This recently changed for me as I’ve temporarily relocated to Chicago, where frigid temps freeze Midwestern lakes. And frozen lakes aren’t just for ice fishing. Winter be damned, this California kid is going to ride motorcycles — with spiked tires — on the ice. Not only that, we’re gonna race, too!
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The chosen venue to compete would be the 18th Annual Steel Shoe Fund three-hour endurance race, held the third Sunday in January. The course for this event isn’t the more common flat-track style race with only left turns; this track runs roadrace style, with both rights and lefts, adding a lot of variety. Second, the three-hour format ensured plenty of riding time.
Third, and most importantly, the Steel Shoe Fund is a non-profit organization with a good cause. Proceeds from the race go directly towards “assisting flat track motorcycle racers who have been seriously injured during competition within the continental United States by providing funds to be used to pay their medical bills or assist in their most immediate needs following a serious racing accident.”
Tim Olson, Yamaha’s media rep, was immediately on-board with this idea and enlisted Jim Drummond, Yamaha district manager for Wisconsin, to help. He and his sons, Jake and Mike, have been involved with ice racing for many years, and they had a fully prepared 2013 Yamaha YZ450F ready for ice action. You can read our story on prepping a motocross bike for racing on ice by clicking here.
Three hours is a long time to ride a motorcycle, so I’d need teammates. Fellow editor Tom Roderick was enthusiastic about the idea and signed up. Yamaha’s Olson, a skilled dirt rider, became the third teammate of Team Polar Express.
Despite the fact the three of us have ridden countless bikes, none of us had ever ridden on ice before. Heck, Tom and I would see the bike for the first time the day before the race, and Olson would spin his first lap during practice on race morning!
Obviously our expectations were low. To us, victory would simply be finishing, not coming in last place and, most importantly, having fun. Of course, none of us had ever ridden in temperatures this low, either.
As you’re about to see, avoiding frostbite would be a big victory as well. Judging from our first-hand accounts, the cold may have gotten to Tom.
Many questions ran through my mind when we arrived to a frozen Lake Winnebago Saturday morning for practice. How do I ride on spiked tires? Will the 450 be too much bike for me? How do I stay warm? What if the ice breaks?!
Drummond and his sons were more than helpful. As I geared up to ride in sub-freezing weather, I received simple but unexpected advice: try to lowside.
“It’s a lot like roadracing,” Jim told me. “These ice tires have a ton of grip on the edges. To really experience how far over they can go, the best advice I can give is to try and lowside it.”
Intentionally crashing is not usually a goal of mine, so convincing myself to try wasn’t easy. However, the first thing I noticed was the tall saddle. With my measly 30-inch inseam, the YZ’s 39.4-inch seat height was hard to throw a leg over. Especially with the amount of layers I was wearing to keep warm.
My first lap around the ice was nerve-wracking as I didn’t trust how much grip I had. Slowly, I took the advice to heart and remembered the metal screws in the tires were made for digging into the ice. After that, I was shocked how deep I could trailbrake to the apex, lean it over, and gas it out.
The technique is similar in many ways to a streetbike. The difference is the ability to be much more aggressive with the throttle, and body positioning goes against everything I’m used to on a streetbike.
I’m programmed to lean into the turn, scoot my butt to the inside, and keep my head low. Riding on ice is the complete opposite. It’s best to push the bike down under you and sit atop the bike.
Despite my struggles learning the technique, I now get why many racers turn to the ice (or dirt) in the offseason. It makes you comfortable with the bike sliding and dancing underneath you. Scary things on a streetbike, par for the course on ice or dirt.
I may have felt fast as the day went on, but in reality I wasn’t leaning over much at all. Regardless, it was an exhilarating experience, similar to my first trackday. Tom and I rode until sunset, but we would’ve ridden longer had there been lights. There was much to learn before the big race the next day.
With temps just below freezing, the layers I was wearing combined with the effort needed to ride the bike kept me plenty warm on our practice day. However, reports for the next day — race day — had the high listed at just 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Factor in windchill and temps would be well below zero. I was slightly concerned.
It was 5 degrees Fahrenheit when we woke up Sunday morning. According to the meteorologist on TV, exposed skin would be susceptible to frostbite in under 20 minutes. No doubt about it — there were some real threats to the body even if we stayed upright!
