City Coast Motorcycles sales team’s Derek Sheppard recently travelled coast-to-coast aboard an antique motorcycle in support of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Read Derek’s story in his own words…
The Australian Indian Pacific Cannonball Classic 2022 follows in the footsteps of the American version that is universally recognised as the most difficult antique motorcycles endurance event in the world. The “Cannonball” pays homage to long distance pioneer Erwin “Cannonball” Baker, and other historical figures that literally paved the way across both America and Australia in the early 1900’s.
My Indian Pacific Cannonball adventure began in early 2021 when my good friend and City Coast Motorcycles customer Michael Johnson mentioned the event. He explained they had been trying to get it underway for a few years, but COVID State lockdowns had prevented it.
A prerequisite for entry is that the motorcycle must be pre-1948. This date is universally accepted as being pre-hydraulic suspension, ie girder fork and rigid frame.
The entries opened in in June 2021 and were capped at 100 due to the resource limitations of the outback towns. Such was the anticipation and enthusiasm for the event that I registered the minute bookings opened and was entry number 62!
I entered owning a 1933 Ariel NH350 Red Hunter Twin Port that I had restored some 25 years ago. Whilst this bike hasn’t failed me, I knew it would be a tough event for the bike with the original manual recommending a top-end overhaul every 500 miles and a top cruising speed of around 65kph.
Once accepted, I steadily worked on preparing the Ariel but also started searching for a larger capacity pre-1948 machine. Eventually, my friend and past City Coast Motorcycles staff member Kevin Brown managed to track down a 1942 WLA Harley Davidson locally. The bike was previously owned by the late Tony Blain; a long-term Harley Davidson aficionado and owner of Redfern Motorcycles. He had sold the bike to a local collector 22 years prior to me buying it, and it was never started or ridden under his ownership.
Such was Kevin’s enthusiasm for the event that Michael and I were endeavouring to undertake, that he offered to be my support vehicle driver for which I will be eternally indebted. Without the help of Kevin and his wife Karen I would not have been eligible to compete (a condition of entry was that every bike entered must have both a dedicated support vehicle seat for the rider and a bike trailer spot).
I was now preparing two bikes for the event! Both were mechanically as good as I could make them without compromising the integrity of the proven miles they already had under their wheels. Immediately prior to the event I decided I would undertake a three-day 1500 km ride down around Victoria and back on the Harley as it was the least proven bike. This was designed to ensure that both me and the bike could do three successive 500km days as I knew that would be required during the event. I learnt a lot about riding antique bikes but both me and the bike survived the experience.
The Indian Pacific Cannonball Classic started in Busselton, Western Australia on October 13 and ended 5000km’s later in Merimbula, NSW. I turned up in Busselton a few days prior to the start and was immediately welcomed into the antique motorcycling community. Everybody was very friendly and willing to offer advice, guidance and assistance as necessary.
One of the first people I met was Glen “Gunner” Foley; an antique motorcycle collector and long-term Harley Davidson mechanic. Gunner was riding an earlier civilian version of my bike and had similar objectives to my own, so we immediately developed a connection and would ride together periodically over the early stages until his buke suffered in the heavy rain. Gunner was truly one of the great characters of the event and was subsequently announced as the “Tony Blain Spirit of the Event” award recipient.
The 2022 Cannonball consisted of 14 stages with the longest stages being around 500kms and the shortest stage being around 200kms. The display prior to the start was a seriously impressive array of well-prepared antique motorcycles. Some retained their original patina that clearly gave some insight into the journeys of their life to date, whilst others were immaculately restored to better than original!
My major goal was to get across the Nullarbor on an antique hand-shift motorcycle. To this end I rode quite conservatively sitting on about 75kph. The bike is happiest between 45 and 50 mph but quite interestingly the exact happy point moves continuously as you ride. I think air temperature, moisture and fuel quality have a significant effect on the “feel” of older bikes. You have to learn not to worry about every new rattle or change in vibration!
The bikes are not easy to ride and take considerable concentration as they have no effective brakes or suspension. You need to constantly manage riding to the road in terms of avoiding bumps, potholes and managing the terrain (assents and descents are undertaken in second gear with a maximum speed of about 40kph). Even the Nullarbor and 90 Mile Straight were never boring such was the challenge of the roads, road trains, weather and scenery.
The bikes are old and take considerable maintenance. Most competitors would spend several hours at least each evening undertaking maintenance and repairs. Apart from breaking seven spokes in my front wheel necessitating a replacement, my daily maintenance consisted of checking and lubricating both the primary and final drive chains, checking the battery voltage and water level, greasing all bushes and bearings and checking the tyres and tyre pressures.
In crossing Australia the final drive chain was adjusted once, the valves were checked and adjusted three times (the exhaust valves closed up on most bikes due to the extended high speed running), the points were filed and adjusted twice, the generator reset once, the air filter oil topped up once, grease points lubricated every three days and wheel bearings twice, engine oil changed twice, gearbox oil checked and topped up every three days.
Two standouts in terms of repairs and maintenance were an Invincible JAP that seized with the owner attempting an overnight rebuild. After failing again, he drove home rebuilt the bike and re-joined the event in Victoria. The second was a 1922 four-cylinder Henderson that required between three to 10 hours maintenance each day and cruised at 60kph.Two other fine achievements were a pair of BSA M20’s that also completed the event.
The most impressive achievement was that of Bill Brice, Malcom Brice and Peter McBride who rode from home to the start via Cairns, Darwin, and Broome without support. All then completed the event unaided and each completed their circumnavigation of Australia following the event.
The Cannonball winner is the oldest bike to finish every stage unaided and within the rather tight time limits set for each stage. The 2022 statistics were: 100 entries, 92 starters, 82 actually crossed the start line, 54 finished and 22 finished without assistance (of which I was one). Sadly, one of our riders Ken Phelps riding a 1948 Vincent HRD passed away following an incident with a Kangaroo near Deniliquin and another rider Mario Balatti suffered some significant injuries including a broken ankle after hitting a large pothole at the start of the Snowy Mountains. He is recovering well. The well-deserved winner of the 2022 Indian Pacific Cannonball Classic was Chris Wells on a 1924 Harley Davidson.
Undertaking such an event is expensive and takes considerable time and effort, but it was up there with my best motorcycling experiences over the last 40 years. I think my words after finishing sum up the overall experience perfectly:
“We were excited, we were anxious, we were happy, we were sad, we laughed, we cried.
We fixed bikes, we watched others fix bikes, we lent parts and borrowed parts, we helped each other.
We met old friends and made many new ones.
We travelled some straight roads we travelled some curvy roads.
We rode in sunshine, we road in rain.
We raised some money for the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
Most importantly of all we got to share an epic adventure together!”
Keep your motorcycling dreams and adventures alive. It’s a great way to see the country and meet new people.
– Derek –