Scooter Cannonball Run 2014: Days 1 & 2

The 2014 Scooter Cannonball Run (aka CBR) is a 10-day endurance ride from Hyder, Alaska to New Orleans, LA. You can follow the riders’ progress on followride.com. I am #98, riding a 1987 Honda Helix CN250. For more information, see scootercannonball.com. Earlier and forthcoming Cannonball posts can be found here.

Day 1: Hyder, AK to Vanderhoof, BC; 375 miles

The Starting Line

The Starting Line

The starting line in Hyder, Alaska, is at the end of a long loading dock for boats, but less than a mile from the border with Canada. The riders started assembling around 6:30 am. Photos were taken, a few words were said and with little ceremony or fanfare, scooters began departing promptly at 7:00am.

A frequent comment in Cannonball discussions is, “It’s not a race; it’s a timed endurance event.” The truth to this became clearer to me as the day progressed. Riders depart whenever they like from a set location, then have to pass through specified checkpoints. Times between checkpoints are logged. A handicapping system accounts for the age and displacement of the scooter (250cc maximum), leveling the field. Once underway, it’s not about raw speed as much as efficiency and planning. Have you stuck to the route? How fast can you refuel? How quickly can you deal with any problems with the scooter or other obstacles?

I was riding with three friends, one a Cannonball veteran, the other two first timers who both had more long distance experience than I do. We’re an unlikely group, comprising people who wouldn’t have met if not for scootering.

There’s a feeling riders know, the elation that comes when we experience something new that we know wouldn’t be the same if we weren’t on two wheels. We get it when we ride someplace new, ride something new, when we level up in our skills. The more we ride, the more rare this becomes. Pulling out of Hyder, I was overwhelmed with this for the first time on the Helix. It was complemented by a sense of relief. Months of preparation had come to fruition and all the concerns I had before that point were gone. Now, finally, it was about the ride and simply getting to today’s endpoint. Anything else could be dealt with later.

The Day 1 view

The Day 1 view

 

The Day 1 route was mile after mile of breathtaking scenery, surrounded by mountains, glaciers and blue skies. We breezed through checkpoints as quickly as possible. Our gas stops were fast and efficient.

We pulled into our destination ahead of most other groups, grabbed a snack, then turned in our times. It was smooth sailing through the entire route, as perfect as a Cannonball day can be. That was fortunate, because Day 2 wouldn’t be so easy.

Day 2: Vanderhoof, BC to Jasper, AB; 342 miles

Day 2: Dirt road, wood bridge, rain

Day 2: Dirt road, wood bridge, rain

The competition aspect of Cannonball is something I hadn’t been thinking about much, but others take it very seriously. They begin strategizing long before the start, coming up with a variety of ideas — the most talked about being wearing catheters to avoid bathroom stops — hoping to shave precious seconds off their times.

Once the Day 1 times were turned in and the first day rankings calculated and posted, the competition gets serious. Thanks in part to a good handicap, I managed to tie for second. Suddenly, I was in the running and considered a contender. The mood among some of the riders changed. Guess I’m racing.

The route for Day 2 was much more complex than the previous and contained sections of gravel and dirt, with one of the roads possibly washed out. We planned some alternate routes to avoid some of this, though that meant backtracking.

The morning was cold, and the skies became grayer as the day progressed, with occasional showers keeping us chilly and damp.

Confusion at the first checkpoint led to one member of my riding quartet to get separated; he turned back after hitting the first checkpoint as planned. The rest of us didn’t realize this was the turn back spot and proceeded. We hit the gravel/rock/unpaved road — the one that was rumored to be washed out — and pressed on. Though the road was open all the way through, it was some very rough riding, uneven and full of hard-to-see holes that were impossible to avoid.

Rough road

Rough road

 

Our scooters took a beating. I had to stop to secure my luggage and accessories. The suspension on the Helix wasn’t meant for this and the scoot was slammed pretty hard. The two Vespas along with me didn’t fare much better.

Back on pavement, we pulled over, as one companion’s brake light assembly was dangling from its wires. The lens had fallen against the muffler and was partially melted. One bulb was just gone. The Helix sounded like the exhaust might be losing air and it refused to idle. I circled it, looking for leaks and anything that might need immediate attention. We quickly got back on our way.

We lost a second member when she passed a turn and we couldn’t catch her. Then there were two. From there, it was many miles of dirt logging road. Fortunately, it was hard-packed by trucks and tractors and the rain hadn’t been sufficient to turn any of it into mud. We took it easy, though, making our way to the next checkpoint. Along the way, we spotted a couple bears which quickly disappeared into the trees, and I finally saw a moose. The roads were pockmarked with bear droppings, and we later learned that several riders had some much closer encounters with the local ursa majors.

Later in the day, I was close behind an SUV when I spotted a bear at the roadside. The bear seemed to look at the oncoming traffic, think, “Aw, screw it,” and darted out in front of us. Both the SUV and I braked hard as the huge black, furry mass bounded across the highway.

Rethinking not having bear spray.

A better dirt road, but more rain

A better dirt road, but more rain

Reunited at the end of the day, we briefed each other on what had gone awry, how we’d made it to the end, and the other riders we’d seen along the way. As others pulled in, few were in as good spirits as at the end of Day 1. In addition to the rough terrain, there were many issues with the route, several people had run out of gas, and most scooters are no longer in prime shape.

Despite all of this, during the home stretch of the day’s route, down the Yellowhead Parkway from British Columbia to the Jasper National Park in Alberta, I couldn’t stop thinking, “This is the greatest thing ever,” and feeling immensely grateful to be doing this.

We’ll see if that lasts until the finish line. Tomorrow there’s a possibility of snow in the morning.

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