There's more to Carnaval than Ice Racing
Like It Cold? Revelry? Costumes? Rivers Of Rum? Party-Time For Two Weeks Straight? Complying With Nature's Urges? At Quebec City's Winter Festival, They Let It All Hang Out, Riding Or Walking!
A CAR ROLLED BY Quebec City’s stately old Chateau Frontenac Hotel with five persons bulging from the front seat and another two lying across the hood.
In a carriage behind, a furwrapped couple necked unashamedly in midday confusion as the horse clip-clopped along.
The traffic cop shrugged. He was more concerned with the reveller who had just blasted a carnival horn two feet from his ear.
“All those stories must be true,” our driver-friend remarked. “It is a city of no sanity. Look at this madness,” he cried, as our Volkswagen idled by two celebrants lying in the snow near the ancient city wall and drinking some undefined beverage from a hollowed-out walking cane. When we asked directions to the motorcycle ice race— ‘‘motocyclette . . . you know . ..vroom, vroom, vroom”-the two merely proposed an impromptu toast and wished us a “joyeaux carnaval. ”
“You know, I’ll bet most anything goes on here,” continued our friend, leaning on the horn as a warning to the hulk in the great, seal fur coat who had climbed aboard our front bumper.
“Why 1 heard that last year two fellows were arrested the evening after race day for ... well, complying with one of nature’s urges.”
“So?” the mademoiselle between the back seat luggage cut in. “Since when has that been a crime?”
“Well,” explained our slightly embarrassed friend, “this was in a public place ... behind the ice palace! When the two fellows went to court, the judge asked them why they had come to the carnival. A bit nervously, they replied they had come to see the motorcycle races. ‘Were you drunk the night of the arrest?’ the judge then asked them. When they replied yes, he asked what the temperature had been that evening.
‘About 10 below,’ they told him, a little puzzled.
‘Well,’ said the judge, consulting a piece of paper, ‘that’s near enough: the weather report says it
was 1 5 below. And so, considering the temperature and frostbite and what you fellows were so unabashedly doing that evening, I’d say the act itself must have been more than sufficient punishment. Case dismissed!’
“And then he ordered coffee for all and told them some story about cracking up his old Indian while going to law school.”
In the time it had taken to tell his tale, we had completed the traffic circle again and were inching by the same policeman. “Motocyclette . . . you know . . . vroom,
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vroom, vroom,” we inquired, doing our cramped impersonation of what looked like a chopper-riding ice racer with a speech impediment.
11 Ah qui,” he cried, pointing a large mitt, “motos sur glace.” An instant smile beamed on the face beneath the Persian lamb cap, and a twinkle of recognition grew in his eyes. Surely he had seen the madness on ice; his knowing smile was an indication of French-Canadian enchantment as much as a hint of fine things to come.
To the French-Canadian who has been exposed to ice racing, the event seems as deeply regarded as the Christian Ethic. Braver than a French-Canadian postman in winter, the ice racer endures not only the bite of bitter winter winds but slices through them at the maximum speeds of his motorcycle. Only the man in the lead is sure he won’t be peppered with chopped ice and dirt particles from the ominously spiked tires of the motorcycles ahead. The French, someone once remarked, must love the ice racer for his masochism.
No matter how high the personal anticipation, though, the ice race is just a contribution to a much grander affair: the Quebec Winter Carnival. It’s the annual Mardi Gras of the French-Canadian winter, Canada’s biggest single winter event, and over a half-million visitors are drawn from all provinces, 12 nearby states and, in small number, from Europe. It takes place in late January and early February. In two weeks of wild abandon, the most classical of Canadian cities lets her tresses down and, disregarding the cold, provides something for every curious, funloving soul. Accommodation is the only thing which requires some planning.
To appease the virile tastes, there are some common denominators. In their special ways, the marvelous cuisine and French-Canadian mademoiselles are as classical as the European-flavored city. With a rumored 3:1 ratio in favor of men, you may be as tempting as the apple to Eve; and while their more settled elders have usually lured transportation, the younger mademoiselles of college age stand by the roadside, large eyes dark and innocent and thumbs set in the direction of where it’s happening.
What happens is what one proud city official boasted as “a fun feast.” There are fancy balls, discotheques, dancing in streets lined with
ice sculptures, and three rousing torchlight parades putting forth almost enough candle power to warm the night air. Thousands line the banks of the half-frozen, mighty St. Lawrence River to watch entrants of the canoe race push and paddle over the ice floes and frigid waters. Thousands more line the roads of the historic Plains of Abraham to choose a favorite sports car contestant in the “Esso” Grand Prix. There’s an international pee-wee hockey tournament that attracts 25,000 spectators a day, a dog-sled race and, in addition to considerable other merriment, one of the country’s grandest hangovers.
