Inspiration: Big Trip

Motorcycle Cannonball

Three riders race their vintage Triumphs across the US

It’s a motorcycle rally that expects its riders to cross the entire USA. That’s 3,674 miles over back roads and through backwater towns, racking up an average of 240 miles per day.

Oh, and the bikes must date from 1928 or earlier. The Motorcycle Cannonball run takes its name from famed endurance racer Erwin ‘Cannonball’ Baker and this year stretched from Portland, Maine (Eastern Seaboard), to Portland, Oregon (West Coast).

That’s the challenge that ‘Triumphant’ riding competitor Paul Warrenfelt took on.The day after accepting an early retirement at the spry age of 63, Paul and his international team set off from Portland in the eastern US state of Maine. His team consisted of the Aussie-by-way-of-Britain Skippy Lockrey and Arrie Redelinghuys, a South African transplanted to Michigan. In the back of the truck were their three Triumphs with a combined age of 277.

A Triumph enthusiast for many years, Paul bought his first bike – a 1954 Triumph Tiger Cub – at 15 years old and has been riding Triumphs ever since. His current collection boasts 13 Triumphs. Prior to the Cannonball, his most recent was a 2011 Triumph Thunderbird. What he hadn’t realised he was missing from his collection was a 90-year-old bike, until his wife Patty read about the run. He instantly knew it was for him and also knew there were two things he was going to need: another crazy rider to share the adventure with and a couple of old bikes. That led him to fellow Triumph enthusiast and riding buddy Arrie and off they went to the one place they figured they could find a couple of 90-plus-year-old bikes… the UK!

On the hunt for bikes in the UK

Paul found his 1920 Model H at Andy Buys Bikes in Framlingham, where Andy helped Arrie choose his ride too – a 1927 Triumph Model N. 

And then there were three…

On a follow-up trip to the UK to buy parts, they visited the Beaulieu International Autojumble, which is where they met Skippy. He runs a custom machine shop repair business, and also fabricates parts for pre-1930 Triumphs. It was like a lightning bolt of fate brought these three riders together, and within moments of finding out what they were up to Skippy asked: “Can I join you?”.

The pair didn’t take long to realise that having the world’s foremost expert on vintage and veteran Triumph parts as a member of their team would be a pretty spectacular idea. Skippy even shipped a 1925 Triumph Model P over to ride on the run.

Both Paul and Arrie made multiple trips to the UK over the following 18 months. Each time they acquired more and more parts, to the extent that Paul is now pretty sure he has the biggest stash of 1920s Triumph parts in the US.

How to prep a vintage bike

To paraphrase the great guru of the American road trip, Hunter S Thompson, “Once you get locked into a serious spare parts collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.”

The pair spent every spare moment they had getting the bikes into top shape because, although the Motorcycle Cannonball isn’t technically a race, every entrant’s aim is to complete the distance and to do that you cannot afford to break down.


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The race

Setting off from Portland, they were just three among 107 bikes. Class 1 (the slowest bikes: single cylinder, no gearbox) left first. Then 15 minutes later Class 2 (Paul’s class: single cylinder with a gearbox or a multi-cylinder without a gearbox), then finally Class 3 (the fastest: multi-cylinder machines with a gearbox).

Each class only received their roll map 30 minutes before departure. They knew the end point for each day well in advance but the exact route they were required to follow was only disclosed in the roll map. No chance to plan in any shortcuts.

The start on the first day was an exciting one for me,” says Paul. “I was full of anticipation about what would happen during the day and the overall event. Would I have a crash? Would I miss a turn and get lost? Would I have an issue with my bike? There was also quite a large crowd gathered at the start cheering everyone on. This added to the excitement of the moment but also put additional pressure on us to not make a mistake.

“Of course, there were lots of fun moments. One of the best was early on day 2 when we saw the results for day 1 and realised all three of us were well within the top 20 standings. This was something we didn’t anticipate. The fondest memory is the overall spirit of the event. While everyone was competing, the riders were supportive and helpful to one another.”

Canola field near Kalispell, Montana

How vintage bikes are different

Riding these vintage bikes all day is a huge challenge. As Paul tells it: “The oldest two of our three Triumphs, including mine, do not have oil pumps. This means you must manually oil them. There is a manual pump on the gas tank (which is actually a combination gas and oil tank) and you have to give the engine a shot of oil every 5-10 miles depending on the riding conditions.  

“Additionally, there are adjustments that riders of modern bikes are not familiar with. The bikes do not have a twist grip. Rather they have two levers, one controlling the air and the other controlling the mixture. The ignition timing also has its own lever, which must be manipulated. The bikes have a somewhat normal clutch lever on the left but the shifter for the 3-speed gearbox is operated by hand and is next to the gas tank.”

“All three of the bikes have a compression release used to slow down or kill the engine, plus my bike, being the oldest, has a decompressor that is used for starting the engine, in addition to the compression release. The bikes originally came with carbide lights, which we replaced with LED ones for the competition.”

There wasn’t much opportunity to rest at night. Instead, they were dedicated to looking after the bikes. After a whole day of rumbling and vibrating, they had to go over every single nut and bolt. Paul says: “It wasn’t uncommon to see guys with their entire engines laid out, piece by piece, well past midnight.”

Of course, this only added to the camaraderie, which is one of the main reasons to go and do something like this with your friends. In all, they were a group of 11, with wives and friends joining in an RV and seeing them off every morning and greeting them as they pulled in at night.

Yellowstone river and Sacrifice Cliff in Billings, Montana

What a party it was when Paul actually won his division! Not only did he achieve perfect mileage, as did Skippy, but he did it in stunning fashion, taking first place in the 1919-1928 Division Class 2.

When asked if he would do it again, Paul quickly replies: “Absolutely, I can’t wait. Not sure if it will be on the same bike or a different Triumph. It will be a Triumph for sure!”

With his treasure trove of parts, he’s ready to prep a new bike for the 2019 Motorcycle Cannonball.