Scooter Cannonball Run: Days 8 & 9

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 I am #98, riding a 1987 Honda Helix CN250. For more information, see Earlier and forthcoming Cannonball posts can be found here.

Scooter Cannonball Run Day 8: Ulysses, KS to Norman, OK; 340 miles

As we trekked further southwards, inching our way down the map, we encountered more populated areas. Our official routes had gone from one page to almost three. This created more options for routing, a blessing for some and a curse for me.

I haven’t yet mastered my GPS, which I’ve often treated as a necessary evil. On many long, complex rides, I’ve given up on it. They’re designed to get you someplace as fast or in as short a distance as possible and the units often struggle with the sort of circuitous, long-but-fun way routes we often use for scooter rides. My Garmin had worked well so far on the Cannonball, thanks mostly to great route files supplied by organizers of this year’s run.

The Day 8 route, taped to my windshield

The Day 8 route, taped to my windshield

The Day 8 route to Norman, OK appeared, on paper, to be a complete mess, particularly from the third checkpoint to the hotel. Riders aren’t required to stick to the provided routes; they just have to hit the checkpoints. On previous days, there were few alternatives due to fewer roads and highways and the locations of the checkpoints.

My plan was to hit the third checkpoint, then book it to the hotel the fastest way possible. I didn’t pre-plan this or check the GPS against Google and my maps apps. I figured I’d just tell the GPS to get me there any way it could. It gave me “shortest distance” rather than “fastest route.” I was directed through the heart of Oklahoma City, miles and miles of traffic and stoplights. This cost me over an hour on a day that had been going so smoothly I could have risen in the rankings.

Frustrated and dejected, I joined my friends at the Waffle House across from the motel to explain what had taken me so long to complete the day.

Scooter Cannonball Run Day 9: Norman, OK to El Dorado, AR; 359 miles

There’s an arc that most Cannonball Runs appear to follow. After a week, crashes become more likely as fatigue sets in and mechanical failures ecome much more common as the scooters begin to show the effects of being pushed to their limits every day. While the vintage and classic scooters require near constant maintenance and repair, even many of the modern ones developed issues at this point. At the very least, they needed new tires, oil changes and transmission service.

Every small town was a potential delay

Every small town was a potential delay

The Helix was living up to its reputation for durability and reliability. I’d changed the oil twice, which was probably more than it needed. The earlier idle issue had been either a loose plug wire or vacuum hose; it disappeared after I checked all the connections.

So of course, on the penultimate day, things went wrong.

More than any previous one, Day 9 was a flat-out road race. There were a couple shortcuts planned and after my goof the day before, I’d stayed up studying and comparing maps. However, later an expereinced Cannonballer advised me to stick to the route, as that’s what the support truck follows. It seemed like a good idea; the shortcuts weren’t going to save that much time or compensate for past errors.

Shortly after departure that morning, I thought I spotted a leak under the Helix. I was blocks away from the motel, so circled back around, parked, and checked under the scoot. Nothing visible. As I was back at the start, I was able to reset my time and get on my way again. I made quick time across the state and into Arkansas.

The Arkansas route was more varied than what we’d seen in Oklahoma and Kansas, with tree-lined two-lane highways, bridges over creeks, streams and rivers, and wide, sweeping curves. The Helix was handling a bit poorly and seemed to be consuming more gas than usual, though I couldn’t tell if it was due to the changing road surfaces. I set a reminder on my phone: “Check tires at motel tonight.”

I still made pretty good time through the three checkpoints. But while in the home stretch, a straight blast down AR7, a wide, four-lane divided highway, I heard an increasingly loud roar from the rear of the scooter that I knew was the sound of a tire gone flat. I was about 15 miles from the motel.

I pulled over to the shoulder. This was our first hot day, too, 86°. It felt much hotter as I sprawled on the asphalt underneath the scooter and began spinning the tire, looking for the leak. It took me a few minutes to find it, a small puncture that had likely been leaking slowly for days until exacerbated by speed and heat.

A hole like this in the tread of a good tire can easily be plugged and a well-executed plug can last as long as the tire does. Fortunately, I’d had some practice doing this. I laid my jacket across the hot pavement, retrieved my plug kit and small air pump and had the tire plugged in just a few minutes. The small pump, while good for topping off the air on tires, was taking far too long to fully inflate the rear. I put enough air in to allow me to hobble to the motel and was back on the road less than 20 minutes after pulling over.

Tire plug? No problem!

Tire plug? No problem!

