After more than enough build-up and tense anticipation, the 2011 Iceman Cometh Challenge was quite suddenly a reality for the 4,800 or so participants. At nine in the morning, with the air still hovering around freezing and the breeze already starting to kick up, the Iceman finally got around to racing. Some of the strongest riders in the country were assembled, and that was just counting the seeded riders who took the start before ten in the morning.
While riders toed the line in Kalkaska early, I was still sipping coffee and watching The Rifleman as I slowly got ready to race. I asked to move my license up to CAT 1 in order to race with the Pros, and the request was granted in the nick of time, giving me a chance to sleep in Saturday and await the 2:30 start patiently from my living room. I was anxious and excited, getting ready by triple and quadruple checking my race bag, which I’d packed Thursday night. I like being prepared.
One very cool feature was a pal’s GPS device that updated his race information. Joel Gaff, a Hagerty Cycling rider and a great guy, had his Cyclemeter running when he took off with the third wave. My brother and I sat constantly refreshing our computers, watching the little dot that was Joel Gaff inch its way across the computer screen. He was cooking right along, and Wes and I were excited to see that the course was obviously in great shape for the race. We had a moment of panic when the little blue dot stopped; Joel had crashed and wrecked his wheel. We left the house feeling sorry for Joel, but excited to get our own races underway.
On the car ride over, I was getting more and more anxious. My one overwhelming fear was that I would somehow crash and take out Catherine Pendrel, the reigning Women’s World Champion. I was very concerned that I would somehow go down, taking out the entire women’s field and forever be known as That Guy. Even as we pulled into the parking lot and started unloading our gear, that was the biggest worry in my mind.
A short while later, two vans pulled up in the parking spaces next to our car. The doors popped open and out poured the Trek-Subaru squad, followed closely by their Trek World Racing counterparts. I was dumbfounded. Three feet from me, 2009 Singlespeed Champion Heather Irmiger was bouncing around like a toddler couped up in a car too long. Her husband, one of the best mountain biking talents ever produced in the US, Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski was casually chatting with a team manager. Right next to me, looking over my bike, was Lukas Flueckiger, who was just a month or so removed from placing fifth in the World Championships. It was more than just a little surreal, chatting with JHK about traveling and tire pressure. Even more surreal was heading out on a warm-up ride a few feet behind the Flueckiger brothers, listening to them discuss the trail.
After a final warm-up spin behind JHK, all the Pros made their way to the start line. My warm-up ‘buddies’ were escorted to the front of the group, waiting for their call-ups. This invitation was not extended to me, curiously enough, and I found a little spot near the back of the pack by Einstein racers Jason Lowetz and Jorden Wakeley. Looking around, everyone just looked fast. There was nobody in that group, except perhaps myself, that did not have experience taking on top riders and that were not capable of grinding for 28.7 miles at full gas. I had a sneaking suspicion I was in over my head.
This suspicion was confirmed at the gun. It was chaos and warfare, all at break-neck speed. The leaders hit over 30 miles an hour before the first turn, and riders were cutting across lawns, dodging fire hydrants and a skidding crashed rider as they all flew around the left-hander. Following my brother, Wes, I ducked a cable that supported a telephone pole and rattled over a rough spot of asphalt before tucking into the side of the pack. We roared ahead, the hum of a hundred fat tires loud even over the heavy breathing and shouted curses of riders feeling encroached upon.
When the road turned to a narrow path, the group came to a near-stop. Brakes squealed and the curses became a touch more intricate as riders tried to get through the mess, riding around slowed racers. Wes somehow flew through the huddle of bikes and I didn’t see him again for the rest of the race. I nearly hit JHK as he came to a slow roll, his front wheel ruined after being run into by a panicked rider. I could see ahead a group of about ten or fifteen riders already pulling away from the rest, with a second group forming behind with a considerable amount of riders, and finally a handful of other guys, including myself, trailing behind in single file, desperate to hold onto a wheel. That was the last I’d see of the leaders until they were perched on the podium at Timber Ridge.
