They wear armour, ride with metal spikes on their wheels, and achieve lean angles that MotoGP aliens can only dream of – these are the riders of ice speedway
When the weather forecast says it’s going to be a steady -30°C, a normal family stays at home and keeps themselves busy with some board games next to the fireplace. Unless they live in Siberian Russia that is. When the temperature goes down to -30°C there, they go out to watch some sport: motorcycle racing. In this part of the world, it’s not uncommon to see 20,000-30,000 people attending races, sitting outside in an open stadium. Ice Speedway Gladiators are huge.
Among other famous Russian specialties, such as old Lada cars, babushka and vodka, spies and polonium, the Ice Speedway Gladiators stands out. Although the concept was born in Sweden long ago – the first record of motorcycle ice racing goes back to 1924 – it became progressively more the domain of Russians. This is mainly thanks to an icy climate perfect for accommodating the series, as well as endless open spaces and frozen lakes to practice.
In the former Soviet Union, the ice speedway racing series started back in 1939. It became hugely popular after the WWII in Scandinavia and the USSR, and local championships featured several classes, such as 125, 350, 500 and even sidecars.
The world championship began in 1963 with an FIM Cup, then the world championship began in earnest in 1966. Nowadays the series consists of several rounds that take place in the former Soviet Union’s huge territories and neighbouring countries, with 14 top riders competing. This year two rounds took place in Russia, as well as one each in Finland, Sweden, Kazakhstan, German and the Netherlands. Cold countries only can apply to host a round, and the racing season goes from December to March.
Russia has won all but three championships since 1979, though a couple of countries have challenged its dominance. Years ago, some of the ice speedway greats came from the Czech Republic (Milan Spinka and the Svab family). Others came from Austria, and even France had some top riders, such as Michel Masnada, Pierre Blocquel – both of whom were completely unknown in their home country despite the fact that the French Winter Olympics city of Grenoble has its own ice speedway track.
On the other side of the world, a similar racing series has existed for the last three decades in the USA, but it is not recognised by the FIM; the Ice Speedway Gladiators series is. All of which just shows that the real thing is in Russia, period.
Flat out, no brakes!
Ice speedway is the sheer essence of racing: flat out, no brakes. But lots of spikes – 120 on the 23-inch front tyre, and from 160 to 200 at the back, depending on the track. This turns one of the slippiest surfaces into one of the grippiest. The spikes are 28mm long and every one is sharpened by hand, just like in the good old days of crafted cutlery.
Ice speedway is all about intensity. Rounds are extremely short with four-lap races that only last for one minute. Riders go around the oval between 13 and 16 seconds a lap, travelling at speeds above 100km/h in the corners and 140km/h on the short straights. The tracks all look the same and the bikes lean in only one direction – they always go around anti-clockwise – so the tires and nails are prepared accordingly.
To survive such a frantic series, riders adopt a ‘race or die’ attitude – for good reason the series is called Ice Speedway Gladiators. Each round takes place over two days and consists of at least 20 heats per day, plus a semi-final and final, so the show is also intense for the spectators. For the racers, due to the short format, the key is to lean first onto the first corner and get the holeshot, to secure their own line.
Unlike summer speedway where the bikes drift sideways on a gravel surface, ice speedway bikes lean over at angles even more extreme than MotoGP, sometimes over 65°. Nevermind getting a knee or elbow down – sometimes the handlebar even hits the ice while cornering.
The word ‘gladiators’ has a bit of a timeless feel, and this definitely applies to the bikes. The 500cc, four-stroke, two-valve singles do not look very sophisticated and in this case appearances are not deceiving. They haven’t been developed for decades, except for the state-of-the-art front fork which plays a major part in the overall performance. That compensates for the rigid frame and the lack of rear suspension.
The engines are all made by Czech manufacturer Jawa and are long-stroke singles with a high compression ratio. They are estimated to deliver just over 40kW and use a two-speed gearbox. Carburation is limited to a 34mm port. There are no electronics and if racers are happy to do power wheelies to add excitement to the show, they can also suffer from highsides! KTM tried to develop a four-valve 450cc single, but the power delivery was not felt to be as satisfying as the Jawa, since two-valve engines provide more torque and smoother throttle response, better for adjusting speed in corners. Italian company GM also made an engine, but Jawa remains the favourite.
The gladiators name also applies to the riding gear: ice speedway racers used to wear a medieval-like coat of mail under their leathers, and once again no innovation took place for decades until French company Furygan formed a partnership with Daniil Ivanov to develop new materials. Despite protective mudguards on the bikes, safety is taken seriously by the riders. In the past, they added knee protection by cutting off part of a car tyre, but now they use hard plastic and Kevlar. However, they still get injured. True gladiators!
There is a movie about ice speedway, called Icy Riders. You can watch a seven-minute trailer on Youtube, or visit www.choppertwon.com to purchase the 66-minute movie.
Ice vs gravel
How would a regular speedway rider adapt to ice speedway? Mikkel B Jensen gave it a go and came to a simple verdict: “So f*cking crazy!” Check out the video on YouTube by searching for “Mikkel B Jensen & Franz Zorn”.
WORDS PHILIPPE GUILLAUME
PHOTOGRAPHY DAVID REYGONDEAU