Oil be back

So – ever since I started riding #115 prior to the 2018 CB, I’ve been paranoid about whether I’m oiling the engine correctly. Under oil, seize the engine, over oil and possibly overheat and stress the engine – neither are attractive propositions. But I had an epiphany and it’s all thanks to a gentleman called D.R. O’Donovan – long dead so I raise a glass to his memory every time I think about oiling a 16H (which is a lot based on current circumstances).

Some context: all our bikes have a total loss oiling system meaning there is no oil pump in the modern sense, so there’s no scavenging and recirculating of oil… it goes into the bottom of the engine, gets splashed around the internals by the crank and flywheel so lubricating the various bearings and the piston, and then exits the engine. That could be past the piston or via an orifice which allows oil vapour to blow over the timing chain driving the magneto – so lubricating the chain. In a modern engine, oil blowing past the piston is a bad thing, it’s polluting and is a sign of poor compression and performance. In these venerable side valve engines, it’s a good thing – because that oil vapour is the only way to lubricate the valves. So blue smoke exiting the magneto cover and the exhaust is a good thing – within reason.

By the way, early WW1 fighter planes had total loss oiling systems and also used castor oil – which had distressing side effects for the pilots who were pretty much inhaling the oil vapours every time they flew. So I’ve read.

So you have to have a delivery system and part of the fuel tank is compartmented to hold oil (SAE50 made from petroleum and not castor oil thank God) and there is a syringe like mechanism mounted in the tank with a plunger on top. That plunger is spring loaded, press down on it and it will suction up a given amount of oil as it rises – basically the capacity of the syringe – and then deliver it down a pipe to the engine. There is a sight glass and a rotary adjuster by which you can meter the flow. I was told to ensure that there was a steady drip through the sight glass, perhaps one drip per second.

That sounds good but there are challenges and those challenges have caused me no end of angst and worry that I’m mistreating a 98 year old motorcycle that is not mine. First, the delivery is not linear, once you press down that plunger, it will drip rapidly and then gradually slow as it exhausts the oil in the syringe. Second, the oil viscosity varies according to temperature, so the oil is more like treacle in the cold morning and then becomes more liquid as the ambient temperature increases and the engine itself warms the tank. Third, the sight glass has to be angled just right to be able to view it and fourth, and perhaps most crucially, the oil in the glass froths more as the engine revs higher. This is because the crankcase pressure oscillates between negative and positive with every stroke of the piston. So – when cruising at 40-45mph – you don’t see drops, you really see splats and froth. No wonder I was paranoid and continually squinting at the sight glass! In fact I came close to damaging the engine when running hard to catch up the others on Stage 3, and I had neglected to increase the oiling accordingly. The engine actually started to soft seize and only by opening the adjuster to full flow, did I get enough oil into the engine to save it.

Shaken, I went to Ryan – our crew chief – that evening and he has heard me worry about this many times. I must have been particularly angsty because he just handed me a sheaf of worn oily photocopies and told me to read. Amongst the workshop manuals and guides there was the authoritative voice of Mr D. R. O’Donovan.

Mr O’D said that, when averaging 25mph, you should deliver one pump of oil every ten miles. Pump in this case meaning press the plunger down fully from the top of its travel to the bottom. If you were averaging 35mph, then one pump every seven to eight miles. When racing, perhaps one pump every three miles – and if you were at Brooklands which was an oval banked circuit not that far from where my UK family live, you’d pump every lap!

Hallelujah! All this time I’d been thinking of drips and what I really needed to think of was pumps! We run at 40-45mph – sometimes even higher – so one pump every five miles seems to be a reasonable rate – based on Mr O’D’s dicta. Provided that I turn the adjuster enough to deliver a full pump of oil within five miles, I’m sorted. I use the GPS that provides speed and distance to tell me when that is.

What if I forget? Well…. don’t! But if I’m late, I simply ensure that I deliver a full pump before the next five mile marker by cranking up the flow.

So far this has worked very well for me and made for a much more relaxing ride. Here’s to you Mr O’Donovan.

PS – this is a perfect proof of the RTFM law

Sunday – a Day Off and Monday – Bad News perhaps?

