Ice Racing - Going to extremes

Spiked tyres, sub-zero temperatures, exotic facial hair and home-made armour - this ice racing is snow joke

To say that today is a cold day would be something of an understatement. 'Cold' just doesn't do this weather any justice. Not at all. It's more of a frigid haze, a gelid snowscape. The outside temperature gauge in the car reads -28ºC. It's unwise even to go outside in these conditions. And that's borne out by the deserted service stations and dormant villages that punctuate our route along the ice-bound highway leading us to the frozen port town of Sundsvall, perched on the edge of the arctic tundra that is northern Sweden in December.

As we stop for a coffee in the centre of the town, I ponder what my priorities would be if I lived here. I'd probably want to keep warm, first and foremost. And I'd make sure to eat lots of rich food to build up a nice layer of fat. And I'd have lots of hot drinks, and watch a lot of telly. Then I think about what would be at the bottom of my list of priorities. Easy. Riding motorcycles. What kind of people would want to do that? In Sweden? In deep winter? Well, I'm here to find out, and the answer's simple. Swedes. Really mad ones.

And just riding bikes isn't enough. These Swedes like to race their motorcycles, speedway-style, on ice. If you fancy yourself as something of a speed demon or a trackday hero, prepare to be belittled. Ice racing is most definitely not for the faint-hearted. You need a certain degree of valour just to be a spectator.

"Welcome to the world's most dangerous sport," grimaces Lukas Lundkvist from beneath his rufty-tufty moustache. He may be the organiser of this very low-key local event, but judging from the scar which snakes through the stubble on the left side of his face, I suspect that Lukas may have some personal experience of this particular sporting pastime.

Those with an interest in no-frills, high-octane motorsport need look no further. Here's the scene: an ice track within a snowbound industrial estate; some vans; some scary-looking motorcycles with 28mm spikes sticking out of their tyres; a bunch of even scarier-looking people wearing battered motorcycle leathers, home-made steel chest plates and sundry items of ice-hockey armour; an ambulance. And that's about it. No sponsorship, no bar, no hospitality area. Just a couple of officials in fluorescent bibs on hand in case someone gets killed.

Just by walking around the hastily arranged paddock, I can tell that this ice racing lark is going to be a raw spectacle. Although I haven't yet seen one of the evil-looking motorcycles turn a wheel, I can just tell that they're probably downright bastards to ride. They're the motorcycling equivalent of a featherweight boxer. The looks of a pre-pubescent lad, coupled with a right hook that could smash your face in half. Eek. Ulf Engenström, the number 12 rider racing for the JMK Östersund team, shows me around his bike.

Like the other 19 machines set out beside the track, it's a Czech-built Jawa with two gears and a 500cc four-stroke, single cylinder engine putting out around 60bhp. This may not sound very impressive, but bear in mind that the bike weighs about as much as a bag of crisps so getting from 0 to 50mph takes just two seconds.

On ice. Running on pure methanol, the machine emits a howling cacophony somewhat akin to losing your wristwatch down the waste disposal unit. And it smells like a slow, gaseous death. In short, Ulf's Jawa, like the others, is little more than a bicycle attached to an unexploded bomb. "Think of the bomb exploding," he tells me, "and that's a fair description of the performance."

As if that wasn't enough for the riders to deal with, let's turn our attention to the brakes. But, just as in normal speedway, these bikes don't have any. It all sounds like a recipe for disaster. "Yes, it's definitely dangerous," opines Njurunda MK team rider and Sweden's only female ice racer, Helena Nordberg, "but the tyre spikes ensure that you won't fall off. Crashing into someone else, of course, is a different matter. Then you don't want to be anywhere near the spikes." And with that she's off to join the other riders as they gather around chief referee Hans Tjärnlund for a track briefing before the racing starts. After lining-up and being introduced to the 200-strong crowd, Gladiator-style, it's back to the pit area for the first four bikes to ready themselves for the first heat.

In the moments before the racing begins, event announcer and ice racing scenester Tord Lundgren quickly takes me through the history of the sport. Briefly, ice racing is a pure Swedish motorsport as it was invented here in 1932. It was then exported to Russia in 1960. The Swedes are loath to talk about it, but the Russians are now the best ice racers in the world. Tord coughs a bit and hastily moves on to today's schedule. There are 20 riders and 22 heats.

Four riders compete in each four-lap race. Everyone gets to race everyone else. The winners of each heat score points. The three top scorers go straight to the 'A' final. The next four high-scorers go to the 'B' final, the winner of which goes to the 'A' final. Simple. And the final winner goes home with nothing but the glory of victory and a set of flowery bed linen provided by a local sponsor. Risking life and limb for sheets and pillowcases. Make of that what you will. Wouldn't going to John Lewis be easier, and safer?

