The Iceman Cometh!

Michigan resident Katie Greer describes her first trip to the Iceman Cometh Challenge bike race.

Under a Friday sky that spoke of snow, we set out towards northwest Michigan, the home of the Iceman Cometh Challenge, the largest single-day mountain bike race in the world, with over 4,000 riders traversing the 27-mile course that takes riders from Kalkaska to Traverse City. My boyfriend, Bryan, was competing this year along with a group of our friends.

As we drove through the darkness towards Higgins Lake, where we would be staying that night, tiny snowflakes danced in the headlights. We arrived at our friends’ cottage and met up with a big group of other riders who were also going to race. After deciding on a game plan for the next morning, everyone turned in to try to make the next morning’s early wakeup call a little easier.

Alarm clocks started going off at 6, and soon the cottage was full of people packing gear and doing some last minute bike checks. As we pulled away from the cabin, the thermometer read 11 degrees; it left us all curious to see how quickly it would warm up after the sun rose.

We made it to Kalkaska a little after 8:00 and found everything staged in a parking lot behind a row of downtown Kalkaska businesses. Check-in was quick and easy, and before we knew it, it was time to send off the first wave of riders.

There were last minute gear and equipment checks as Bryan’s start time approached.  Never having done the race before, there was a mix of uncertainty and excitement on his face as he joined his wave at the starting gate. As they counted down the final seconds before his start, I remembered what he had said when I asked him about his goal: “I just want to finish. I’ll be happy if I can do it.”

After I had seen off all of my friends, I ran back to the truck and sped towards Williamsburg, the halfway point of the course. The riders were crossing the road ahead and as I approached I wondered, “Did I make it in time? Has Bryan already passed by?”  I stood among the spectators, checking the time and trying to determine if I had missed him.  I watched riders trying to make it up the muddy hill right before the midpoint; though the ground had been frozen that morning, enough riders had now gone past to make sure that the course was now covered with slick mud, coating the bikes and the riders themselves.

Minutes ticked by with no Bryan, and just as I was turning to leave for the finish line, I saw a glimpse of red come up the hill – my heart jumped to my throat as I realized it was him. He had made it halfway! I cheered him on as he passed, and he managed to summon a smile and a thumbs up.

I dashed back to the truck and headed to Traverse City. The city did a great job organizing parking lots and shuttles to the course: after just a few minutes on a school bus, I was at Timber Ridge RV Camp & Resort, the site of the finish and festivities.  I ran through the crowd, praying that I had made it in time.  Standing just past the finish line, I watched dozens of riders come in, some triumphant in their accomplishment, others shaking their heads at how difficult the course was this year.

Several riders had their chain break during the race; they ran their bikes down the trail, determined to finish. One rider said he had run the last four miles of the course!  Every time a “runner” came around the bend, the cheers at the finish line multiplied as the crowd rewarded them for their determination.

Just as I was going into worry mode (“Is he ok? Did something happen to his bike?”), I saw a flash of red as Bryan came around the final curve.  He crossed the line and officially finished the Iceman Cometh Challenge in 3 hours 50 minutes.  He had accomplished his goal!  Never one to settle, he’s already thinking about next year’s race: when someone at the hotel asked how he had done, he smiled and said, “I just wanted to finish. I’ll worry about time next year.”

Katie Greer celebrates living in Michigan by sailing in the summer, baking apple pies in the fall and skiing during colder months. She’s a bit scatterbrained and easily misplaces things, including receipts, car keys, and the USB cord from her digital camera.