In 2019, the 30th annual Bell’s Iceman Cometh Challenge, a 30-mile point-to-point mountain bike race from Kalkaska to Traverse City, was buried in a half-foot of snow and thick mud. The result was an unforgettable ride for cyclist Kandace Chapple and her nemesis, Jake Kaberle.

Editor’s Note: The 2020 race was canceled due to COVID-19, but we hope this story brings racers, volunteers and fans a little bit of joy and a few chuckles. The 31st annual Bell’s Iceman Cometh Challenge is scheduled for Nov. 6, 2021.

Featured in the November 2020 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy.

Let’s start with history. No, not the history of the Iceman Cometh Challenge. The history of my nemesis.

I met Jake way back when bike racing was for other people. We had kids in the same school, shared a couple of the same friends and had a mutual love for mountain bikes. Eventually, we would also have a mutual love for harassing each other openly and maliciously.

Jake and I were polite to each other at first, kind even (which I now find hard to believe), often ending up on group rides together. When someone suggested we sign up for Iceman, everyone in our group did. It was 2009, my first real race, and I had zero expectations on my finish. I just thought if I could ride the 30 miles from Kalkaska to Traverse City and live, I would be a living legend in my own mind.

Turns out, there was more to it than that.

I was over three hours into the race, just a few miles from the finish line, when I saw one Jake Kaberle come into view on the dirt trail ahead of me. I was happy to see someone I knew out of the hundreds of riders I’d seen all day. “Hey,” I thought, “I’ll just pass him, and say hello!”


Passing him “on the left!” was the start of a long and worrisome battle, because with that one pass, the race was on. Jake and I proceeded to pass each other back and forth several times, till death do us part, until the final stretch when Jake about blew a lung getting it done.

He beat me by 17 seconds. And a nemesis was born.

Photo by Beth Price

The History of the Iceman Cometh Challenge

The Iceman course consists of a patchwork of trails that you’d be hard-pressed to find on your own. My nemesis and I have at least one pre-ride every year on the Iceman route that ends in a jolly “Where the hell are we?” discussion, causing our fondness for hating each other to grow deeper.

The course is a pieced-together masterpiece of dirt roads, two-tracks, abandoned railroad beds and the world-famous Vasa Trail. The race route crosses just one paved road (Williamsburg Road at mile 17) as it winds through the Pere Marquette State Forest.

The race has been a tradition since 1990. Held on the first Saturday of November, it now attracts some 5,000 riders from around the country and the world, from pros to beginners. The winner takes home a (melting!) ice trophy. The rest of us grab a beer.

The Iceman Cometh Challenge is the largest single-day, point-to-point mountain bike race in the United States and is now televised on CBS Sports. You’ll see everything on the trail, from finely tuned biking creatures to playful riders in tutus and helmets made to look like shark fins. There are hills, lots of hills. And tears, sometimes lots of tears. Riders take anywhere from two to six hours to finish. To finish is a feat.

Cody Sovis, the new race director for Iceman, made the 30th edition of the race special—most notably by adding two more miles to the traditional 28-mile race—making it an even 30 miles. The extra mileage came with groans, more hills and a little more strategy. Those looking to attack and make a move suddenly had a little more time to do so, with new stretches of trail now playing out near the end.

“Three decades was a really important milestone for the race, and we wanted to honor that in every aspect of the event, especially in the woods,” Cody says. “The course mixed in some of the classic, original sections of trails like Tornado Alley and Anita Hill with new sections, including Water Bottle Hill Bypass. Part of what keeps this race fresh is that there’s always a twist, and that will definitely be a part of the future of Iceman, too.”

Photo by Beth Price

The Night Before

Jake and I have raced against each other in nearly every Iceman Cometh Challenge over the last decade. As we headed into the 2019 race, we’d each “won” four races. Because we were at a tie, training took on a certain heat, on par with the Olympics even. But I wasn’t worried about losing. I had logged a million miles for this moment. In fact, I was so sure I’d win, that I bought myself a mug to use at the afterparty. It was inscribed with: “The QUEEN of Everything.” I snickered as I tucked it into my post-race clothing bag. Tomorrow was race day.

However, as we all slept, the Iceman turned into Mudman …

Four inches of snow fell overnight, compounded by several days of rain in the days leading up to the race. At about midnight on Friday, Cody was on the phone with Tom White, of Northern Michigan Mountain Bike Association, debating what to do. There was no doubt: The trail would be a mess.

“The unpredictable weather is a part of the event, and in 2019, it took center stage,” Cody says. “After a lot of discussion, we decided to stick with the course with no detours.”

Before dawn, Cody was up and checking the course on race day, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019.

“I walked a part of the course at 4:30 a.m.,” he says. “I took a step out onto what looked like 3–4 inches of fresh, soft snow … but my foot sunk in about 6 inches, with deep black mud underneath it. That was when I knew it was going to be an unforgettable edition of Iceman.”

Photo by Beth Price

Photo by Beth Price

The Starting Line

That morning, when I arrived at the start venue—tiny, quaint, in-the-middle-of-a-field Kalkaska Airport—word was spreading: Hundreds of racers were bailing. The mud was thick and deep and bikes were suffering in the extreme conditions (when derailleurs and chains are coated in mud, shifting becomes impossible). To go ahead and race would be for the hardiest. I wasn’t sure I qualified.

But when I saw Jake decked out and ready to ride, I knew there was no turning back. Like every year, we posed for a photo together, hugged, wished the worst for each other and lined up. The Iceman is so huge that racers are sent out in waves of 100 riders. I was one wave ahead of Jake (due to having a slightly better record than him overall, I would like to add, ahem). With that said, I knew if I saw him, I would have already lost by three minutes.

