Northern Michigan Events: Some years muddy, sloppy and snowy, other years balmy and dry, The Iceman Cometh Challenge, America’s largest single-day mountain bike race has a capricious heart. For our intrepid reporter, the challenge of riding some of Northern Michigan's most grueling mountain bike trails is half torment, half seduction, and 100 percent can’t-resist.
The snowman stood upon a red paint-flaking picnic table at Timber Ridge campground near Traverse City. His stick arms no longer than a pencil, with pebble eyes and a three-part body made with such exquisite proportion that we had to stop, gather around his white dented head and, dubbing him “The Iceman,” take a photo. It was the eve before the race, the snowman’s namesake, and fresh snow had fallen. It. Was. All. We. Could. Ask. For.
For those with a mountain bike and a network of CamelBak-ed friends, the Iceman Cometh Challenge near Traverse City is a race that is trotted out and bandied about; analyzed, threatened and promised from the moment snow melts off the Northern Michigan bike trails in early spring.
By total number of racers, the Iceman is the largest one-day mountain bike race in America. It attracts over 4,000 riders, registration selling out in 15 hours. It covers 29 miles of trail ducking through the Pere Marquette forest between Kalkaska and Traverse City. And it takes place the first Saturday of November, come sun, rain, sleet … or, with any luck, snow.
Last November I stood at the start line of this behemoth race amid a nearly all-male field. I was in the 24th of 48 waves, waves that sent 80 to 120 riders out every three minutes, all morning long, for two-and-a-half hours straight. My wave was expected to finish in just under three hours. The pros, who would race in the afternoon, would finish in half that, averaging 20 m.p.h. through the forest. It was a biting 22-degree morning, and snow had graced the Iceman, juicing the contenders and raising a victory cry from the organizers. For snow is what the Iceman hangs its hat on.
I’ve ridden this race twice. In 2009, race day arrived 60 and sunny. Everyone griped about “The Niceman,” but I secretly delighted being spared the cold and the ice. My first race went as expected, complete with leg cramping and nausea. When I was done, I swore: Never again! The long miles and innumerable hills were nothing but a bad idea this late in the season, when my weekly bike miles had pathetically dwindled. But this past year, when the snow came, so did the buzz. My biking friends started planning and posturing and praying. I looked around and realized what I’d been missing. I was hooked: It was half-torment, half-seduction.
In its 22-year history, the Iceman has pitted mere two-wheeled creatures against the powers of nature—some years laying six inches of white stuff on the ground, other years forcing riders to shed their $100 jerseys along the route as the sun shone unabashedly and turned a frostbitten morning into a breezy afternoon.
It’s this challenge, where Mother Nature calls the game at the last minute, that makes the Iceman a different race each year, and, for some, an addiction that draws them back annually to right the wrongs of last year’s comeuppance.
And it’s why Iceman director Steve Brown, 53, doesn’t put much weight in any one finish: “Every year is different. There is no comparing your time to last year’s time. It’s the competition of the day, how the course wears, what the weather brings.”
This is apparent in the Iceman trophies that are carved from ice for the top pro male and female finishers. Like the tradition of the Stanley Cup, each trophy is conveyed into the night, with drink taken and shared from it. And as the Iceman trophy melts, it turns one year’s victory into next year’s ambitions.
Melodramatic? Okay, maybe, but Brown has designed the ice chalice to make such a statement: “You’re only the champ as long as you have the trophy,” Brown says.
One of the most famous races was in 2003 when six inches of snow fell the morning of the race. The trail, and the highways, turned to ice. A semi trailer jackknifed on M-72, the main thoroughfare to the Kalkaska start line, just as thousands of riders were en route. The result? A three-mile-long traffic jam, nearly every car in it with a bike strapped to the roof or trunk. The way out? Bikers left their cars and headed down the snowy shoulder of the road on their bikes.
“Being the industrious group that they are, the cyclists rallied,” Brown says. “We delayed the start to make sure everyone got there, but that year the course was so slick that riders were doing donuts on their bikes five or six times during the race.”
Snow played a key role in last year’s Iceman too, turning it into two very different races. The early morning riders were greeted with cold, crisp air over snow-covered trails. But each passing tire buffed the track to a sheen, turning it to ice and eventually, as the day warmed, to a muddy, thick, sucking mess. The first riders finished with harrowing tales of icy corners; the pros finished barely recognizable under jerseys of mud.
Watch any rider grinding up a hill, weaving through a sea of walkers, and you’ll hear “WayToGo!” and “KeepItUp!” Words of encouragement from those on foot, offered on one ragged intake of breath. I climbed the hills, walking up far fewer than I did last year, wheeling past many guys on foot, the same guys I had conceded to on the flats. We would pass each other back and forth the entire race, our strengths different but complementary. On the climbs, I heard them call, “GoPinky!” We came for this, too, the camaraderie.