But I'm here to observe, not to understand. And now the racing has begun. In effect it's won on the start and the first corner; the leader simply puts as much distance between himself and the other three riders for the next three-and-a-half laps before claiming victory. Racing anti-clockwise, the corners are taken so flat that the left handlebar ends touch down on the ice with the riders' heavily armoured left legs following suit. Each race is over in a matter of seconds. It's a thrilling, totally bonkers spectacle.

"On the starts, it's very important to put your weight as much over the front wheel as possible. Otherwise the bike will flip backwards right away," warns Helena Nordberg. And this isn't just theory. Injuries in ice racing are frequent and severe. Broken collarbones are the most common injury, but the spikes in the wheels cause the most damage. "Last year I broke my foot on the right footpeg when I crashed into the wall on the outside of a corner," reminisces rider Tobias Åstrom. "But it was worse when the same foot got punctured by the spikes when the wheel went over me in a crash with another rider." And with that he prepares for his upcoming race.

Those spikes are all part of the attraction for the spectators. "I like all motorsport, but it's just great to see some with big spikes on the wheels," grins Einar Gustaffson from the crowd. "For me, it is the main attraction of ice racing." What he really means is he'd like to see a grisly accident take place. Secretly, so would I. They're a lovely bunch, but just imagine the carnage that would ensue if one of the riders fell off and into the oncoming spikes of another. The blood, the splintered bone. Happily for the ice racers though, today's death toll remains at nil. Oh well, maybe next time...

But my bloodlust is to take a sudden and dramatic volte-face. For in the few minutes between the first and second heats it is suggested by Tord Lundgren that, as a foreign member of the motorcycle press, it would be the done thing for me to 'have a go'. Oh, horror of horrors. I would rather stick knitting needles in my eyeballs than ride one of these terrible Jawas on ice. But Helena Nordberg has already offered me her bike, helmet and armour to try out after the racing has ended. I politely decline and decide to studiously avoid Helena for the rest of the day.

Then I will get in my rented Ford Focus, drive to the airport, fly back to England and never see any of these people again. Yes, that sounds like a good plan. So I spend the next couple of hours engaging in furrowed conversation with some of the other riders. In between frantic bouts of engine fettling, Ulf Engenström confides that his desire to win is overpowering. As a privateer, like his fellow competitors, Ulf sees today as practice for the World Championships, which are the only opportunity to gain recognition and, more importantly, some money from this sport. But Ulf is well on his way. He goes on to win the 'A' final. He'll return home a happy man.

I just want to return home an alive man. And that looks likely. By the time the racing has wound up and the winners are clutching their bed linens, it looks like I may have gotten away with not having to ride an ice bike. So I nod my farewells and head discreetly for the car park. But my relief is to remain short-lived. Tord and Helena haven't forgotten their offer, and are most keen for me to take them up on it. After being gently manhandled back to the paddock, I am affixed to some flimsy leg armour and find myself perched atop Helena's Jawa which, strangely, is decorated with little sperms.

Within moments I have been pushed to the start line. And then it gets worse. An announcement comes over the PA that a 'Britisher' will be attempting to complete a few circuits of the track, and that maybe the crowd would like to stick around to watch. Oh joy.

With a hefty shove from one of those machines used to spin the rear wheel into life on race bikes the world over, the Jawa shrieks into life. Now is my moment. Or not. For I have stalled in front of 200 expectant Swedes. Shit.

Tord has a quick word in my ear. Unlike most motorcycles, he tells me, an ice bike does not idle. You're either on the gas, or you're not. Also, I shouldn't be afraid, as the spiked tyres give this machine considerably more grip than a standard road bike. So, taking all this on board, I grab a handful of throttle on my next start and quickly find myself hurtling along the ice, totally out of control.

With the first corner fast approaching I reach for the brake lever, only to remember that there isn't one. I try to change down a gear but there are only two, and I don't know which one I'm in. With no confidence in the cornering capabilities of the Jawa and an acute sense of being alone on a motorcycle on an ice rink, I ease off the throttle, drag my snow-booted feet along the ground to brake, and then resume acceleration on the next straight. Approaching speeds of up to 20mph, I follow the same procedure for the next corner. Two trouser-browning laps later and I've had enough. After letting the bike stall I drop it 30 feet past the start line and walk hastily back to the paddock area. Fun? No. A buttock clenching embarrassment? Oh, most definitely yes.

But they're nice people, these Swedes. The crowd applaud politely and the attendant ice racers tell me how brave I am.

That's nice, but I think I'll leave them to it. They'll have plenty more opportunities to dice with death and return home with a set of bed linen once I'm gone. According to Tord Lundgren, the sporting spirit within ice racing is the product of traditional Swedish lore.

"Ice bikes are the new Viking steeds," he says proudly as the racers pack up their vans. I nod sagely, although I have no idea what Tord is on about. All I do know is that from now on, I'll be spending my winters indoors.