46 Minutes In

My wave started at 9 a.m. I took off and found the mud at the first single track cut into the woods. As my wave of riders came upon the riders stuck in the mud ahead of us, I could see bikes and riders down everywhere. The trail was thick and slow, and I was barely able to keep my bike upright. Reality arrived fast and furious: This was going to be the hardest ride of my life.

I considered bailing then, but with the pressure of my nemesis at my back, I carried on. And when I heard faster riders coming up on me, I moved aside to let them pass. My focus then (and the entire time) was not crashing.

“Go,” I called to a biker I heard coming up behind me, moving aside on a two-track, just before we were funneled into the single track mud hell again.

The guy replied: “Wow, that was my best Iceman start ever!”

I went into polite chitchat mode, even in my agony: “Oh, have you raced this before?”

But I didn’t wait for an answer because in the next moment, I screeched.

It was Jake. He had caught me in just 46 minutes. I knew it was over, the race decided. The only thing now was to finish or hope he quit before I did. By the grin on his face, I knew that wasn’t happening. I love riding. But he loves weather. He will ride in anything. And his moment to shine had arrived.

Photo by Beth Price

The Wait

I kept him in sight for a while—and then, there was a standstill in the race. The mud was so deep that it became un-rideable and with snow and trees narrowing the trail on either side, there was nowhere to bypass the mud. There were 1,900 riders ahead of me on the trail at this point, and we all came to a halt. Another couple thousand piled up behind us. As far as I could see ahead and behind, there was a line of cyclists standing and waiting their turn to go down the trail.

I’d never seen anything like it in all my Iceman years. That standstill in the woods was the most fun I had the entire race.

People took off their helmets and gloves, got out phones, turned on music, took videos, shared snacks and met their neighbors. For 20 minutes, we literally stood in a line in the woods. I knew Jake was getting farther ahead of me in the mass of muddy cyclists because he waved at me from his vantage position and snapped a picture of my defeat.

Photo by Beth Price

Make it Stick

Once we started moving again, the next obstacle was a famous hill along the route—Make It Stick. Halfway up, there was a long-haired, bushy-tailed guy playing a full drum set, and, at the top of the hill, a group stood with shots of Fireball for the racers. Spectators hooted, hollered and urged on the racers at this well-known celebration zone along the otherwise remote course.

As I tackled the climb, I hit a mud hole. I literally pedaled in place, my rear tire spinning, spitting mud. I didn’t want to get off and walk (there were people watching, after all). Instead, I continued to pedal for all to see, going nowhere.

Suddenly, I heard someone shout, “Get her!” Two guys ran up on either side of me. I didn’t know what was going to happen … but they pulled my bike up, out of the hole, kept me upright, and shoved me up the hill.

I was saved!

My muddy soul was renewed, for a few pedal strokes, by their kind hearts (and affection for Fireball).

The Crisis Point

I made it to the top, and there stood my husband, Tim, and my son, Kendall, waiting. They looked worried. I was far, far behind my expected arrival time.

“What happened?” they shouted.

“I’m done,” I shouted back.

It was true for a lot of people on that hill. Other cyclists spilled around me: bikes broken, chains coated in mud and wills beaten down. They were asking for rides back to civilization. I wanted to go with them. I rode over to Tim.

“I’m serious,” I said. “Give me a ride.”

I had never felt like this in a race. It was bad. I had no energy left and I was only 10 miles in, with 20 more miles to go.

Tim shuttled me back on my bike, and I swung my leg over the bar, limp and dejected.

“You got this!” he said, kissing my muddy face and giving me his own shove down the trail.

I was certain I didn’t have it at all. But I figured Jake felt awful, too, and it perked me up. Maybe he would quit. Like any good friend, I started hoping for the worst.

Hour Three

By the third hour, I was in an abusive relationship with my bike. I spoke to no one. I had no will to live. I had no way to die. I was biking slower than I could walk. I was walking when it was too deep to ride. I was wondering when the suffering would end. We all were.

Later, on the biking app Strava, I saw that one section that would normally take me 5 minutes, would likely take 25 minutes. There were many sections like that. At Williamsburg Road, 450 riders pulled out of the race, and hundreds called it quits in other spots. The race was no longer a timed event—it was a “can-you-finish?” ride.

Photo by Beth Price

Photo by Beth Price

The Finish

It was in the last two miles that I finally committed to that damn race. An intensity came over me as I realized: I had done it! I was going to finish!

Nearly four hours after starting, I got to the finish line, an hour later than expected. And there he stood: My nemesis. Waiting, with a full 14 minutes of rest under his belt.

But when we saw each other, it was with joy, like two survivors rising from the mud. We hugged, we drank, we (I) cried, we (he) celebrated. It had been the hardest race we’d ever done together. In the post-race celebration area, I bought him a Two Hearted Ale from the Bell’s Brewery tent, and, as tradition goes, presented it to him on bended knee, bowing to his greatness. I also gave him the “Queen” mug, which he will never let me live down.

The 2019 Iceman Cometh Challenge determined one thing for my nemesis and me: The thought that one of us might quit is precisely what kept us both going.

Kandace Chapple is a freelance writer and mountain bike enthusiast (and occasional Iceman loser) who lives in Interlochen with her husband and two sons. // Beth Price takes photographs that reflect her passion for a healthy, active and adventurous lifestyle. She is based in Traverse City.

Photo by Beth Price

Find this and more articles celebrating Northern Michigan outdoors in the November 2020 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine; or subscribe and get Traverse delivered to your door each month.

Photo(s) by Beth Price