Well it just rained and rained all through late Sat evening, through Sunday and only abated briefly late Sunday evening. What should have been a relaxing day off – especially for the crew – turned into a soggy workfest. Trucks had to be taken to be serviced, bikes modified with guards to protect the magnetos from water ingress – only my bike had survived the previous day completely unaffected. Probably because the mudguard is noticeably deeper and wider than the others.

I tried to make myself useful as a gofer, plus I also tidied the supplies trailer as I’m acting as an unofficial quartermaster. One of the more mundane but necessary jobs was to lift the canopies where water was pooling and bellying the fabric to tearing point.

We did make time to celebrate Nanci’s birthday and we still had a lot of fun – but I could see the crew were pretty tired by day’s end.

So, it was with mixed feelings that we heard that Monday’s stage to Alabama was cancelled. The CB organisers took advice from the authorities and found too much of the route was under jeopardy of flooding, or was already flooded.

So we zipped up the bikes in the trailers and hit the road by truck to Trussville. I was amused but pleased to see that we are billeted in the same hotel we used for the Smokies Epic Ride. Plus we had a lovely rowdy lunch – riders and crew – in Trussville and put all the soaked gear out to dry. So it’s not all bad.

Tomorrow is the longest stage yet – 282 miles to Tunica Mississippi.

Saturday – Cherokee NC to Murfreesboro TN – wet wet wet

Well this was quite the day….. we knew we were going to run into rain so we started out in our rain gear. Richard Boothman – a mate from several Epic Rides and Hill Country outings – was there to wave us off. The first 100 miles was pretty uneventful – started with a nice twisty road and then a lot of highway. After we hit Tennessee, we had a really nice spin through a river gorge. We could see lots of folks white water rafting, and had a moment of excitement when a mini-van reversed out sharply directly in our path.

We knew we were running into weather but the severity was brought home when we received a text warning of possible flash flooding and official notice that the check-in time was being extended. That’s a double edged sword – if you are doing badly it takes the pressure off, but if you are doing well then it means your competitors get a pass. And make no mistake the CB is fun but it’s definitely a competition.

Soon we were into the maelstrom and it was continuous and unrelenting heavy rain. No wind, no hail, not much lightning but oh boy, it poured and it poured. It eventually overwhelmed my rain gear and I could feel the trickles of water reaching the parts it should not reach. It reminded of the aphorism that rain gear does a really good job of stopping water from escaping once it’s made it inside and soaked you.

We then got emergency instructions via text that there would be a checkpoint at mile 179. Which there was, but any hope that it would be a shortcut to the finish were dashed once I realised that we were only avoiding an impassable road. Which was a shame because it was supposed to be a really gnarly stretch to descend under regular conditions.

So now it became a slog. Hunched over the tank, and continually wiping the visor and enduring the downpour. I was also keeping an eye on the magneto – which sits between the front mudguard and the engine – but it was actually very well protected from the spray and never missed a beat. I have never ridden for so long in such relentless heavy rain. Then – if I’d been a solo rider – trouble struck 60 miles from the finish. My map box had leaked and the paper map was soaked to the point that – as I was scrolling to the next instruction – it tore clean across, leaving me bereft of navigation aids. Remember that we have to follow the route exactly to qualify for the stage.

But I had my mates in front – and they brought me to the finish. We finally arrived at the Harley dealership to a great welcome. Nanci & Patrick from Cali were there, and Monica – I don’t know if they were psychic or just patient – but they were out on the road cheering us in. Fabulous.

Soggy to the max – we parked the bikes and chatted with the crowds – and some other bikes straggled in. The stage had been red-flagged and many bikes were stranded by flooded roads or by electrical failures – stretched across a hundred or more miles of the route. They decided to call the stage at 162 miles, which was not ideal for the riders (including us of course) that had made the 260-odd miles to the real finish. So anyone who’d had a mechanical or had been late – as long as they completed 162 miles – they got full points. Ah well.

Postscript – I was slightly surprised to notice that the enthusiastic and politely friendly fan who asked me lots of questions about my bike and the event was both chugging a beer and open carrying! In Texas I believe that would result in arrest and loss of carry privileges. And he wasn’t the only one – I’ve not seen so many open carry owners at an event that was not a gun show.

