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Ice crackled and popped as screw-lined tires ground around a winding course on the lagoon between Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles.
Riders wobbled and slid, jabbed elbows and rubbed rubber, trying to keep their balance through zigzags and sharp turns.
Riding a bicycle on ice takes skill — and guts. On the last Saturday in January, 34 brave bikers competed in the first cycle race to be part of the City of Lakes Loppet weekend, an annual celebration of urban cross-country skiing that brings thousands of top-notch skiers and spectators to the Uptown area.
"A lot of our participants are bikers and we also just wanted to make more of a festival of the whole event and make it more welcoming to more people," said Loppet director John Munger.
Local shop Penn Cycle sponsored the bike race and organizer Pat Dowling spent 12 hours snow-blowing the course, which varied in width from about 5 feet to less than a couple. A short stretch of wooded terrain added a couple hills to make things interesting, but the rest of the track was frozen water.
Race day consisted of three events: A 20-minute beginner’s race, a 25-minute intermediate race and a 30-minute advanced race. As the leader of each race crossed a certain point at the time limit, a bell rang to signal the final lap.
Many of the competitors had pedaled their stud-laden bicycles across the ice before. Local hero Jay "Hollywood" Henderson, who lives in CARAG and raced internationally before starting his own bike shop in Bloomington, showed up with a few teammates. He and teammate Tim Norrie said they’ve been riding on the ice for more than a decade.
"We are the race," Henderson, 37, boasted playfully hours before the start. After leading throughout the advanced race, he ended up finishing third a because of a flat tire.
Flats are somewhat common in ice biking because of the studded tires, which are usually homemade. Screws are stabbed through the rubber from the inside and sealed with tape or other adhesives. The modification adds some weight, but it allows riders to lean into turns and accelerate as if they were on pavement — most of the time.
"Once you get that first fall out of the way, you’ll be all right," said participant Matt Moore, 52, from South Minneapolis. "With the studs, you have pretty good traction, but it is ice."
"It’s just a way to get more untreated head injuries," joked participant Ben Saltzman, 55, of Minnetonka.
If nothing else, the rows of screws poking through the tires of an ice bike make for an intimidating look.
"I call this my Mad Max bike," said Henderson’s wife Kristy, 28, one of three women to compete in the Loppet bike race. "It weighs a ton, but it looks gnarly."
She finished fourth in the beginner’s race, just behind Golden Valley resident Kristi Olson, who had a simple reason for participating in a sport some might find a little crazy.
"Because we can," Olson said. "It’s winter time and there’s no reason why you need to stop biking in the winter time."
Dowling and Munger said encouraging winter riding was a reason for putting on the event. Several participants, such as 19-year-old Leo Alex Heegaard-LeGros, said they were year-round bike commuters.
LeGros, who raced in the beginner’s event, had fewer studs in his tires than most riders, which resulted in a couple spills. But that didn’t stop him from having a good time.
"I ride around in the winter just to get around, so I’m kind of used to falling," he said.
Participants said ice bike racing doesn’t take any special equipment beyond studded tires. Mountain bikes are preferred and wheel/gear setups vary depending on what the rider wants.
The bike race is planned to be a part of the 2010 Loppet and Dowling wants to see more participants grinding around the course next year.
"We hope it’ll grow in popularity and maybe some spectators will see it and say, ‘Hey that looks like fun,’ and have some old tires laying around that they can put some studs in."
Henderson was looking forward to the next race before he could catch his breath.
"This has got to go on and I’d love to see it turn into a series," he said. "This is a nice little lagoon here that can be easily used. I don’t think anybody would mind us using it and I know I’d like to come back out and do it a couple more times this year."
Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or [email protected]