A Primer on Two-Wheel Winter Activities

Thrills for Chills

Winter month activities
When the winter months loom, you have to find activities to get that two-wheel fix.Cruiser

When you're a hard-core motorcycle rider, winter can really suck, especially if you inhabit a climate where snow, ice and single-digit temperatures are the norm. Where I live, in southwestern Connecticut, things normally don't get too bad until right around Christmas. As long as the roads stay dry, those of us who really want to ride bundle up, keep one eye on the forecast and plan most of our rides as short hops from one diner to the next.

Once winter sets in and the snow starts to accumulate, most bikes come off the road. Between the cold, slippery road conditions and salt that the state and town road crews slather all over the place, it’s just not much fun to ride.

Most of the guys tend to spend cold months holed up in their shops working on a project or parked in front of the tube watching On Any Sunday for the umpteenth time, with maybe the odd run around the block on a really nice day. But not all of us turn into chronic couch potatoes. Some guys, myself included, go to great lengths to stay on two wheels, even if it means riding in less-than-ideal conditions.

Indoor shorttrack races during the winter
There are bound to be indoor shorttrack races around the area that can satisfy your craving during the winter.Photo Courtesy of Mark Zimmerman

Indoor Shorttrack Racing
Most of us are familiar with supercross and Arenacross—MX races held in large stadiums. I suppose they could be construed as a form of indoor racing, but in my book a real indoor race is one that takes place on a 1/10-mile (or less) concrete or dirt-floored arena with flattrack bikes.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with dirttrack racing, let me give you a quick tutorial on the basics. American-style dirt or flattrack (the terms are interchangeable) takes place on dirt ovals that vary from a quarter mile to a mile in circumference. The quarter-mile tracks are called “shorttracks,” while the larger tracks are described by their size. The bikes range from tiny, 50cc automatic minis to thundering, 1000cc V-twins. Most amateur races take place on shorttracks, with a variety of modified MX bikes and purpose-built racers being employed for the job. Like a NASCAR track, all turning is to the left, and racers slide their bikes through turns using their left leg and a steel shoe to maintain balance. Oh yeah, no front brakes are allowed.

I’m not sure who first decided that riding a dirttrack bike indoors on a polished concrete floor was a good idea, but I do know they were doing it in San Francisco’s Cow Palace in the early ’60s and in NYC’s Madison Square Garden in the early ’70s. The format used then remains much the same today.

While some venues use dirt, the majority of indoor racing takes place on a concrete floor. Typically, the floor gets burnished by rubber coming off bike tires, which provides some traction, although a few promoters like to speed up the action by coating the surface with Coke syrup—yep, the stuff you drink. The syrup provides an extremely tacky surface, so lean angles become unreal, and because the track is so short, the really fast guys can lay their bikes over until the clutch levers touch the tires that mark the inner circumference of the track.

Occasionally, someone will crash and spill coolant or gasoline on the track, which ruins the racing surface. A quick fix requires that the damaged area be covered in powdered sugar, after which racing resumes. When you do a face-plant in the stuff (and I have), you get up looking, and presumably tasting, like a powdered doughnut. Indoor shorttrack racing was once described to me as a knife fight with motorcycles. Having spent a fair number of winters racing indoor shorttrack, I’d say that’s a pretty fair description. The action is fast and furious, with a good amount of physical contact, which makes it a big hit with spectators. The tracks are so short—a 100-foot straightaway is considered long—and the turns so tight that there isn’t much room for faster bikes to pass. Successful riders learn to “bump and run,” which entails shoving the other rider out of the way with your bike or body to get by. The kids on their 50cc bikes are cute, but the fast guys on the 450s are the real show. AMA pros mix it up with the local hot shoes at these events and don’t always come out on top. As for me, well my racing days are just about over, so don’t look for my #9z ATK at this year’s Middletown, New York, Thunderdome series. But if you see a guy in a watch cap leaning on the pit wall, smoking a cheap cigar and drinking a beer, come on over and say hello.