The route has a reputation of elusiveness, doggedly hard to find on your own, a janky assemblage of two-tracks, single tracks and cut-acrosses. In the weeks leading up to the race, riders pepper Facebook with requests for someone, anyone, who knows the course, who can take them out for a dry run because a wrong turn in the depths of the Pere Marquette Forest can extend your 15-mile practice ride to twice that. The switchbacks and two-tracks are so rampant and intertwined that even the most seasoned riders get turned around. This, of course, provides more fodder for lore, the tales of getting lost on a practice ride within the forest as much a rite of passage as the race itself.
What better feather in your cap than discovering Steve’s Secret, a deer trail Brown found that has become a critical link, connecting Kalkaska trails to Traverse City trails. Maybe more pleasing is finding your way singlehandedly to The Wall and then powering up and over this track named for its vertical climb followed by a single-track descent that forces riders to stop and ease their bikes through the jagged, tight and technical trail between the trees.
The 2010 race brought a reroute around The Wall—but offered little reprieve. The new trail cut along a hillside of maples bedded in thick Michigan soil that turned into a black mudslide, grooved a foot deep by 8,000 wheels over the course of the day.
“Each year we change the route a little, but change is always good at making people angry,” said Karl Rylands, 49, with a laugh. As course director and 17-year Iceman competitor, “Karly Boy,” as he is known on the race circuit, strives to eliminate bottlenecks and rutted sections of trail. In previous years, The Wall was so narrow and slow-going that riders had to line up, waiting five to ten minutes to get through.
Combine snowfall with such vexing passages, and the race is any man’s game. “When we get snow, the dirt is packed and the trail is faster,” Rylands says. “And a lot of the competitors are road riders. Snow throws their road experience out the window. They aren’t used to sloppy or wet conditions. And that’s when it’s fun. It’s not all about power; it’s about finesse too.”
Another formidable part of the Iceman is the endless series of hills. They test your mettle, both mentally and physically—clear one hill and see another coming, and then another …
“After your first Iceman, the race makes you train harder, climb more hills and put in more miles each year,” Rylands said. “It makes you stronger.”
Rider Cassy Stone, 32, of Traverse City (3:34:49) can relate. She prepared for a snowy race, but as a first-year rider she was in one of the later waves. Her race ended up being a battle of caking mud, fleeting traction and choking gears. She walked hills she had easily cleared in training.
“I told my friends this race is like childbirth,” she says. “There’s no real way to prepare for the Iceman but to do the Iceman!”
The hills can be spirit breakers, wearing down both inexperienced and seasoned riders, forcing them to adjust and readjust pace and gears and speed over and over. But hills are also a hallmark of the race, where making it up long steady hills near the end, like The Ice Breaker, feels as good as a win.
On the flats, riders choose their passing lanes with care, judging their time and effort against any ground gained. Yelps of “Double Shot!” warn the slower bikers that not one, but two, riders are making a move around them.
But single tracks—where no passing lanes exist—bring to a halt the dance of passing and maneuvering for position, forcing riders into a processional, sometimes jovial, sometimes solemn. For some, it’s a chance to rest at a slower pace, take in the burn of lungs and calves, to rib or offer a word to a rider you’ve shared the trail with for the last five miles. For others, it’s an irritation, lost time, their mouths working faster than their legs.
Some attempt to pass by going off-trail, over the saplings, through the trees, bushwhacking. But it’s fruitless and reckless, for the line unfolds out of sight, dozens of bikes, single file, slicing through the forest, a riot of color and movement against the white of the snowy forest floor. Most riders fall into the line’s rhythm, enjoying the race for what it is, a hell-raising ride with 4,000 of their closest friends.
The calamities Ice proved to be a worthy opponent, the slick trail and cold temperatures setting off collisions and cursing. I watched two men pass me brashly on a two-track only to see them crash at the turn where the trail cut to single track. I smoothly navigated the bend whilst the brawn piled into each other on the corner. I may have been slower, but I had the momentary pleasure of feeling nimble upon my upright bike, headed toward the finish.
Competitor Russ Ryba, 35, of Traverse City (3:33:46) had three wipeouts in the first 10 miles. The first when a biker passed too close and clipped his handlebars, sending him down. The crash tore off his rear brake. Next, with only his front brake remaining, he was traveling with a pack of riders when the trail cut to an icy gravel road with a steep downhill.
“Everyone else slowed down while I just really wished I could,” Ryba says. “I thought I was going to make it but hit a bump in the road and went down hard, spinning across the road into the opposite ditch.”
The next downhill? His rear wheel came off entirely.
“I managed to get the tire back on and the chain was surprisingly undamaged, but my rear derailleur [gear shifter] was now shot too,” he says. “I ended up having a 3-speed with no rear brakes and 20 miles to go.”
Russ’s wife, Melissa Ryba (2:43:45) also competed. She had her own share of difficulties, losing her derailleur about two-thirds of the way in and crashing three times herself, in what was her first Iceman.
