Against the odds astride a '29 Scout

Josh Wilson, a non-mechanic with no experience on an antique Scout, repairs the cycle in N.Y. - not far from the starting line of the Cannonball Run.
Josh Wilson, a non-mechanic with no experience on an antique Scout, repairs the cycle in N.Y. - not far from the starting line of the Cannonball Run. (FELICIA MORGAN)

He bought my antique cycle to ride the grueling, coast- to-coast Cannonball Run.

Posted: October 07, 2012

Robert M. Kelley

is an Inquirer editor

In a race in 1923, British motorcycle builder George Brough lost a tire near the end and fell off his bike. "Old Bill" crossed the finish line first - without a rider.

I have some idea how that might have felt. My motorcycle recently completed a coast-to-coast run, finishing No. 5 out of 70 participants. Without me.

My 1929 Indian Scout was giving me trouble that I did not feel competent to deal with, so I put it on Craigslist. Josh Wilson in Norfolk, Va., contacted me and said he wanted a motorcycle for the Cannonball Run, named for Erwin "Cannonball" Baker, who set a record in 1914 by riding an Indian across the continent in 11 days. The race was open only to pre-1930 motorcycles and would start in about a month.

I told Josh I didn't think my Indian was up for such a grueling challenge. The gas tank had a slow leak, the timing was not set correctly, and there were other problems.

Josh showed up anyway one Sunday with the cash. When he left, I suspected he wouldn't get it roadworthy in time for the run.

I was wrong. The race began Sept. 7 at Newburgh, N.Y., north of New York City. It followed a winding northerly route, covering nearly 4,000 miles to finish in San Francisco.

On the first leg, to Wellsboro, Pa., Josh had to run on one cylinder part of the way and had an engine fire that set his pants ablaze. But he completed the leg.

Succeeding legs followed similar scripts, but each time, he was listed as completing the miles, and his cumulative score kept him among the top 10 participants.

Josh became a cause célèbre among the riders, though many shared my skepticism that he could pull this off.

He was competing, in many cases, with wealthy men who had been preparing their valuable motorcycles for a year or more. Some had support trucks with entire machine shops, spare engines, even spare antique motorcycles. Josh was a non-mechanic with no riding experience on this type of bike.

He carried his tools in a comical, large wooden box over the back wheel. Each night, he would spend hours repairing the day's damage. Others would gather around to help. Everyone wanted him to succeed.

One of his blog entries lays out the rigors of the road:

"We have had some brutal rain and wind to deal with on some 300-plus-mile days. 300 miles is a long ride on any bike. 900 miles in 3 days is tough. 2,000 miles in a week. ... It has been cold, as well. Yesterday was 57 degrees with 200 miles of rain. Even the best waterproof riding gear (which I don't have) has a tough time in this weather. ... My boots are waterproof from the inside out, in that they hold water in once they get wet. ...

"So far, I'm staving off a cold, but I am losing some weight from not eating enough. My entire goal is to get a jump on the chase truck. I want to get as far ahead of it as I can, so if I break down at the end of the day, I'll have an hour to 1.5 hours to fix it. ... That means no time to stretch out, so you will see all of us doing calisthenics on the bikes to keep from cramping up. It doesn't help. ..."

And this was before they had to climb to 9,500 feet in the Big Horn Mountains, or start out riding at 27 degrees.

I didn't need to read about these hardships to know that the Cannonball is not for me. I also have a 1928 Indian 101 Scout that I once rode for 150 miles in a day on an antique run in the Finger Lakes. It was raining part of the way, and at times, I had to hold the throttle wide open to keep pace with my traveling companions, on newer and larger motorcycles. It was a rewarding experience, but after a few years of less ambitious rides than that one, I realized I was content winding along the Cooper River or chugging down the main drag of Collingswood.

On Indian 101 Scouts, you have a very direct "man-machine interface," as Josh put it.

There is no rear suspension, and the front forks have maybe one inch of deflection that is so stiff that it feels as if there is none at all. You feel road-surface conditions and weight transfers directly, not filtered by springs.

You shift gears with your right hand, with a lever that comes directly out of the transmission, with no synchronizers coordinating the gears. You can feel gear teeth mesh with gear teeth through your fingertips.

The clutch is operated with your left foot. This means that when you are getting launched and slipping the clutch, you must hold the motorcycle up with only your right foot. This is an acquired skill - very few motorcyclists, maybe a small fraction of 1 percent, can do it.

But the main quality that made the 101 Scout the cult item that it is is its responsive handling. The center of gravity is low, and the steering is so sensitive that you can ride these bikes with your hands off the handlebars, steering by shifting your weight.

Even though the last year this model was made was 1931, some carnival trick riders still use 101 Scouts for their most challenging stunts, such as spinning around on the seat on the "Wall of Death" - the giant bowl where the rider is almost horizontal, held in place by centrifugal force.

Josh reaped the benefits of this handling as he scaled the Big Horns in Wyoming and particularly on the descent (he calls his motorcycle "Craig" after Craigslist; a Gopro is a mobile video camera):

"The mountain was huge! Every time I came around a corner I thought it would be the end, but it just kept going and going and going! I started in third gear, slowed to second at about 27 m.p.h., and towards the top spent a little time in first. She never missed a beat though, and we made the pass with no problems. Slow, but no problems.

"The way down, however - Wooo Hooooo! The backside of the mountain was covered in switchbacks and nice rolling sweepers. That is where Craig really made some money. I wish my Gopro wasn't still on the highway in Ohio, it would have made for some spectacular footage. ..."

I think it's safe to say he was more concerned about getting from Point A to Point B on days like this:

"This morning was brutal. 27 degrees and ice fog. Steve Rinker and I rode together, and neither of us could see. My goggles would fog and freeze before I could clear them, so I ended up leaving them off. That left us traveling at 30 m.p.h. so our faces wouldn't freeze. It didn't help. They froze. I was picking off ice chunks from my jacket as we rode, and we pulled over every 10 miles to do some jumping jacks, warm the gloves on the heads, and get the blood flowing in our fingers again."

The spectacular payoff came Sept. 23 in San Francisco, when Josh and the others rolled across the Golden Gate Bridge, met by hundreds of spectators.

Josh posted a photo of his bike alongside Jeff Alperin's 1929 101 Scout, which finished in fourth place, and "Round the World" Doug Wothke's 1928 101 Scout, with the Golden Gate in the background.

A BMW was third, and a Harley-Davidson was second. The top score went to a 1913 Excelsior, built the year after the Schwinn bicycle company bought Excelsior.

In the late 1920s, Harley-Davidson, Indian, and Excelsior were the big three in the motorcycle market, so it was nice to see all three represented there all these years later.

I would imagine nearly anyone who has ever thrown a leg over a motorcycle has fantasized at some point about chucking it all and chasing the sun across the continent.

If you ride antique iron, proving the "Does that thing run?" crowd wrong is part of that equation.

And now we have our underdog, Josh Wilson, who had towering odds stacked against him and did the deed.


Contact Robert M. Kelley at 215-854-5095 or bkelley@phillynews.com.

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