Pat Simmons Goes Rockin’ Down the Highway on a Vintage Harley

March 15th, 2017

This is a feature from the March/April 2017 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on the making of Martin’s one-of-a-kind two-millionth guitar, Ricky Gervais and the return of his guitar-playing alter ego David Brent, plus GA’s annual motoring section, including features on John Oates and his life-long fascination with cars and racing and the untold story behind Led Zeppelin’s McLaren M8E/D racecar, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

ROCKIN’ DOWN THE HIGHWAY: When Doobie Brothers guitarist Pat Simmons and his wife, Cris set out to cross the U.S. on antique Harley-Davidsons, they brought Guitar Aficionado along for the ride.

By Richard Bienstock | Photography by Travis Shinn

For more than 40 years, Pat Simmons and the Doobie Brothers have traveled the world to bring their songs to music-loving audiences. The group racked up hit after hit during their mid-Seventies-to–early Eighties heyday, including tracks like “Black Water,” “What a Fool Believes,” and “Rockin’ Down the Highway.”

But recently, Simmons was rockin’ down the highway in a different sort of way, piloting a more than 100-year-old Harley Davidson on a cross-country trek known as the Motorcycle Cannonball.

The event saw a select group of enthusiasts (roughly 120 motorcyclists from all over the world) cover more than 3,000 miles—a stretch that began in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and ended in Carlsbad, California—over 16 days in September, riding, per Cannonball tradition, on vintage bikes. But this year, the fourth staging of the Motorcycle Cannonball since its debut run in 2010, organizers added an extra wrinkle to the challenge: In honor of the event’s namesake, Erwin George “Cannon Ball” Baker, who completed a coast-to-coast journey on an Indian motorcycle just over 100 years ago, participants this year could ride only on pre-1916 antique bikes.

Simmons has ridden motorcycles since the early Seventies, and he has a particular affinity for vintage models. “The mechanical aspect of riding old bikes is the fun part of it to me,” he says, calling into Guitar Aficionado from a Doobies Brothers tour stop in New Jersey a few weeks after the end of the Cannonball. “The hand shifting, the foot clutch…you feel a little more a part of what’s going on with the machine. On a modern bike you’re sort of at the mercy of whatever you’re riding. If something goes wrong you have to stop at the Harley shop and have somebody help you sort it out. But on these old bikes, if there’s something you need to adjust, you can hop off, reach in your saddlebag, grab a wrench, and adjust something. That’s a good feeling to be able to do that.”

Simmons is not alone in his love for old motorcycles—his wife, Cris Sommer-Simmons, who competed in the Cannonball alongside him, shares the same sentiments. A lifelong motorcyclist, Sommer-Simmons is a celebrated rider, journalist, and historian. Her many accomplishments include founding and editing the magazine Harley Women, authoring the 2009 tome The American Motorcycle Girls 1900–1950, and being inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame. At this year’s Cannonball, Cris, who rode a 1915 Harley-Davidson Model 11-J she nicknamed Effie (“after Effie Hotchkiss, the first woman to ride a motorcycle across the United States in 1916,” she says), was the only female to complete the entire course. Pat did not fare as well riding a 1914 Harley two-speed nicknamed “Vinnie” (“after a buddy of mine who’s a unique individual,” he says with a laugh).

“We were on our way to Cape Girardeau in Missouri,” he recalls. “It was a rainy day and my bike started giving me a little problem on the road. I rode another 100 miles or so, but then it just came apart. Basically the engine stopped. Parts had come off and lodged in the gear chain, broke a number of my gears, and basically froze the engine. It wouldn’t even turn over at that point. It was nothing I could have predicted. When you’re on a 102-year-old bike, you just never know what can happen.”

According to Cris, riding antique bikes requires a unique skill set. “It’s a totally different way of riding than with the newer bikes,” she says. “It’s a little harder and there’s a lot more to think about. All the parts are old, and they don’t always work. During the Cannonball, you’d see a lot of riders pulled over on the side of the road during the day, working on their bikes.”

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