Around 4 p.m. on Sept. 20, the first of roughly 100 antique motorcycles — depending how many have survived the trip from Portland, Maine — will roll into the Red Lion Hotel parking lot in Kalispell for a rare glimpse of history in motion: a pit stop for the “most difficult antique endurance run in the world.”
The participating bikes, part of the Motorcycle Cannonball coast-to-coast ride, were all made before 1928, with about half made before 1918. Their riders are students of motorcycle history with advanced mechanical skills who have dedicated considerable time and money to keeping the machines road-ready.
“It’s rare to see bikes like these in a museum, but to see them all going down a road is unheard of,” said Keith Kizer, executive director of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America, one of the cannonball’s sponsors. “It’s a sight that’s never seen, other than every two years when this cannonball goes on.”
The Motorcycle Cannonball was first held in 2010, followed by rides in 2012, 2014, 2016 and now this year. This is the first time the two-wheeled motorcade has come through Kalispell.
The cannonball kicked off in Portland, Maine on Sept. 8 and will conclude in Portland, Oregon on Sept. 23, traversing two-lane paved back roads to avoid the heavy and fast traffic of major highways and interstates, covering roughly 3,400 miles total. Depending on the type and class, the bikes travel at top speeds under 40 miles per hour up to 60 mph.
Following their only full day of rest, a Sept. 17 stopover in Sturgis, South Dakota, riders will enter Montana on Sept. 18 and finish the day at Beartooth Harley-Davidson in Billings. They’ll end the next day in Great Falls before traveling into Northwest Montana on Sept. 20, eating lunch at the Snowgoose Grille in Saint Mary, sightseeing in Glacier National Park and finishing in Kalispell.
The riders’ official arrive time at the Red Lion is 4:30 p.m., but Kizer said a number of riders often rumble in a half hour or so earlier. The bikes will be on display in the parking lot for the public to view, alongside informational booths with antique motorcycle experts on hand to answer questions.
As a piece of living history, Kizer said it’s a fun and interesting event for anyone, regardless of their interest in motorcycles.
“It’s really a great sight,” he said.
The cannonball was the brainchild of Lonnie Isam, Jr., who started recruiting fellow antique motorcycle riders to “join him for a run to traverse the nation on their ancient machinery back in 2010,” according to the Motorcycle Cannonball’s website. After founding the ride, Isam passed the reins to Jason Sims, the current owner and promoter.
“Our forefathers took a great deal of time and ingenuity to build these great machines and they should be respected for their abilities,” the site says. “(Isam) wanted to pay homage to the long distance pioneer, Erwin “Cannonball” Baker, and other historical figures that literally paved the way across the country in the early 1900s.”
The event is a competition. Riders must complete each day’s route within a time limit and are assessed penalty points for miles missed or late arrivals. The day’s route is kept secret until the riders embark each morning.
The bikes are split into two classes: those made in 1918 or earlier and those made between 1919 and 1928. Each class is divided into three sub-classes: single-cylinder, twin-cylinder and four-cylinder. A number of bikes inevitably break down and don’t finish the trip.
The riders don’t have crews and are responsible for making necessary repairs on the road by themselves, although nobody would know their bikes better than them anyway. Kizer says they spend countless hours working on their motorcycles at home, scouring swap meets to find original pieces that are no longer made and difficult to find.
“They have to take these things apart and put them back together constantly,” Kizer said. “They have to really be mechanical. Anyone who rides these could probably take these bikes apart and put them back together blindfolded.”
While the public is encouraged to view the bikes at each stop, they are asked not to try to find them on the road. The motorcycles travel slowly and don’t stop quickly, requiring an open space, which is why even the riders are spread out on the road and why two-lane back roads are chosen.
But once they’re in the Red Lion parking lot, people will be treated to a spectacle, Kizer said.
“You’re talking about a motorcycle’s average price that’s $100,000,” he said. “When they’re all in a parking lot, you have about $10 million worth of motorcycles sitting out there.”