Mark Zimmerman Ice Racing
Time flies when you're flyin': The author dug deep into the photo archives for shots of his winter glory days.Photo Courtesy of Mark Zimmerman
Mark Zimmerman Ice Racing
Winter didn't hold this author down.Photo Courtesy of Mark Zimmerman

Ice Racing
When most of us think of ice racing, we generally imagine speedway-style bikes running huge, 3-inch-long spikes—the kind commonly associated with various forms of medieval torture. Those bikes and the guys who ride them can be mean SOBs, especially if they're tattooing your backside while you're sprawled on the ice. But the more-common ice setup in the U.S. is a hex-headed sheetmetal-type screw threaded into special ice tires—they can tear you up, but chances are a few stitches and some new leathers are all you'll need to get back on the track.

In New England, you’ll see mostly shorttrack-type races. As soon as good ice sets in, a flat area is cleared on a pond or lake. Some riders may bring dedicated ice bikes, but many use a standard flattracker or lowered MX bike.

Most guys install their screws into purpose-built ice tires. Spooning one of those bad boys onto the rim isn’t much fun. A liner has to be installed between the tube and tire just in case one of the screws goes in a little deeper than it’s supposed to, which can make them hell to mount.

Rules also require fenders that cover the tire to the axle, to protect you and your fellow riders. Bucks-up guys with good electrical systems can install hand warmers as a finishing touch. I understand that in the Midwest they run Scrambles-type ice racing with both left and right turns (which requires front brakes) and that in Europe they run regular road races on the ice, but out here we just go roundy-round. As with any dirttrack-type event, the riders qualify through a series of heats (no pun intended) before reaching the main event. Like indoor racing, the action is torrid, though riders generally give each other a little more racing room. After all, the track is larger, and there are those pesky screws to worry about if you get tangled up. But just watching the bikes back into the turns and then wheelie out is worth the price of admission. In some places you can watch the action from the comfort of your car; in others you’ll be standing trackside, so be sure to dress appropriately. There are even some ice races that take place indoors (those run under the I.C.E. sanction, for example, which use speedway bikes and spikes) and, yeah, there’s always some sort of snack bar.

In truth, I’m not much for formal ice racing. I’m too lazy to mount up the tires, much less install a set of wrap-around fenders. What I prefer to do is stud up the tires on my trail bike and go chase snowmobiles and ATVs on the lake—something you might consider if you own an appropriate bike.

Winter activities
Look for events like the Ramapo Motorcycle Club's annual Crotona Midnight Run.Illustration by Doug Fraser

The Midnight Run
Obviously not everyone has an interest in races. Some guys just won't give up road riding under any circumstances and take perverse pleasure in riding under the most adverse conditions. A lot of those guys, myself included, make it a point to ride the Ramapo Motorcycle Club's annual Crotona Midnight Run—an event that, as the name implies, takes place at midnight. So what's the big deal about riding at night? Well, my friend, this is a timed road run, and it takes place in February.

Starting and ending in Yonkers, New York, the Crotona Midnight Run is an event peculiar to the New York City area. Out of curiosity, I did an Internet search and couldn’t come up with a single other late-night winter ride, although there were a few that took place on New Year’s Day. The one in Indiana and the one in Minnesota must surely rival the Midnight Run in terms of chill factor, though in my experience 20 degrees always seems colder at three in the morning than it does at noon.

The first Midnight Run took place on New Year’s Eve of 1911 and has been run more or less annually ever since. In 1999 the Ramapo Motorcycle Club took over the run, and they’ve been doing a bang-up job since. But the Midnight Run isn’t for everyone—you’ve got to have a screw loose to ride a timed road run, at night, in February, through the wilds of New York. That said, when the club tried to promote a summer midnight run, only five guys showed up. I guess a balmy night ride just isn’t challenging enough.

By its nature, the Midnight Run isn’t big with spectators, although a few old-timers, some who look old enough to have ridden in the seminal event, will be there to see you off. After all, it’s basically just another timed road run—an event that, in my opinion, is about as exciting to watch as golf. However, riders come from all over the map to experience it. I’ve seen bikes trailered from Maine and the Midwest, and one year a hardy soul rode his bike in from Virginia. After completing the run, he turned right around and headed home. If you’re considering participating, you’ll need a reliable, comfortable bike, good riding gear and the ability to follow a route sheet. It’s not an event that should be taken lightly, but it’s certainly doable. All finishers receive an award, so at least you’ll have a goal to work toward. If you decide to try it, be sure to look me up.

Winter activities for motorcyclists
Now, are you going to let winter hold you down or are you going to get out there and find some two-wheeled activities?Photo Courtesy of Mark Zimmerman