Somewhere in a Northeast Florida garage off I-95 are a couple mad men laboring under the oppressive summer heat to prepare a 107-year-old iron dynamo for a 3,400-mile ride. I speak, of course, of the mythical Reading Standard Model R-S Motorcycle and its rider, Norm Nelson.
There it sat, like a muted phantom in the small workshop, its slender frame boasting a 30.45-cubic-inch side valve, single cylinder engine—one of the first of its kind—a serpentine belt-drive connected to the back wheel to deliver the engine’s antediluvian power, and a whole pantheon of esoteric rods and levers.
“I purchased this Reading Standard about three or four years ago at an auction in Las Vegas, from Wayne Carini,” said Nelson. “It’s belt-driven but has only one speed. And this little device here,” Nelson pointed to a long, crude metal apparatus jutting out from the clutch, “this is not original.”
“This is a clever little deal that Steve [Pennington] came up with. It actually works the clutch and shifts the bike into gear. You see, it’s not until the lever is all the way forward that the belt actually engages and begins to rotate the back wheel.”
Pennington stood stoic in the back. The silent partner in this endeavor, he’s the real mastermind behind the bike, the one who knows the ins and outs of the whole atavistic contraption.
“There aren’t many people my age messing with this sort of stuff,” said Pennington. “The younger guys just don’t take to it. For me to show up at these vintage races and rallies, I’m considered a ‘young’ guy and I’m 48 years old.”
The bike is as rudimentary as they come; an honest-to-god gasoline-charged medieval razorblade on wheels. Sure, it tops out only around 50 miles an hour, but when you consider that its clincher tires are about as wide as an iPod mini, the braking system is similar to a Schwinn bicycle’s and it has about as much horsepower as a lawnmower, topping this monster out at 50mph—or attempting to ride it further than a few miles, let alone through mountain passes—is utterly savage.
Hell, it even comes with the original ball-battering bicycle seat provided by Reading Standard. To put it concisely, the bike is positively bereft of any and all modern conveniences. Yet Nelson and Pennington are committed to riding this pre-World War I torpedo in this year’s much-anticipated transcontinental Cannonball Motorcycle Rally.
The ride is a grueling two-week slog from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon, in which riders experience the full spectrum of inclement weather and topographic extremes. Self-titled as “the most difficult antique endurance run in the world,” the ride’s roster is already full-up for September’s outing, and there’s still a healthy waiting list of salivating hopefuls wishing for a chance to participate in the pre-1928 motorcycle extravaganza.
“I road this bike two years ago in the Cannonball,” said Nelson. “We had some internal problems, mostly with the crank pin that the rod fits on, but we made it all the way. The difficulty with these sorts of rides is that you’re on an old motorcycle and, as much as you prepare, things happen. Little nuts fall off, bolts rattle off, this and that happens … and part of the responsibility of the rider is to not only get to the destination safely, but to listen and be tuned into the workings of the bike.
“And because this thing has only about six horsepower, part of the challenge is making and applying the different-sized drive pulleys. You see, depending on the terrain we’re gonna be negotiating, we have to switch out the pulleys to match the amount of work the engine is going to do,” he explains.
“For example, we used a smaller ‘climbing’ pulley a couple years ago to get to the top of Wolf Creek Pass in Colorado, which is almost an 11,000-foot climb.”
Nelson is not new to this kind of riding. In fact, Nelson comes to the Cannonball with more than 45 years of vintage riding experience.
“I used to race quite a bit,” he said. “Mostly Nortons, BSAs and Triumph motorcycles, and I have actually won Daytona in vintage racing seven times. So I’m used to riding these old bikes—and riding them long distances at that; the Cannonball, for me, is just a natural outgrowth of my time on these bikes.”
True to character, when Nelson wasn’t circuit-racing 60-year-old machines, he kept busy flying commercial airplanes; before that, he was a piloting a 76,000-pound C-130 Hercules turbo-prop aircraft transport for the U.S. Navy.
“The older I get, the faster I was,” lamented Nelson. “Being a pilot, I rode as hard as I could within the limits of my abilities. I just couldn’t afford to mess myself up and not be able to fly.”
To the average mortal, Nelson is an Ubermensch, a leather-clad satyr lusting for the extremes of experience, blasting headlong in omophagic frenzy beyond the bounds of the civilized world. For him, this thirst for life is rooted deeply in his love of adventure.
“It’s essentially the sense of adventure,” said Nelson. “And if you’re a motorcyclist, the Cannonball is an opportunity to truly experience the country—you get to see America from the backroads—and it has a healthy element of competition thrown in as well.
“Usually after about three or four days on this thing, I start to get tired and think to myself, ‘What the hell am I doing on this thing?’ But I know it will pass, and it does … You have to know going into this that something is going to go wrong. Whether it’s a fitting or a gas leak or the magneto not sparking … but you choose to do it anyway. You have to love the challenge. And that’s what I love. I love these motorcycles and the people who ride them.”
Pennington agrees. “You have to appreciate these bikes to really work with them,” he added. “And I’ve always been drawn to that, to the simplicity and ingenuity of them. I don’t really have any other way to explain it. And it’s not just the engines and the motorcycles. It’s everything. All of it. The whole era. I just have a profound appreciation for the way things were designed and built.”
“Some people just want to restore these kinds of bikes and never ride them,” Nelson said. “We want to do the opposite. Restore it as little as possible. Get it running and running well and keep it as vintage and as original as possible. And, of course, ride it. These bikes weren’t made to sit in a garage or a museum. They were built to be ridden and loved.”
As this issue went to press, Folio Weekly learned that the Reading-Standard presented insurmountable mechanical challenges, so Nelson has substituted a 1928 BMW R-52 for the race.