We then repaired to the pits set up at the hotel – happy to know that we had a rest day on Sunday.

Friends on the road

One of the great pleasures of the CB is to be visited by friends as well as making new friends. Richard & Louise Bowman saw us off in Soo, and earned Cannonball kudos as they found a vital engine part literally as they were walking across the road into the hotel. We passed the word and it turned out to belong to Team 80. For more on Team 80 read the bio of rider #80 on motorcyclecannonball.com and our blog for Spartanburg to Maggie Valley.

Suzi Greenway, President of the International Norton Owners Association visited in Battle Creek and Jeri Simmons, President of the Central Ohio Norton Club visited us in Dayton. We saw them in 2018 in Bowling Green. My good friend Ann Marie McDonnell also joined us in Dayton.

Also shown in the pic above is Victor Boocock – a stalwart of the CB – he rides a 1914 Harley (shown) and hails from the same part of Lancashire as my Mum.

In Spartanburg, we had a very convivial evening in the pits with a gentleman named Roland Linder who came to visit – a Belgian by birth – he has had a long and distinguished career racing both cars and bikes. He mentioned Indy, CanAm, Sportscar, Porsche single formula as well as GP, and he knew personally many of the luminaries like Kenny Roberts and notably Barry Sheen. But what really made us sit up and take notice was that he is still competing in flat track – at the grand age of 71. If you’ve ever seen flat track and the physical demands it makes – you would sit up too.

Richard Boothman took time out to visit us in Maggie Valley and Cherokee – he came a long way out of his way to cheer us on.

We had the great pleasure of seeing Nanci & Patrick Teter for the free day in Murfreesboro – they flew in from Cali and so we were able to join in celebrating her birthday.

Monica flew in as well and so made me a very happy camper! ❤️

One very cool thing to encounter was to see someone wearing a Team Norton tee shirt! That meant they’d come to visit with us on 2018 and despite all common sense, came to visit us again!! I only wish I’d captured their names so I could credit them here. Thank you so very much!!!

Friday – Spartanburg to Maggie Valley

You become a connoisseur of both hotels and their parking lots on an event like this – the hotel should be clean with good coffee and a decent breakfast. More important, the parking lot should be level, spacious and close to to the hotel. The Spartanburg Holiday Inn Express scored high on both points – new, modern and clean – and the crew had picked a great location in the lot. We had a very social evening in the pits as a result.

Walking (slightly unsteadily) back to the hotel, I stopped to take a photo of the Team 80 van and bike – these guys are amazing and are a genuine Cannonball legend.

The rider/mechanic – Shinya Kimura – has participated in every Cannonball and he and the team are instantly recognisable in their period correct motorcycling jersies. His bike – a 1915 Indian – is just amazing…. he has tinkered with it constantly for years and it has this patina that is almost organic. In 2018, I saw him and a helper tear the engine down to the crank without any care for the constant drizzle of rain – they worked on the bike all night.

The stage itself was short (134 miles) but gnarly with approx 5,000 ft gain in altitude – so we knew we would be challenged. I learned from 2018 to be patient when the grade became too much to hold speed in top gear – simply drop down to second, set the throttle to hold 25-28 mph and she would simply motor up. No point in thrashing the engine trying to get back into top gear, just maintain until the grade levelled out. And so it was, as we ascended to the Blue Ridge Parkway. At first we dipped in and out of the cloud base, but then it became solid and clinging wet, what the Irish call a soft rain. We had our rain gear on so it was all good – but quite cold at 55F/13C. We stopped at the highest point to take pictures.

I soon realised we were on the same section of the Parkway that we ran on our Smokies ride in July, so I was prepared for what is a pretty dangerous feature of the route. There is a tunnel that is perhaps 150 metres long but with a pronounced curve – and once you enter – you realise it is pitch dark as no light penetrates. The only guide is the double yellow centre line and that only helps if you have headlights on. So it came as no surprise to learn later that a couple of riders went down. I can understand lighting in such a remote place might be an issue, but I find it astounding that the Park authorities haven’t lined it with reflectors, and placed warning signs – even painting it white inside would help.