Arriving at Kettle Morraine Lake, everyone said these cold conditions would be perfect for the ice, which lifted my confidence, though there was a genuine fear I might lose a fingertip or my nose to frostbite. To add to my concern, when we arrived at the track, we were told we’d get a single practice lap per rider to learn the — get this — 6.75-mile course.
We were told the track had more than 100 turns. Regardless, despite the handlebar socks designed to help keep the hands toasty, by just the fifth turn I was already feeling intense pain in my fingers from the bitter cold.
Later, after a simple web search, it appears I was experiencing the first signs of frostbite, frostnip. Thankfully, Tom was smart enough to bring extra gloves with much more substance. I slipped them on and, as I was nominated to start the race, headed back out to the start line.
When the green flag dropped, I got an average start but immediately left my row behind and could have passed the second row had there been an opening. The stock 450 engine definitely wasn’t lacking for power.
Because it was an endurance race and I was timid, I settled into a comfortable position and rode my own race, now with warm hands, reminding myself we were just here for fun. With focus on the track instead of cold digits, I now struggled with the numerous tight turns on the course.
Our practice the day before was on a largely open layout with sweepers that allowed me time to get into position. The race course was tight and completely opposite, and I struggled to get into proper riding position. I powered through, however, content with the sensation of rear power slides and the occasional pass on slower riders.
The rest of my race was a blur, except for the deterioration of the course over time. Despite the locals saying conditions would be good on race day, I didn’t account for the accumulation of snow on the surface and ruts in the racing line from numerous bikes chewing through the ice.
Snow provides zero traction as the screws on the tire aren’t long enough to reach through the powder and grip the ice, sapping confidence fast. And because the ice is generally smooth (in relation to a motocross track), the bike’s stock suspension damping was slowed considerably, causing the YZ to skip over the ruts.
Ultimately, I rode simply to survive and was happy to pit and hand the bike off. I’d never ridden in conditions so cold and bee-lined for the nearest heater. Before defrosting, I filled Tom in on the conditions. How did he take to ice racing? Judging by what he wrote on the next page, it clearly had an unusual effect on him...
An Ode To Ice Racing
Twas the night before ice racing when out of the north blew,
A low pressure Arctic front, a message from Jack Frost, a wintery eff-you.
My wet riding gear was hung above the motel room’s heater,
In hopes it’d be dry before the next morning at our ice racing theater.
Saturday’s session was a first for riding a motorcycle on ice,
I had my concerns but the few hundred screws in each tire more than sufficed.
Tenaciously gripping the cold, frozen water I leaned the bike further with each passing lap,
Until spinning out the rear and low-siding the Yami 450 whereupon my ass I sat.
With only four hours of practice I knew I was destined to be an ice racing winner,
So we headed to Fratellos in Oshkosh for a few beers and some dinner.
After a night of howling winds the morning dawned without any new snow,
The weather app said the temperature was seven but with wind chill it was freakin’ 12 below.
The track on Kettle Moraine Lake stretched for nearly seven miles in length,
With upwards of 100 turns one lap required an effort of herculean strength.
We estimated 10 minutes per orbit and 30 for three would keep us from getting lapped,
The reality was 15 and 45 after which each rider’s energy reserves were sapped.
Siahaan led the charge at the drop of the green flag,
Followed by Yamaha’s Tim Olson bravely joining our crew despite some jet lag.
Bundled up like an Eskimo it was my turn to ride,
A motorcycle with a seat 39.4 inches high.
Before even mounting the bike in the pits I was flat on my back having slipped on the ice,
Thankfully Olson restarted the YZF, and with a tank full of gas I charged out looking to dice
But something was different,it didn’t take long to discover,
The grip I enjoyed yesterday was gone, feeling more like I was riding a hot knife on butter.
It had been nearly an hour and a half since the race was given the go,
And those 100 or so bikes with screws in their tires were piling up snow.
Not a third of the way through my first lap,
The front washed out leaving me again on my back.
After restarting the bike I soldiered on in a more timid way,
A little slower, not wanting to fall over, but I did pass the snow plow three times that day.
Just finishing the race was our goal for this particular competition,
At the end Team Polar Express finished 19 of 26 — not too bad for a first edition.
Ice racing was a bucket list item I can now mark completed,
Given the chance I’d do it again, no encouragement needed.
Next time, however, some warmer weather would be asking only a little,
But being cold and dry is preferable to breaking through thin ice and ending up a Tomcicle.
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