On the weekends of the carnival, carousers don’t worry if their bar runs dry at 1:00 a.m. All one has to do to be able to get into the party down the hall is hum a couple bars of the official carnival song.
Presiding over the carnival is an animated snowman named Bonhomme who acts as the leading guest at the bigger events. The only thing frozen about him is the smile on his face. In fact, it gets so hot inside the costume that the impersonator can last only about 20 minutes at an inside event and twice that outside.
Despite all the fanfare of the pre-Lenten celebration, the motorcyclist is never entirely satisfied until he’s seen the “Championnat National des Motos Sur Glace.” The warmest of a cold but cheerful lot of spectators view from an unheated but glass-enclosed stadium at the Quebec half-mile Race Track. Those souls, with two, rather than one, suit of long underwear beneath their bulwark attire, line the trackside.
In style, ice racing resembles dirt tracking. Jim Kelly, a genial middleaged veteran, gave a personalized explanation of the sport: “The first time you ride—particularly because you tend to go slow—you feel like the wheels are falling off. It just jiggles and wobbles all over the place. It’s like riding the railroad ties in an enduro really: once you get
some speed, it smoothes out. When you’ve been riding ice for a while, you start to feel a little bit like the Almighty. ‘Jeez,’ you say. T can do anything on this thing. I can’t possibly fall off.’ Eventually, you find out you’re wrong.”
“You’ve got fantastic traction,” says racing veteran of 21 years, Don McHugh. “All you have to do is point the bike in the right direction and it goes there. You can go over so far it scares you,” adds McHugh, who substantiates his lengthy career by recalling some wondrous racing tales such as the occasion he ran the Montreal Championship Ice Race on,
yes, the city’s local baseball diamond—frozen-over.
To establish high-speed handling on the slick surface, the threatening spiked tire is nothing less than a necessity. The 180-degree fenders offer little benefit, other than minimizing spray for the rider behind. Fitting spikes to the tires, and the tires to the rims, may take as long as 15 hours. As a meager reward for persistence, the skillful can reduce mounting time to eight or nine hours.
Swedish and Czech spikes are considered the best, but the traction may consist of ordinary lumber nails, or sheet-metal and ram-set screws, if the longer lasting S wedish-Czech types are not available. In varying patterns, 100 to 150 spikes are bolted to a tire. Inside there may be one or two sturdy liners to protect the tube from sharp ends.
In Northern Europe, sliding the bike around turns on a padded left knee is standard racing procedure. In Canada, the left-knee style did not catch on until it was introduced in the early Sixties by that crazy young French Canadian, Yvon du Hamel, with whom devotees of AMA road racing are doubtless familiar. Montreal native Ron Wheately is another exponent of this effective style, although it doesn’t necessarily guarantee victory over someone with the more conservative foot-down-only style, used by the majority of racers in Canada. Wheately was defeated in the 250 Expert class last year by Ontario rider Jim Kelly, who rides foot-down. The left-foot lean has its roots in flat tracking. While most of the ice racers have experience in dirt tracking, they’re careful to explain the difference:
“You can lay it on the ice hard, but you don’t want hereto slide. Once she goes, she’s gone. All you can do is hope there’s nobody behind you.”
Because of the spiked tires, the chances of being perforated if you fall off in front of another rider are quite high. In 1969, Geoff Salzer, a Junior rider, dropped his machine in front of a dozen others. He received a broken leg and a nomination for the rider most resembling a garden hose—the kind that squirts little streams of water along its entire length.
In the Open Expert class, the machinery varies from the purist-style 500-cc Jawa/Eso machines found in European ice racing to altered production machinery such as 650 Triumphs and BSAs and V-Twin Harleys. Kelly, for instance, rode a stock BSA Lightning in last year’s race. The 'well known Sehl brothers, Dave and Doug, rode 650 Triumphs,,
while du Hamel rode a Jawa/Eso. The heavier girth of the big Twins doesn’t prevent the Sehls from winning over the lighter 500s, although Doug comments:
“1 just hold on like crazy. With a 650 you've got to wrestle with the bars . . . in, in, in, you know. You’ve really got to force them down.”
“Your fóremost thought is to get it over with,” adds Dave. “You make sure you don’t gel behind somebody because that makes it that much colder ... all the chips coming at ya.”
The spectators probably agree about the cold, as they disappear from the grandstands in barely more time than it takes the winner to complete his victory lap. This is a remarkable process whereby bottles of liquid warmth are slipped back into pockets and, suddenly, everyone-alternately chilled and rumsoaked-is in his car, returning to a favorite restaurant and then to a bed to catch a few hours of sleep before the real fun begins.
After all, there is more to Carnaval than ice racing. [Ô]