I was feeling pretty triumphant. The flat, though inconvenient, hadn’t cost me much time. The feeling was short-lived, as I only got about 8 miles before the scooter quit on me. I pulled onto the shoulder again. The engine would start and idle but quit when I gave it throttle.

This clearly wasn’t related to the tire; the timing was an unfortunate coincidence. It’s actually very common for totally unconnected issues to occur at the same time or sequentially.

The sun felt hotter than just a few moments ago, as it often does when you’re under duress. I pulled off my jacket and draped it over my hydration pack to keep the water somewhat cool, removed my long-sleeve base layer, wrapped my bandana around my head and got my tools out.

People have different processes for diagnosing issues, but here is what I follow: start with the easiest, least-invasive checks, then move from the outside in. Don’t take anything apart unless necessary.

The symptoms suggested either an air flow or fuel flow problem. My first check was under the seat, all the hoses and connections to the carburetor and engine from the fuel tank. I removed the plastic shroud under the seat to access the engine. I checked the plug wire and ran the engine as much as I could to see if gas was coming though the fuel filter. All fine. I double checked the vacuum hoses. Also okay. The Helix wasn’t making this easy.

Hunting for issues on the roadside

Hunting for issues on the roadside

At this point, I sent a text to our support drivers, letting them know my location and that I was going to try to repair it. I’d let them know if I got it fixed but might need to be picked up.

Turning back to the scooter, I noticed oil on the top of the transmission case. This usually means the air box and filter are full of oil. I pulled the dipstick and checked the oil level, which was fine. I’d changed it the night before. The scooter hadn’t been running hot. Chances were that oil had dumped into the air box when I’d crashed on Day 7. I opened it up and found the filter was indeed black and oily and there was oil inside the case. I cleaned what I could and pulled the filter out, but this has no affect on the primary issue.

Okay, I thought, it’s probably the carburetor. That was problematic; I was hot and weary and didn’t have everything I’d need to do a prober carburetor job on the roadside.

I sent another text to the support truck. I’d need to load onto the trailer. They were two hours away. I moved the scooter to a better position for loading, found a shady spot, sat down on the gravel and settled in.

While waiting for the truck, several fellow Cannonballers had pulled over to see if I was okay or offer help. “I’m good,” I told them. “You should go!” A very kind Arkansan woman in a big, white SUV had seen me working on the scoot and brought me a bottle of cold water, fresh from the store. I later got a second bottle from one of the other support teams. As much as I was bothered that the Helix was troubled, I was buoyed by the support and thoughtfulness from others.

When the truck arrived, we discovered that the other scooter in the trailer had fallen over. We had to re-secure that one, then figure out how to get the Helix in the back while on an incline. Fortunately, two other Cannonballers pulled over to help. One was a friend and my “Helix guru,” Mike, who was riding a ’90s model with a sidecar. I described the issue and said, “It’s the carburetor.” That was, of course, the one thing we didn’t thoroughly dismantle and check when he had helped me prep the scooter back in California several weeks ago.

The Scooter Cannonball Run is hard on scooters. One former winner raised some hackles by posting in a forum that Cannonball scooters should be considered “diposable.” Yet there are many scoots which have completed multiple runs. Regardless, one thing was clear: That part you don’t check before Cannonball because you think it’s probably okay? You should check it anyways.

Several scooters were either trailered in to the Super 8 in El Dorado, AR, or barely made it there under their own power. By the time I arrived, work was underway on a handful of them.

We took a break for pre-finish dinner, the only night all riders and support personnel gathered as a single group for a meal. Then it was back to the motel, tools out, time to get down to business. We took over the carport in front of the motel entrance, the only space with decent lighting.

That night was one of the best of the entire Run. Numerous people chipped in, offering their skills, spare parts and advice to those in need. I pulled my carburetor, then Mike helped me go through it. Mechanically, it was sound; it was just so dirty the jets had completely clogged so no gas could get in the engine.

The work went on late into the night, engines rebuilt, pistons replaced, brakes fixed, electrical gremlins chased and eliminated. Any consideration of rankings or times was forgotten as everyone who could help another rider did so. It was a unified effort to get as many of us across the finish line as possible.

I turned in at 1:30am, carburetor cleaned and running better than ever. I wasn’t able to hand in my times for the day. If we’d finished before midnight, I may have been able to complete the last section by going to where I’d broken down (I’d recorded the time and coordinates) and riding the last seven miles. This didn’t bother me much. I was just happy I’d be able to ride Day 10.

Only one day of riding separated us and New Orleans.

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