You’ve probably heard of the Iceman Cometh Challenge— the biggest mountain bike race in Northern Michigan, running 30 miles through the Pere Marquette Forest from Kalkaska to Traverse City. But have you heard of Iceman’s sidekick—the “Out and Back”?

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The Iceman race has been held on the first Saturday in November for more than 30 years, with 5,000 riders participating. And “Out and Back” (OnB) rides have become a rite of passage, so to speak, for Iceman fans.

OnBs are just what they sound like—cyclists park at Timber Ridge Resort in Traverse City (the Iceman finish line location), ride “out” to the Kalkaska start line location via a few shortcuts, then ride “back” on the official Iceman route. The roundtrip is about 43 to 47 miles and takes three to five hours. And, sometimes, part of your soul.

An OnB is nothing to the big-time riders, but for rec riders who just want to get out and look at the trail, it can be daunting. The experience is something to remember—you’re out in the woods with your buddies, mile after mile, with no race day pressure and plenty of time to get lost and found again—both physically and mentally. What could be better than that?

For some, OnBs are all they do; they aren’t even signed up for the Iceman. For others, OnB rides are a chance to test fuel (how much food and drink you’ll need on race day) and equipment (how you’ll stay warm and dry or cool—the day could be 60 degrees with sun or 30 degrees with snow, some- times both). For new riders, it’s a chance to go out to see the course for the first time as they prep.


Riders park at Timber Ridge Resort in Traverse City (where the race will end, complete with Short’s beer tents and an ice trophy) and head out for 17 miles, most of which is on a straight, flat, dirt road. The “out” takes one to two hours.

The first thing you’ll find out is how serious your friends were about “taking it easy.” Every time I’ve done an OnB, it’s been a drag race to Kalkaska. Everyone is high on the adventure and fueled for a race—with no race to be had. The result is a lot of pent-up energy riding through a flowing tunnel of trees, side-by-side with your pals. It’s hard not to push the pace under these conditions. But my advice at this point is to take it easy. Sandbag, as they say. Save your energy for the real ride back.

Iceman bike trail

Photo by Kandace Chapple

“…and Back”

Once you reach Kalkaska, it’s time to turn around and ride the actual Iceman course back. The pace is more moderate now because the idea is to check out the course, argue about which way to go, and talk about how you swear you saw a bear back there.

The Iceman course itself is a series of single-track, two-tracks and barely-there-tracks stitched together through the Pere Marquette Forest. The elevation gain over the course of the race is around 1,200 feet or so, with most of the hills coming in the last eight miles. The total mileage of the race varies from 26 to 30 miles, as it’s tradition to change up the route a little every year, leaving riders in the dark on the exact course until the last few days before the race.

The “back” will take three to four hours. For a truly enjoyable OnB, count on adding at least another hour to your usual pace. Save racing for race day, and use OnBs for the best part of riding with friends: posturing and trash talk.

The real joy of an OnB has nothing to do with the race. Rather, it’s riding with fellow bikers in the woods when the trees are positively awash with fall color. You can take all the breaks you want, ride through mud puddles and blast your cohorts with rainwater. And you’ll meet other riders out there doing the same thing. It’s a party on wheels.

After probably getting lost at least once, you’ll make it back to TC— muddy, sore, spent and on an absolute high. Surviving an OnB means you’re ready for race day (maybe!) and you’re probably starving (you now have a full-on excuse to hit Peegeo’s for a pizza).

If you’d like to ride an OnB, watch the Iceman Facebook page, as well as the kolo t.c. cycling club, in October. Even if you’re not racing, it’s a perfect autumn adventure—saddle up with some other riders and make your way out and back together in the gorgeous fall woods of Northern Michigan.

Watch the Iceman Cometh Challenge streaming on and on channels 9&10 or the free VUit app.

Kandace Chapple is a freelance writer and owns Michigan Girl, a company that hosts outdoor events and trips for women in the Grand Traverse region.