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Common Tread

Studs on ice: Three idiots, two vintage bikes, one semi-frozen lake

Jan 11, 2019

“Yeah, that stuff there? Don’t think about it. Just go through it and react if you have to.” — Fellow ice rider McKinley Marina.

Ice riding? I'd never done it. But Andy Pickett, owner of Milwaukee's Rustoration Shop, invited me and my friend and Motorcycle Classics contributor Anders Carlson to give it a try. Why not? That's how we ended up on a frozen marina on vintage wheels.

Here’s what happened.

vintage dirt bikes on ice
Andy Pickett of the Rustoration Shop assembled some ratty old vintage dirt bikes for us to thrash on the ice. Photo by Chris Force.

Ice riding: Pre-ride thoughts

Anders Carlson: “You gotta get out on the ice,” they keep saying. I’m interested, but know nothing about riding on dirt, much less ice. Andy’s offer of free, crusty old bikes sways me. Saying no to free and fun is un-American.

Chris Force: I’m not as worried about picking up a new habit as I am reinforcing my existing habit of thoroughly embarrassing myself.

AC: The only way to embarrass yourself would be to put your foot through the ice. Which I do 20 minutes into our session.

CF: When I first step on the marina, I’m casually told to avoid the edges because “they’re not quite solid.” I survey the scene only to witness a dog fall through the ice and into frigid water (he was immediately yanked out and just fine). I may have just discovered a new way to die on a motorcycle.

AC: If we die, Chris will be better dressed than me. My Marmot jacket and 10-year-old Red Wings round out my “cool dad” look.

CF: Shit, I’m way overdressed. I’m reaching next-level poser status. There is a 15-year-old girl out here ripping in Uggs, jeans, and no gloves. I’m wearing $2,000 of adventure gear.

Suzuki RM80 on ice
You probably can't have more fun with an old Suzuki RM80 minibike anywhere else than on a frozen lake. Photo by Chris Force.

AC: The ice seems OK. Some guy’s ice fishing, so it can’t be that bad. Another guy drills a test hole, and declares the ice is 10 inches thick. Or five inches. That’s thick enough, right?

CF: Shit it’s cold. What side is the clutch on again?

AC: I’ll bet ice riding will be a lot like the scene in James Bond’s "For Your Eyes Only," where they ride Yamaha XT500s on a ski slope. But it would be on ice.

CF: I could go for a hot chocolate right about now.

ice riding
Just some people trying to find a way to have fun on motorcycles in the worst possible conditions. Photo by Chris Force.

Ice riding: The on-ice experience

AC: The first of several cognitive disconnects begin as I roll the motorcycle onto the ice. We’re supposed to corner fast on a surface we’re barely able to stand on.

CF: Every time I get a motorcycle moving I’m amazed, especially a vintage one. But once that initial thrill died off I realized I was literally riding on thin ice.

AC: The first laps on the “track” are an exercise in magic and disbelief. It seems impossible to safely ride or corner well on a frozen lake. But you do. You lean more and more, daring to find the first loss of traction. But studs keep sticking and you keep going around.

CF: Magic is right. I kept leaning the bike over farther and farther and the bike just stuck. I’ve always wanted to hit clean corners in the dirt with my left arm dead straight and my right elbow skyward, but have never reliably been able to get it done. But on the ice it’s almost easy. Amazing traction the whole way through the turn.

AC: The Suzuki RM80 is fun but it’s a minibike, no way around it. On the plus side, its diminutive size means it’s super easy to handle and maneuver. The ‘75 Suzuki TS125 tracks well and is a blast, but something’s a bit funky.

CF: My experience with vintage bikes is getting them towed out of my garage. Andy tells me he paid a whopping $300 for this 1988 Suzuki 125 and added a new-to-him tire he purchased for $1 at a swap meet. He added the 500-plus screws by hand. It’s small and light, and importantly, no beauty queen. We take turns smashing it into the ice.

repairing the TS125
Andy Pickett makes some repairs to the clutch on the TS125 after Anders low-sided it approximately 50 times. Photo by Chris Force.

AC: Now I see it. The TS125 rear wheel is aligned about five to 10 degrees to the right of the front. It’s been “pretzeled,” so to speak. But it’s fine for left turns on ice. Falling isn’t so bad. I go down three times — two high-sides and a low-side. As a course gets carved in ice, technique replaces magic. Virgin ice offers fantastic grip, but ice shavings pile up. Predictable powerslides catch the ice underneath, sending bike and rider bolt upright.

CF: I’ve experienced this on the dirt before, too, where mid-turn the bike suddenly catches and flings you vertical. On about my fifth lap, I started to wonder just how much room there was between me and the thin ice at the edges of the marina. I started calling it the death zone. I started worrying about the death zone. Then I started looking at the death zone. One nervous glance mid-turn and, sure enough, the bike lurched right towards it. The vintage rear brake did very little for me. I threw my feet down and stopped Fred Flinstone-style.

Chris Force ice riding
That's me in the orange helmet. Do you think the orange helmet would make it easier for rescuers to find me if I crash through the ice in the death zone? Photo by Chris Force.

AC: I’ve never ridden on dirt, but I’ve seen pictures of motocrossers pulling their weight to the front. So I try that. It’s exhausting. I then try my friend Chadwick’s Suzuki 250. It’s like doing coke through a party favor. I could touch slush with the clutch lever if I had the balls.

CF: My inspection of the death zone has thrown off my mojo. The heated seats in my car are beckoning. I dream of a hot chocolate.

Ice ridden: Post-ride reflections

AC: It’s an entertaining logic problem. When you slide, you need more throttle, not less. You think you’re falling because you are. It’s sort of like a plane falling out the sky on purpose to land. You lean into turns and twist the throttle so more studs get you more grip.

Two up on ice
Andy gives a lift on the RM80 to another rider. We don't know why. It's ice riding. Anything goes. Photo by Chris Force.

CF: It’s surprisingly exhausting. I could easily kick my left ankle all the way out near the front tire in the corner, something I’ve never got the feel for in the dirt, though I’m not sure it really did anything for me other than tire my leg out.

AC: No kidding. Ice riding uses the opposite of whatever muscles you use to pedal a bike. After two hours of pulling my body forward and holding my leg up, I can barely lift my left leg. I felt a dog taking a piss, except for 10 minutes at a time. But, I had a blast, and it feels like I cheated death a bit there.

CF: Can death happen at 15 mph with protective gear?

AC: Shut up, it felt pretty dangerous to me.

CF: I guess you're right. If you go into the death zone.

AC: Anyway, you were the best possible company for my first time on the ice. We made each other look half as silly and twice as fast.

CF: I could really go for a hot chocolate right about now.