The battle for the much, much lesser placings was intense, especially in the crowded ranks far behind. I was in a group of about six and trying to hold onto the wheels ahead as we turned onto Smith Lake Road. I went to the front and pulled, tucking low on the bars like a time trial, getting any and all power I could out of my legs. About fifteen seconds ahead was a sizable group, and if there was any time to catch them, this was it. I got our little group to within a few yards before getting swamped by other riders, and in the shuffling of positions, we actually lost the group ahead of us. I was forced into a thick sand pit and overshot a corner trying to stay upright, costing me not only five spots but the wheel of the last man in the group. I was alone.
The course was marked in kilometers this year, and I found myself alone with 36 kilometers to go. Normally I could figure out the math and convert those kilometers into miles, but in my tired delirium, I couldn’t do it, nor did I need to. I knew without any fancy calculations that 36 kilometers was a long way to go, especially alone. Suddenly, the Pro women flew past. I heard a very polite ‘On your left, pal!’ from Catherine Pendrel and a slight grunt from Heather Irmiger, but for the most part, the women were just a streak going by. I hung onto the back of that group for only a few seconds before another male rider cut in front of me. He had the motor to stay with them, but not the technical skills, and they pulled away slowly as we hit a section of tighter single track. With no chance to pass, I caught my breath for just a second, and sprinted past him when the trail opened up. After a minute or so, Johanna Schmidt went past, on her way to sixth place in the women’s race, and, I’ll note, the Top Mom winner.
With Johanna still in sight, I was a bit reluctant to work too much with Sue Stephens, another very strong rider in hot pursuit of the top ten. As Johanna sped away and eventually out of reach, I tried to contribute to my group, which included Sue and one other male rider, who was stronger than both of us but not strong enough to get away. Our little band rode for quite awhile, taking turns and warning of sand or rough parts of the trail. We were absolutely flying, but the turns I was taking were slowly adding up. As we climbed a short hill with loose sand, I lost Sue’s wheel and returned to my solitary race, focusing on her wheel as it slowly pulled away until it was out of view.
At this point, we were on the VASA pathways, trails I have ridden very often. I used my experience to the full advantage, making up time on descents and avoiding sand areas on climbs by getting over to the right side of the trail. Sprinkled here and there were signs of life, as well; fans standing in ones and twos shouted encouragement, urging me on. I was feeling better and better, and by the time I hit the infamous Icebreaker, I was in “The Zone”. I was suffering like a dog, but I was going very, very fast for my efforts. On the Icebreaker, I stood up and sprinted, and the twenty or so people still there roared and told me to get going and catch the guy ahead of me. I covered the gap just before I hit the 2k to go sign. I overtook a rider just as the trail opened up and I played it safe, easing up to his wheel then sprinting by so he wouldn’t latch on and outsprint me near the end. I was feeling my efforts but focused on each pedal stroke, staring up the trail and wanting desperately to see the finishing straight.
When I rounded the final bend, I heard my name over the loudspeakers, and I sprinted as hard as I could muster after such a hard effort. Last race of the year, and the last few meters went by to the applause of a few interested spectators. It was a roar to me, and I finished in one hour, fifty-five minutes and forty-two seconds, well under my two hour goal. It was good enough, I’d find out later, for 94th place. It is the only time I’ll be happy just to break the Top One Hundred.
All-in-all, it was a success, and I was not the only one satisfied with the day’s efforts. Wes was ahead of me by about four minutes with a time of 1:52, eight minutes faster than he thought he would finish in. If you recall our Rider Profiles last week, you’ll be happy to know Chuck Nagy finished in four hours and eighteen minutes, completing a journey that started a year ago and that had already changed his life for the better, no matter what the clock said. Tim Barrons, the seasoned vet, overcame a mechanical issue that cost him at least three minutes to put in a time of 1:55:28, thirteenth best in his category. And Joel, the rider who’s GPS provided Wes and I with real-time Iceman action, walked and jogged a few miles before a helpful spectator let him borrow a wheel to let him finish.
Overall, local riders had nineteen Top Fives and tallied no less than nine wins by Traverse City natives Lauri Brockmiller, Jason Whittaker, Brent Wiersema, Lars Welton, Jack Kline (Lake Ann), Roger Raehl, Steve Andriese, Marilyn Kamp, and Gussie Peterson. The Local Hero of the Day had to go to Johanna Schmidt for placing sixth in the Pro race, just a few minutes back from the winners and a second ahead of five-time winner Kelli Emmett. The area’s riders proved themselves to be the class of the competition and on par with some of the best riders in the country.