Anyway, no one was badly hurt but it was a big topic of conversation at the finish line – which was the Wheels Through Time Motorcycle Museum in Maggie Valley. This is a great experience and to be recommended to anyone – not just petrolheads. The founder of the Museum was an avid CB’er – Dale Walksler – and very sadly he passed earlier this year. But the Museum is in the safe hands of his son, and so its future seems assured. For pics of the exhibits, please scroll down to the bottom…

There was a big crowd and we were feted as we rode in – we were even asked for our autographs by a couple of young lads. Richard made them very happy by putting them on the saddle of his bike.

We were given the option of riding or trailering the bikes to our hotel in Cherokee 30 miles away. I was initially in favour of riding there but having seen the absolute killer ascent out of Maggie Valley I was very glad to be overruled by Ryan – our crew chief – who said the bikes would ride in the trailer.

Finally, if you would like to check out all the photos that I have either taken or obtained from other folks – please be sure to check out the gallery here……


Thursday – Myrtle Beach to Spartanburg

Sorry that these blogs are belated – it’s been incredibly busy. I’m only now catching up with past stages because a stage has been cancelled and I’m in the truck driving to Trussville in Alabama – more of which later.

I took a picture of the sunrise over the ocean from my room then prepared for the ride. No chance for breakfast as the rooms were self-catering but at least there was coffee.

It was all highway to get out of MB so we were able to maintain a decent average – since our bikes only cruise at 40-45 we don’t stop for lunch unless it is mandatory – relying on water, fruit and cereal bars.

The Cannonball website has a neat topographical display of the route – and it shows that we climbed steadily through South Carolina.

Route to Spartanburg

Truth to be told, writing this four days later – I can’t recall any specifics about the ride other than my new oiling technique was working dividends. The bike ran great and we rolled into Spartanburg in good time.

We have reached the coast

Well thanks to a hiccup with the venue planning – but not the Cannonball organizers’ fault – we and many others were kicked off the mall parking lot in Danville. So we had to tear down very hurriedly as they sent the local cops to enforce it. So no blog post last night!

To recap: yesterday Stage 4 Charleston WV to Danville VA started at 715am and so we got to see the early morning sun as we rode along the Kanewha river before climbing onto the hills. We knew it was 261 miles and we’re worried about our average speed being slowed by the steep ascents but we made really good time considering. We crossed under the Blue Ridge Parkway and then descended – giving the bikes a chance to cool and rest after the climbs.

It leveled out a bit and warmed up – actually pretty hot and humid! Truth to be told – given the lack of good sleep for the past few nights – I was shattered by the end.

However, today – Stage 5 to Myrtle Beach – was a great day for me. #115 ran perfectly – the guys really dialled her in despite the curtailed maintenance session at Danville Mall. Last night I had a bit of an epiphany about oiling (more later as it needs its own post to explain the challenges of metering a total loss oiling system) and after today, I more or less proved it.

We had a great start and fairly flew the ride to the compulsory lunch stop. This was at a Harley Dealership in Pinehurst NC which was of a very high standard to my uneducated eyes.

The afternoon run to Myrtle Beach was enlivened by a burst of heavy rain. Enough to give a good soaking but brief enough that apart from boots (mesh chosen for coolness) I had completely dried out by the end.

The big bonus is that we are staying in a beachfront hotel and I have a room overlooking the crashing waves. What a cracking great sound that is. I hope to sleep soundly tonight.

The one main thing to remember about the Cannonball is that – whether you have a good day or a bad – you still have to get up at the crack of sparrow fart and try all over again. Even if you had to spend a lot of the night fixing your ride.

Michigan Ohio West Virginia

Well I didn’t have time to blog Stage 3 yesterday, as a friend visited me at the hosted event and then I actually had to do a bit of work (work work not work in the pits I’m afraid).

Dawn in Battle Creek
Bikes gather for the start

Anyway it was relatively cool at about 63F/17C as we left Battle Creek to do the 253 mile route to Dayton. It was a lovely spin through the country side – some nice little towns although don’t ask me their names.

