When Steve Brown got a group of friends together a couple of dozen years ago to ride on trails and two-tracks from Kalkaska to just outside of Traverse City, no one could have imagined what the race would become. Brown charged each rider $5 to cover the cost of the barbecue he threw after the event.
Now the Iceman Cometh is a race of international stature -- one of the largest mountain bike races in the world, it offers tens of thousands of dollars in prize money to the best mountain bikers, and a great challenge to weekend riders.
The Northern Express got onto Brown’s busy schedule in the days leading up to this year’s Iceman on Nov. 2 and talked to him about the race that has consumed his life.
Northern Express: This is the 24th year the race has been held and it’s become a Michigan institution. Tell me about how the Iceman first started...
Steve Brown: Basically, way back in 1989, there was a race that went from Ranch Rudolph to Timber Ridge that was part of the VASA race organization. I don’t know what they called it, but I rode in it and had great fun, and the next summer some of my cycling buddies and I were talking about it, and we said, ‘Yeah, this area really needs a point-to-point mountain bike race like that,’ because that one wasn’t really going to happen again.
And so I started just exploring through the woods of the Pere Marquette State Forest, trying to link all of these different trails and forest roads and all that kind of stuff, and found that I could link it all to Kalkaska. I would just take different sections and go, ‘Oh, yeah, this fits and that fits and put it all together.” And that first year we had 35 guys. I charged them five bucks and basically said, ‘Go’, and they followed the route to the Ridge and had a blast. So it was like, ‘OK, let’s do this again.’
Express: Have any of those original 35 riders done the race every year?
Brown: Yes. Ed Andres, Lars Welton, Pat Hall, Paul Glenn and Chad Schut have all ridden. And Pat Hall and Ed Andres have ridden in every Iceman and skied in every Vasa.
Express: There were 5,300 riders last year. How do you decide how much is too much? How do you figure out the cap?
Brown: Last year was the cap. I mean, we had enough traffic on the course that at one point there was a 15-minute backup to get into this one section, so people were just standing there chit-chatting, or some people were racing through the woods trying to get ahead of everybody else hat was plenty and any more than that and then it would have to be a two-day deal; and I just don’t even want to have to think about that.
Express: I understand why you want to add more spaces. The thing sells out so fast.
Brown: Yeah. We sold out in 32 minutes this year. That end of it is crazy and I just attribute that to all these type A personalities that are hyper-competitive and they take that and they apply it to registering.
Express: What are the advantages and disadvantages of using a fat bike in the race? (These are the new mountain bikes equipped with super-wide tires.)
Brown: Number one, they are heavier.
So they don’t go up hills nearly as well as a regular mountain bike. But you’d be amazed at some of the times that the guys in the fat bike class are going to turn in. With a good athlete, they are almost as fast as a regular mountain bike, because once you get the bike rolling, it just kind of keeps going.
I’ve only ridden a fat bike for two minutes, but it was like, ‘Oh. I get this. This could be a lot of fun.’ Especially if it’s snowy conditions, a fat bike, with the fat tires and the grip and the traction that they get, would really be an asset. So those guys are all hoping that it’s snowy and slippery and slick as anything.
Express: Tell me about your own race career. You raced competitively long before you started the Iceman.
Brown: Basically I raced road bikes in high school and college and then I capped it all off the year of the Olympic boycott, (in 1980) when the Olympics were in Russia. I went to Belgium and lived in the slums of Belgium for the summer and raced in local races.
It was an eye-opening experience. It was then that I realized that I wasn’t going to make it to the top tier and I wasn’t going to have a career as a professional cyclist.
Express: What was equipment like then?
Did you wear a helmet?
Brown: We wore helmets. We actually wore what we referred to as a hair net -- it was a patent leather little thing that I could fold up and put in my back pocket. We never wore helmets when we were training. We had toe clips for our shoes. All the bikes were steel. In fact, that summer was the first time that anybody was wearing Lycra clothing. Before that it was all wool.
Express: For years there were rumors that Lance Armstrong was going to race or that he did race the Iceman. Did he ever race?
Brown: No. Unless he rode under somebody else’s race number.
And now he won’t be able to race, because the event is sanctioned by USA Cycling and he is not ever going to have a license with USA Cycling.
Express: Do you have any plans to launch another race any time soon?
Brown: Not at this time. I’ve done other races in the past. The Tour de Leelanau. And everybody’s like, ‘Oh yeah, you ought to bring Tour de Leelanau back.’ I would love to, if I had a $200,000 sponsor. Because the model for that one is entirely different than Iceman. It’s basically all sponsor-driven revenue.
We have a local road race in the Cherry Roubaix. But the Tour de Leelanau kind of morphed into this elite, road racer kind of thing. The teams aren’t really even allowed to pay entry fees, so it’s completely sponsordriven, where Iceman is a combination of sponsors, entry fees, and merchandise sales. Iceman is really much more diverse, as far as income goes.
But people are coming up with all kinds of ideas for me. ‘You ought to do this,’ somebody said, ‘You ought to do a triathlon, you’d have 5,000 people here again.’ I haven’t really found the formula for running a smaller event so that it wasn’t just a complete time and energy drain, so it’s kind of like I’ve just decided to stick with Iceman.
Iceman is a big enough challenge in itself. ... It has its own life and right now I don’t know how, really, I would do another event.
Express: Have you ever seen a performance of Eugene O’Neill’s 1939 play, the ‘The Iceman Cometh’?
Brown: No. I have a book of it and I haven’t even cracked it.
Express: From what I’ve read it’s a dark play about drunkenness and prostitutes and failure and suicide at a Greenwich Village saloon in 1912, and the race, I suppose, couldn’t be more of a contrast -- it’s about fitness, overcoming a challenge, enduring whatever the weather throws at you to achieve a finish. Have you ever thought about that juxtaposition?
Brown: No, really, more than stealing the name from Eugene O’Neill, I stole it from an Outside magazine article about Reinhold Messner, a guy that dogsledded across Antarctica. The title of it was the Iceman Cometh and it just seemed like the perfect title for the race, because this time of year you never know what the weather is going to do.
We had three to four inches of snow in Kalkaska this morning and it’s sunny and clear here at the moment, and that to me is really the key ingredient of the whole thing -- you don’t know what the weather is going to do, so you’ve got to be prepared for anything.
Express: Is it true the Iceman trophies are designed so that people can drink beer out of them?
Brown: (Laughs) Yes. Part of it is the trophies are carved out of ice, and so the tradition became, you take your trophy to the bar and drink out of it all night and share it with everybody, a chance to drink out of a trophy.
It’s fun. The trophies only last for six hours afterwards, so time is short and fleeting, so you’ve got to take advantage of it.