Entries for Sideburn Magazine’s now annual ice racing extravaganza, Snow Quake, opened and my heart sank a little. Despite an entire autumn and half a winter of procrastination neither of my 2017 race bikes were ready for the DTRA season, let alone ripe for converting into spiked tyred buzz saws.
Thankfully the good people at Yamaha seemed to have forgotten about my previous outings on the Di Traverso prepared SR400 flattrackers. I haven’t, two of my ribs still twinge most days. An invite arrived to race one in the Italian Alps a few weeks later, a smug smile lasted most of the day but behind it was trepidation and as the date neared I became quite nervous. I’m very, very bored of hospitals and my last visit to an Italian A&E wasn’t a great experience. In my mind crashing on the hard ice was a forgone conclusion. I even had some SR400 clutch levers in my eBay watch list.
I’m also frightened of the cold, maybe less than sharks but not far behind. Give me 50 degrees and a sand dune any day, despite the illusion of Celticness emanating from my vibrant brown facial hair I was in fact born in the middle of the Arabian desert and struggle in a sub 20 Celsius climate.
Shopkeep helped the nerves by issuing me with a pair of Goldtop sheepskin gauntlets to test. These things are so thick and warm you could scoop salmon from a frozen stream and think it was bath water. All the thermals I own were packed into a massive case (thanks easyJet for destroying that on the first outing) and I set off with team Debolex Engineering for an icy adventure.
I must admit I was slightly envious of Calum when he rolled his Debolex Husqvarna 701 out of a fellow competitor’s van. (Big thanks to Jason Cursley who lugged bikes and gear to Italy while we flew in like rock stars). But then I clapped eyes on the lineup of faithful Yamaha SRs and felt relaxed.
Previous outings on a volcano in Fuerteventura and the El Rollo flattrack race at Wheels & Waves resulted in lots of pain and flushed cheeks due to overriding the little 24hp single. The Di Traverso flattrack school run by 2008 European Flattrack Champion Marco Belli uses these SR400s to teach fresh novices the ways of going fast and turning left. With big wide bars and a lazy motor surprises are rare and control easy. This time I was to remember that and not try too hard. In experienced hands these can be hustled at impressive speeds but being new to spiked tyres and riding on hardpacked ice I had a quiet word with myself and aimed for a day without injury or unnecessary excitement.
Marco’s team had screwed Kold Kutters into each knob of a pair of motocross tyres front and back but other riders seemed to have triple or quadruple the number of spikes. Some bikes had hundreds of wood screws wound through their tyre’s carcasses and resembled something from a Mad Max props department. The first lap would be a tiptoe into unknown territory.
As with most things in life fear passes quickly to be replaced by other emotions. In this case surprise and elation. The front end gripped unbelievably well allowing for a few attempts to back-it-in to the lefts and rights. The latter is completely alien to me but the nimble and underpowered Yam boosted confidence with every lap. After a few practice sessions I stopped using the brake on all but one corner (a front was fitted but my fingers are now trained to stay well away from that lever) and instead scrubbed excess pace with a bit of lean angle.
I’m used to a Venhill speedway throttle which on the short setting which gives about 70 degrees from closed to open, leaving the other 290 dormant. The SR was the other way around so coming out of corners my brain sent a signal to the right wrist for maximum power, only for the fuel injected engine to receive a telegram saying that someone’s grandma was at the controls. The Goldtop gauntlets added further traction control by virtue of their thickness but did keep me super toasty.
Toes were numb from the outset so pedal feel on the back brake was non existent and my TCX Comp Evo boots didn’t marry well with the smooth and stubby alloy footpegs, I like a razor sharp, bear trap style peg on the outside leg if sliding is happening. This led to a few “oh shit, here we go” moments as I had no option left but to try and grip racefoam with my ass cheeks to avoid my specialty manoeuvre, the highside.
2nd gear seemed good enough everywhere apart from 1st at the start, 3rd was occasionally hooked on the back straight but there wasn’t much to be gained over leaving it in 2nd and resting on the limiter for a couple of seconds.
All-in-all I was pleased with my new found maturity and the red mist only appeared twice, briefly. Two fourth places in the heats and 3rd in the B final was good enough for me to leave the track happy. In fact it took a few moments to realise that enjoying a pain-free beer after a race is actually on par with winning.
