 1914 Harley has pedals and Bordigioni can use them to give the small engine a boost, he said.
There are about 300 people in the whole Cannonball entourage, about two support people for each rider.
The Cannonball discourages hangers-on or others from dropping it to ride along, Morgan said. It makes things more dangerous for everyone, because the old bikes take special handling, special road rules and having visitors on new bikes zooming in and out is not good, she said.
The Motorcycle Cannonball began Sept. 7 with a banquet in Maine and will hit Portland, Oregon on Sept. 23, Morgan said.
The whole idea, she said, “is for riders to slow down and experience the road, as well as bringing out their motorcycles,” Morgan said. “There’s a whole new culture that has started, we are getting more young people starting to invest in these old bikes and get them back on the road.”