We crossed out of Michigan into Ohio and it gradually flattened out. I said it before in 2018 and I’ll say it again: in these parts there’s corn…. a lot of corn. I mean a LOT.

Occasionally a farmer will be daring and grown soybeans just to be different, to be a rebel – OK I made that up. Regardless of crop, the fields are just huge (as are the harvesters – literally the size of a small house).

Evening in Dayton – oil is drained and checked
1914 Harley

Today – Stage 4 – we left Dayton in similar temps – so we ran strong in the morning – these bikes love cool air. For a while we ran on 327 – a lovely little road on Ohio – but the last 80 miles were pretty horrible – a mix of four lane highway and busy two lane. It’s not much fun riding at 35-45mph and having semi’s (juggernauts) blast past at 65-70.

But the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers probably create pinch points on route options – mighty rivers both.

Anyway we made it to our hosted stop at a Harley dealership in South Charleston. This is a chance for folks to check out the bikes and we get a lot of interest. Some of the stops attract hundreds of people – and we are treated very nicely. We get fed but we are on the clock in a manner of speaking – so no celebratory beer until we reach the pits at the hotel.

The Nortons get a lot of attention at these stop – they’re such attractive machines in silver and black – and look quite different to their larger American brethren. It’s fun at fuel stops – when they ask where we are headed, we casually tell them the Mexican border via the East Coast

Evening in Charleston WV

Team Norton completes Stage 2

We were blessed all day with great weather. Cool temps to start, bright sunshine and lovely scenery. The road out of Traverse City was nothing to speak of, but we then branched off into back roads and pretty much stayed that way.

The stage was 253 miles to be achieved in just under 10 hours and so we had a decent cushion. But it’s funny how that cushion can be eroded by little nadgery events – slow traffic through towns, occasional holdups, a bit of carb trouble, hard starting after a fuel stop, all the rigmarole that riding 100 year old motorcycles can entail.

But we rolled through gentle country side, the occasional woods, farms, and little towns. Red barns are a scenic favorite of mine – especially after reading that the pigments in the paint that cover them come from long dead stars – and we saw plenty.

Lunch was a granola bar while filling up – but the finish line was the Harley Dealership in Battle Creek and they laid on a very decent spread for the riders. There was a huge crowd – yet again I forgot to press record on my go pro. Twit. I’m hoping the crew got some of us arriving.

Ryan – our crew chief – always meets us at the finish line and takes down a list of of anything we report – regarding the performance of the bikes. Then they’ll work on the bikes until late in the evening – fixing problems and prepping for the next day. It’s a reminder that the bikes really belong to the crew and we the riders are only along for the ride.

Ready for tomorrow – tools and spares on the top box, consumables on the little black tool box on top, and two fuel bottles for emergencies. The back box is actually an auxiliary fuel tank.

Stage 1 achieved!

The four Silver Nortons took Stage 1 in their stride, with a good cushion of time to boot. We left the hotel at approx 730am to stage at the official starting point at the Valley Camp ship museum in Soo.

Didn’t realize they were still snapping 😀

We were waved off slightly early – Richard in Class I (single cylinder over 100 years old) went ahead of Stewart, Keith and me. We are in Class IV by dint of the fact our bikes are between 90 and 100 yrs old. It was actually foggy when we left but the day developed into glorious weather.

We met up with Richard before crossing the Mackinac Bridge – I hope I have some gopro footage of that. It was a bit intrepid as roadworks pushed us into the lane that is not asphalt or concrete but steel grid work so you can see the lake waters hundreds of feet below. But the view wasn’t the problem – it was the steel seemed designed to make narrow-tyred bikes as squirrelly as possible. I was bloody glad to get back onto blacktop.

Aside from the Bridge you can see the map reader box

Another highlight was the Tunnel of Trees – a narrow road that skirts Lake Michigan – fun to ride and very scenic. You really get a sense of just how big the Lakes are.

We are now socializing at Hagerty Insurance HQ before going to the hotel – I must have a word about my motorcycle premium.

One hazard of hosting the Cannonballers – they love to mark their territory.

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