The Kings of Winter
Film by Malle London
While the rest of us wait for summer, a few men and their machines defy winter and take to the ice.
Two hours from the Canadian border, in the middle of a frozen lake we found a group of trucks, trailers and riders, tun- ing their machines in the bitter cold. Three men took their snowplow trucks and crafted a race track from the snow and ice. Over the day 20 or 30 riders compete, wheel to wheel, shoulder to shoulder at speeds of up to 90mph on the frozen surface. You have to respect the ice – it’s hard, unforgiving, sharp and one thing we soon realised – the bikes can grip the ice sure enough, but there’s almost no friction if you fall off.
I met a veteran racer Mac, with a grin he declared immediately that he had the fastest machine on the ice and planned to prove it – with his ‘87 2-stroke ATV, the smell of those took me back to my dirt riding days. He very kindly took us under his wing, walking the track we learnt the science behind it all, from choosing the right line, how to hit the bumps with just enough throttle to grip the ice and how to corner when in the midst of the pack.
The race is cold, fast, loud and relentless – a new group of riders bolt from the starting grid like armored greyhounds every few minutes. It gets faster and more competitive, the winner of the heat gets to pick his starting position in the grid on the next race. The lines are tighter, the riding positions more acute and the track becomes a chaotic cloud of shards of torn ice, snow, exhaust fumes and the vapor of fuel lingers in the mouth.
The first half had been going very well, morale was up, the races were constant and they were a really friendly bunch
of guys. Then came the fateful 50+ expert race. The riders lined up in the starting grid as if going into battle – poised, focused and revving the highly tuned engines. Yogi (the race marshal) dropped the flag and they were off. Each lap
got faster than the last and there was soon a clear leader, he was a good 40 yards ahead of the pack – he was fast – he’d earned his pole position and was set for a clear win. After 7 laps the white flag was raised for the final lap – the leader careered around the last corner wider than before. Less then a second later, his bike clipped the snow bank 6ft away from us, he and the bike were catapulted into the air, spinning twice before hitting the ice hard and sliding. The bike hit the ground so hard the fairing exploded across the track.
This would have been the end, but out of the cloud, 3 more bikes plowed into the chaos, each other and into the solid snow banks. As if in slow motion – bikes and riders were strewn across the track – then the brief moment of silence and realisation. Marshals, spectators and riders leapt forward to help, the medic was on site seconds later. One rider was left motionless on the ice.
Less than an hour or so later the rider was on route to hospital, we got reports that he was in a good and stable condi- tion – apart from the broken pelvis, dislocated shoulder, cracked ribs and probably a bruised ego – but his bike came off a lot worse.
Mac returned to the race track an hour later, he’d ridden all the way to the ambulance gripping the hand of the fallen rider on the back of a flatbed truck, he said – “When we’re riding, we’re competing, we’re fighting with each other – but they’re my friends, as soon as one goes down, the only thing that matters is making sure he’s ok”. As I’ve found many times before, in the moto-community there is always a great camaraderie amongst riders, it doesn’t matter if it’s at the Ace Cafe, Le Mans, in the dirt or on a frozen lake somewhere near Canada – they look out for you.
The races started again, 2 riders from the race that never finished were back in – one with a broken nose and probably a concussion, but he shook it off and went on to win the next race.
If the conditions are right and you can find the lake – this is a proper race – this is not a race for the faint of heart – that particular race was brutal. But it’s pure racing – few rules, no sponsorships, no hotdogs or champagne podium finishes. Just a group of gentleman in the middle of a lake, trying to win.
Footnote: Mac did go on to win each race in his class, he was bloody quick!