Oval Ice Racing: The rules of the race with Rocky Mountain House

The adrenalin rush from studded tires ripping across a frozen lake makes the cold worth it for these riders

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A group of ice riders out on the track.

Oval ice races are run in heats of six laps. A lap takes the adult classes about 17 seconds to complete. — Photo courtesy Beth Reed

Three years ago, Brian Roberts bought his first dirt bike. At the time, he didn’t know much about the sport. “I didn’t realize what a bike could do or where it could go,” he said. “Most of what I’ve learned has just been from meeting people in the community.”

Shortly after buying his bike, Roberts bought a set of ice tires on Kijiji thinking he could leisurely ride on the river in the winter. When he picked up the studded tires, Roberts was introduced to oval ice racing. “That sparked my interest to learn about it,” he said. “The next season I had a bike set up and started racing.” Now, Roberts is the president of the Rocky Motorcycle Club based out of Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. He and his wife, Stacey, organize the oval ice races in the winter months.

The ice racing season starts mid-January. Local riding clubs organize races across Canada. Roberts will be racing most of the upcoming weekends, including races at Cow Lake, Gull Lake and Sylvan Lake. The season ends with the Winter Festival of Speed at Lac La Biche. “We were invited there with a few other winter sports hobbyists to race a day up there,” he said. As the national and final race of the season, the pressure is on and there will be cash prizes for each division.


The rules of the race

Roberts calls the track “The Oval.” Races are organized by age, skill and style of machine. Ice bikes line up against ice bikes, while the quads and side-by- sides stick together. Roberts' club is currently looking to promote youth races to nearby families. His own kids race a quad, but these divisions are not nearly as full as the adult levels.

As for the machines themselves, they are all custom built. ATVs don’t need studded tires like the bikes do. Both rides need a tethered kill because the throttle can freeze open while racing in the cold. Bikes require guards on their front and rear tires, and racers wear chest protectors and helmets at a minimum. As for ice tires, Rocky Club racers run Fournier tires custom made in Quebec.

Quads don't need ice tires to race. They don't get up to speeds as high as the bikes.

Quads don't need ice tires to race. They don't get up to speeds as high as the bikes. — Photo courtesy Beth Reed

When your equipment is ready to go, it’s time to hit the ice. Each race is six laps of the oval. “It’s a sprint from flag drop to checkered flag," said Roberts. "Full throttle, corner, full throttle—as fast as you can go.” His division runs about 17 second per lap. An RMCP officer brought his radar gun to a recent race. He clocked the bikes at 115 kilometres per hour at the end of their corners, and the quads at 85 kilometres per hour on their straight stretches. “That’s why it takes tires with lots of traction—the pace is incredible,” Roberts said. 

Roberts races a bike his community has coined “The Yamazilla,” a Yamaha YZ450F. His kids ride ice race on a quad: a Yamaha 700 Raptor.


Join the hearty crew of ice racers

When asked if he has any tips for first-timers, Roberts said, “Just get out and do it!” Equipping your machine is the trickiest part, but those who race already are eager to help others get into the sport. Choosing to race a quad is the less expensive route for those who have never tried before. “If you’re entry level and just want to get into it, you can show up on your quad with a tethered kill installed to race. It’s a good way to get into it,” said Roberts. Some of his club members also share bikes between them so everyone gets a chance to ride. Roberts' own bikes are racing in almost every category this season. “We’ll get you racing!” he said. 

Brian's two ice bikes are racing in almost every category this winter.

Brian Roberts' two ice bikes are racing in almost every category this winter. — Photo courtesy Beth Reed

Roberts said it takes an interesting individual to want to ice race, but everyone who tries is immediately hooked. “It’s neat to watch these people become hooked after they ride. If you take that step to try, you’re probably into it,” Roberts said. “I’ve yet to see someone disappointed.” Everyone who tries becomes a part of the hearty crew of racers that feel more like family than friends.

Even spectators leave happy—and warm, despite popular belief. The oval is plowed to allow for viewing from the warmth of your vehicle in a larger loop around the track. An announcer broadcasts the race on FM radio. “It’s always a day of smiles from riders and spectators,” Roberts said.

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