“I’m really good at passing someone and then falling in front of them,” she says. But Melissa finished eighth in her class of 35 riders. (A few months later, she joined the Hagerty Cycling team.)
“Melissa was the first girl I met who could keep up with me on the trails. Now I can’t keep up with her!” Russ says. Having started in a wave 45 minutes behind her husband, Melissa ate up the difference and caught him at the 20-mile mark, riding for a few minutes side by side, a married couple with a couple of busted-up bikes.
But the injuries each year are minimal, all things considered, with thousands of bikers beating their way through the woods. But Brown concedes: “We always have our share of broken collar bones and separated shoulders.”
Last year brought the most serious moment in race history when a racer had a heart attack on the trail. Two doctors in the Search and Rescue team were able to get to him quickly, but the crisis sent a shock through the crew.“It was very critical, and we are re-thinking how to provide medical assistance to the riders in coming years,” Brown says.
So, did the Traverse City man survive the Iceman that gave him a heart attack?
“By 6 o’clock that night, he was worried about where his bike was,” Brown says.
Besides medical emergencies, Brown’s crew also provides assistance for bike repairs along the trail. They buy 100 bike tubes and chains and outfit aid stations along the route. The aid stations are also where riders who are sick, hurt or exhausted can drop out. “This year a tandem team pulled into the aid station at Williamsburg Road,” Rylands says. “And one of the riders said, ‘I’m done.’ He just walked away.” While that wasn’t so unusual, the fact that his partner kept going, on a tandem, was. “He wouldn’t give up,” Rylands says, “even though he got a lot of odd looks along the way to the finish!”
It’s these war stories that are flaunted at the finish line, the blaze of glory for every rider, whatever their speed. The finish line at Timber Ridge RV & Recreation Resort is more a festival than anything else. I can hear the cowbells long before I can see the crowd. I am elated, exhausted, careful and carefree all at once. It’s over, the mud and ice, the push and the pull, the chase and the challenge. There, at the end, the spread unfolds, muddy bikers, limping bikes, tears, applause, food, music, beer and more beer. It’s said that road cyclists don’t drink because they ride … but mountain bikers ride to drink. And some 50 barrels of beer are raised and relished each year for the Iceman, a feat well done and hard fought.
In the Iceman you’ll find everything from the beginner (some ride only these 29 miles all year long) to the intermediate (they ride all summer, pitting themselves against friends in an openly fierce fashion), to the pros (attracting Olympic riders and world-famous athletes from legendary mountain-biking ground out West). Their ages range from teens to 70’s. Men and women come from 38 states and Canada, their children as faithful spectators in tow.
The top finishers in 2010 were Amanda Carey from Idaho (2:00:11) and Brian Matter from Wisconsin (1:42:16). And while the media spends its time and attention on the pros who walk away $3,500 richer, the true junkies are the riders who come out year after year with no promise of trophies, cash prizes or medals. They are the men and women who love to ride, love Northern Michigan and love to see what Mother Nature will throw out next.
Jake Kaberle, 36, of Traverse City (2:57:59) has three Icemans under his belt, and his list is long, the intangibles that bring him back every November: “It’s about the first ride of the season and thinking of the Iceman seven months away, the training rides with friends, the trips to the bike shop, the banter over 26- or 29-inch wheels, the last-minute clothes changes and second-guessing the weather for race day, the starting line, the mid-race bonk and cramp session, the finish line. And the beer vendors at the end. The beer … the tasty, tasty beer.
Where to Watch The Ice man (and ring your cow bell!):
Road crossings are marked with red caution flags, and parking is generally along the roadside.
Downtown Kalkaska Enjoy the tension of the starting line with a pancake breakfast, live music, skydivers and a Coast Guard helicopter fly-over.
Smith Lake Road Crossing From M-72 and Smith Lake Road, drive south 0.7 miles to the trail crossing.
Dockery Road Crossing From M-72 and Dockery Road, drive south on Dockery 3.6 miles.
Broomhead Road Crossing From M-72 and Broomhead Road, drive south on Broomhead 3.2 miles.
Williamsburg Road Crossing From M-72 and Williamsburg Road, travel 3.9 miles south on Williamsburg. Police caution against this highly congested area.
Timber Ridge Resort The finish line! Parking is very limited. iceman.com for parking and shuttle information.
For Underdogs and Kids Not quite ready to take on the full Iceman? The Iceman Cometh Challenge offers two other races—one for beginners and one for kids.
Slush Cup At 8 miles long, the Meijer Slush Cup is considerably shorter than the Iceman but still offers plenty of hills and angst. Takes about an hour.
If there’s one spectator sport that’s underrated, it’s that of watching 400-plus kids, half with training wheels and handlebar streamers, battle it out on the playing grounds of the Iceman. The kids’ Meijer Sno-Cone race is for children 12 and under; two distance options: 1/4-mile and 1.5-mile. Registration is required but free, and all participants receive a medal, a bike number plate, stickers and 100 percent audience approval.
For more info: iceman.com.