It was about 20 years ago that I accepted my buddy Jim Hovanec’s invitation to head over to Cayuta Lake to watch Jim and a few of his friends race their motorcycles.
At about 50 miles-per-hour… sideways… on the ice.
The Cayuta Lake winter scene was crazy back then, and the myriad of activities drew a sizeable crowd week after week. Ice fishing, snowmobile drag races, motorcycle racing, car racing (that were more like a demolition derbies) an occasional plane landing on the ice, food vendors, several restaurants in the area. It was a lively scene, and then some disagreements ensued about whether the lake was the property of New York State, and if so, who would be liable for any injuries. The end result was, according to Jim, another case of the government sticking its nose into peoples’ lives and screwing things up.
The resilient riders would find other places to go sideways, and I recently saw a new photo of Jim in mid-slide. I reached out, he told me he is still racing on virtually every weekend the ice is thick enough, and I laughed and reminded him that when I did that story two decades ago, I teased him a little that a guy his age would be doing something so potentially dangerous. Jim scratched his head and it was clear that such a thought had never crossed his mind.
Twenty years ago, the races sounded like a chorus of chainsaws, as everyone was running two-stroke, 250cc bikes. Now, four-stroke 450s are the norm, and given some of the tracks are but a tenth-of-a-mile long, it takes but a few seconds to get the bikes up to 45 to 50 mph, and the riders spend most of their time in a (hopefully) controlled power-slide.
“It’s fairly safe, given there are no guard-rails, no trees, no oncoming traffic,” Hovanec told me. “If you go down and slide, you’re likely to just hit a snowbank.”
I thought back to the time when Jim owned the Ducati dealership on Danby Road in the 1990’s, and I knew that he had been riding for many years prior to that. I asked him how many motorcycles he has now, and he started to give me a number, and then his wife, Marge, walked into the room. Ever the nimble navigator, Jim adjusted on the fly, gave me a different number, and avoided the figurative high-side rollover.
He said, “Well, I have seven or eight, including my Honda CRF 450 I race on the ice, some collectors’ bikes like my Gold Wing, and my KTM road racing bike.”
I recalled that back in the day, the ice racers would get sheet metal screws and affix them to their knobby tires for added traction. Now, Jim offered, “There are some pros that make them, and the quality is much better.” Front tires have about 300 screws in them, with 500 in the back.
I asked him how long the tires last, and he replied, “We usually get three or four seasons out of them,” and I took that to be a good thing, given the tires cost about $700 for the pair.
As stated, Hovanec is a lifelong motorcycle rider (as am I), and the wisdom he dispensed regarding riding year ‘round resonated deeply.
“Riding all year keeps our skills sharp,” he said. “There is such a gap for many riders. They put the bike away in October and get it out in June, and they don’t stay sharp.”
Jim’s willingness—in fact, insistence—to keep upgrading his skills plays a big part in him still riding. He said, “I hear a lot of inexperienced riders say things like ‘A car pulled out in front of me and I had to lay it down.” I tell them, ‘Maybe you didn’t have to lay it down. Maybe your brakes and some avoidance maneuvering would have gotten you out of trouble.’ I tell these people not to panic, not to give up on it.”
As always, Jim gets fired up when talking about motorcycles. He said, “Today was a beautiful day out on the ice. We love it. It keeps us sane. We call it ‘Ice Therapy.’”
It had been less than 3 hours since Jim had climbed off his bike, and it was clear that he couldn’t wait to swing his leg over one of his others and get out on the track. Or, back out on the road. The man loves to ride, and who can blame him for wanting to spend as much time as possible sitting astride a 150-horsepower, two-wheeled rocket ship and cranking the throttle. After all, the guy likely only has another 20 years to ride. He just turned 72.