A breather between heats and the finals gave the chance to lean on a snowbank and watch some fast guys and awesome machinery flash by. Ex-WSBK racer Giovanni Bussai (sporting the most outrageous leathers I’ve seen in a long time) and Tom Clemans were in a different league making me wince every time they flicked from right to left threading a tight line passed the cheering crowds. Last year’s winner and event favourite George Pickering suffered rotten luck, his KTM beachracer melted its loom and shat a battery during practice. I came passed to see him frantically shovelling snow at the stricken machine, my brain told me to pull over and help but I was in the middle of dancing the crash knife edge and ran out of capacity to change my course. All that way nearly for seemingly for nothing until the aforementioned philanthropist Jason lent George a Honda XR75 for the rest of the meeting.
Jason has exhibited a couple of his bikes at the Shed and he’s a man of good taste. The XR was just a backup bike. The main course was a wonderfully patinated Husqvarna 400 Cross, fresh from a museum in America. Not just any Husky, this was Steve McQueen’s own bike that he rode in the final scene of On Any Sunday. It wasn’t running properly so Jason picked up a carburettor on his way through France and hoped for the best. We tipped the iconic machine upside down and drained manky fuel from the crankcase before Jason set to work fitting the new eBay purchase. The -7 degree morning wouldn’t hold the Husky back, it crackled into life and smelt fantastic. Spilt fuel nearly completely erased Steve’s son Chad’s autograph from the fuel tank but Jason didn’t care, he was here to race.
The array of equipment converted for the event was something to behold. If like me you’re a fan of anything off-road-ish from the 1960s to 1980s then you’d have been in heaven. There were a good few Moto Guzzis, two of which got me hot under the collar. First was a round barrel 850 motor in what looked to be a V65TT chassis which went very well but the prize for loudest and sweetest soundtrack goes to the man on a twin cylinder two-stroke. It puked smoke and sounded like a cross between a Honda RC149 and a Mazda 787 Group C racer. In fact two-strokes seemed a popular choice. Being a Cagiva fan I fell in love with a Cagiva SXT250 and it’s rider who sported a splendid matching outfit. Even the Di Traverso guys had a ‘stroker, a Cagiva Super City had given up on life so it’s still beating heart was grafted into a go-kart, with spiked tyres of course.
The Brit contingent were out in force flying the flag for Rotax framers, Brad Hardman went well on his Champion twinshock and Leah Tokelove came passed me like I was standing still on DTRA organiser and racer Anthony Brown’s Co-Built. Clemans though was out for blood, proving that his homemade XT600 framer was more than competitive, battling hard with Bussai aboard a very agricultural looking Honda CR500.
Gary Inman, Sideburn’s editor, the instigator of this whole carnival, earned respect from everyone in attendance. His 25 year old Harley Sportster rolled out of the Survivor Customs workshops near Newcastle wearing spare wheel racks and spike protectors fore and aft. Gary then rode all the way to the Ice Rosa Ring on a pair of Maxxis DTR flattrack tyres and despite the mercury dropping to -14 he arrived chipper and ready to race, once he’d swapped to a pair studded 19 inchers.
I wasn’t at the first Snow Quake and I gather that it’s now bigger and the grids sell out in a few hours but for me it was perfect. The camaraderie in flattrack circles is legendary and Snow Quake was no different with loads of friends, familiar faces and welcoming new ones. Deus Italy co-sponsored the event and turned up with the best wintery hospitality possible. Vin brûlée and goulash bubbled above open fires while competitors and spectators were saved from frostbite by flaming, log filled oil drums.
Entertaining the crowds between racing was Luca Viglio from Half-Mag & Deus Café who was giving sideways passenger rides in his Alpine Renault A110. I couldn’t take my eyes off the thing broadsiding around the tight track and later in the day was lucky enough to get a go, once I’d shoehorned my clumsy frame into the very tight cockpit. What a hoot! Luca giving a running commentary explaining that it’s impossible to make it around the course unless maximum oversteer is achieved.
Snow Quake for me summed up what is great about motorcycles. It reminded me of being a teenager, swilling cider and trying to go fast and sideways on inappropriate bikes, cobbling damage together with MacGyver bodges whilst giggling with my mates. Decades later and I can’t think of anything I’d rather spend my time doing.
Thanks to Tom Bing Photography for these proper images. Get in touch as he took loads more and is planning a limited print run.
Here’s a selection of iPhone snaps I took between races, click to enlarge. There’s a good reason I don’t own a camera, sorry.
2018 ENTRIES HERE