There’s more to ice racing than skating

Edition 22 March 2018, by John Mahnen

The images of Olympic skating Gold in Korea have begun to fade. The memories of frozen canals and ponds are barely thawed. We also did a fair bit of slipping and sliding on the bike paths and motorways during our recent Siberian weather period. Imagine gunning the throttles of a motorbike around and ice-laden oval. Sound crazy? Perhaps, but it is precisely what is on offer in April.

For the second year in a row, the Thialf ice stadium in Heerenveen will be the venue for the last Ice Speedway World Championship Final of the season. On Friday 6, Saturday 7 and Sunday 8 April the ice gladiators and their teams will return to the Thialf Arena. On Friday evening riders from a range of countries will fight for the coveted Roelof Thijs Cup, after which the best riders of the world will take over and claim their spot in the final ranking of the World Championship 2018 on Saturday and Sunday. Ice Speedway is a form of motorcycle speedway racing, featuring racing on frozen surfaces. If you are scratching you head trying to conjure up an image of speedway, you may have seen it on Eurosport with motorbikes hurtling around a dirt oval, the drivers taking the sharp bends with their front tires counterpoised, powersliding through the turns.

The sport features motorcycles which are purposed for the icy surface. The bikes race counterclockwise around oval tracks between 260 and 425 metres in length. The race structure and scoring are similar to that in speedway meaning four machines fighting for the win through four laps around the oval. The bikes bear a passing resemblance to those used for speedway but have a longer wheelbase and a more rigid frame. As with speedway, the bikes do not have brakes. The engines used are mostly Jawa, a Czech 500cc one-cylinder motor that generates some 55 horsepower on methanol. The sport is divided into classes for full-rubber and studded tires. The racing in Heerenveen will be on studded tires. The studded tire category involves competitors riding on bikes with spikes up to 3 centimeters in length screwed into each treadless tire. The use of these spikes in this discipline necessitate the addition of special protective guards (similar to mudguards) over the wheels which extend almost to the ice surface.

The spiked tires produce a tremendous amount of traction and this means two-speed gearboxes are also required. The use of spikes on the tires makes the sport more dangerous with fallen riders running the risk of being run over by other bikes. Needless to say, a bit of ice water in the veins of the riders is rather useful. Since the riding style required for studded ice racing is different from that used in the other track racing disciplines, riders from this sport rarely participate in speedway or its other variants and vice versa. In the studded tire class there is no powersliding around the bends due to the grip produced by the spikes digging into the ice. Instead, riders lean their bikes into the bends at an angle where the handlebars just skim the track surface. Speeds approach 130 km/h on the straights, and 100 km/h on the bends. The safety barrier usually consists of straw bales or banked-up snow and ice around the outer edge of the track.

The Netherlands is by no means the Walhalla of Ice Speedway racing. The majority of Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme sanctioned team and individual meetings are held in Russia, Sweden and Finland, but events are also held in the Czech Republic, Germany and on the weekend of 5-8 April in the Netherlands. Countries that dominated and won the majority of titles in Individual Ice Racing World Championship (held since 1966) and Team Ice Racing World Championship (held since 1979) were the USSR and since 1991, Russia. Being a winter sport, ice speedway is mostly popular in the northern/north-eastern half of Europe and North America. Notable drivers include Sweden’s Per-Olof Serenius, multiple world champion with 22 Swedish championships to his credit and Russia’s Nikolai Krasnikov, also a multiple world champion (2005– 2011).

For the World Championship in Heerenveen, 13 of the finalists are already known and the rest will be nominated soon by the FIM. So far, five Russians, four Swedes, two Austrians a German and Czech are holders of a ticket for the finals. Unfortunately, no Dutch riders have yet qualified although Jasper Iwema has come awfully close. For Iwema, the one available wildcard slot may offer him a place on the start. All in all, the action and sheer spectacle offer a very good reason for a visit to Friesland.