27 Years In, The Iceman Still Cometh
By Ross Boissoneau | Oct. 28, 2017
Even the name sounds foreboding: The Iceman Cometh. Kind of gives you the shivers. And while participants may warm up on the 30-mile race from Kalkaska to Timber Ridge RV & Recreation Resort on the eastern edge of Traverse City, the weather might not be especially cooperative. Over the years, the temperature has ranged from highs in the 60s with plenty of sunshine, to rain, sleet, and snow, and highs — highs — in the 20s.
No wonder it’s called the Iceman.
The race is the brainchild of longtime bike enthusiast Steve Brown. In 1989, he and some friends were bemoaning the local race scene. “We said we need a good mountain bike race,” he said.
The following summer Brown began exploring trails between Kalkaska and Traverse City and cobbled together a route for a proposed race. “It was really a matter of stringing all the two-tracks and overgrown railroad beds together,” said Brown.
In the fall of 1990, 35 men and one woman took part in the initial Iceman Cometh. A year later, more than 10 times as many took part in the race. Last year, the race, now named the Bell’s Beer Iceman Cometh Challenge, attracted 5,393 participants.
That’s not the only indication of its phenomenal growth. That first year, the purse was — well, there wasn’t one. By 1996, the purse was up to $7,000, jumping to $20,000 the next year. Last year, the combined men’s and women’s prize purse totaled over $63,000 in cash for the professional and amateur riders, with more than 250 individual cash prizes awarded. More than $10,000 worth of merchandise was also awarded to Meijer Slush Cup competitors.
All this for the privilege of pedaling madly through woods, trails, and bogs, slipping, sliding, crashing, getting up, and doing it some more. Great fun. At least for Brown and the participants, apparently. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” he said with a laugh.
Over the years the trail that the race takes has changed, due to a number of factors: increased traffic, logging activities, new sponsors. The finish line has been moved from Jellystone Park to the corner of Bartlett and Bunker Hill, to Mt. Holiday, to the Vasa trailhead, and back to Jellystone Park, which today is Timber Ridge RV & Recreation Resort.
Traffic on the roads is also a factor. While wipeouts on the trails are common, in 2003 things took an unexpected turn when a snowstorm caused a number of automobile accidents prior to the race. The most problematic was when a semi-trailer jackknifed on M-72, closing the road for an hour and creating a massive traffic jam six miles long. That caused the race to be delayed for an hour, as many of the riders and the timing crew missed the original starting time. Many took the delay in stride: A number of those stuck in traffic simply jumped on their bikes and pedaled to the starting line.
The weather is not the only thing that’s bedeviled the race over the years. While Brown waxes poetic about an app called Strava that is used to record a racer’s information and then use that information both to register and seed him or her, technology hasn’t always been his friend. In 2009, the server for registrants crashed — twice.
“We were trying to use a new system, and it crashed. Then we tried the old system, and it crashed,” said Brown. Ultimately, Brown and company resorted to the old-fashioned route, and all riders submitting their paper entry forms by the following Saturday were accepted.
Brown is clearly pleased if somewhat dumfounded by the explosive growth of the event. “My personal takeaway — I would never have believed it. It’s flattering how much notoriety the race has received due to the riders’ enthusiasm. They’ve stuck with the event through all the mistakes I’ve made,” Brown said. “One year I hired the sound guy to do the results, and they were screwed up. At nine that night I told everyone to go home. That didn’t go over well, but they came back.
“Traverse City has become a big cycling community. That’s gratifying.”
Know Before You Go
This year’s Bell’s Beer Iceman Cometh Challenge takes place Nov. 4. Registration for it and its “half-frozen” version, the 8-mile Meijer Slush Cup, are sold out. At press time, registration openings for the quarter-mile Meijer Sno-Cone race for kids remain. Sideline viewing of all races is available at the finish venue at Timber Ridge. For more information, visit iceman.com.