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Why is the Iceman so Hot?

JFreeman Kenda-MugA few weeks ago, a stair off my back porch pulled a kung-fu move on me, breaking my foot and dashing plans to race this year’s Iceman Cometh Challenge in Traverse City, Michigan.

While upset about this, I think my boyfriend Tom was even more so. Consoling myself that at least I wasn’t missing the Olympics, my Michigan-born beau replied, “But baby, it’s the goddamn Mid-west Olympics!”

And this wasn’t the first time I had heard something like this. So I kept my ticket and went to see what all the noise was about.

But after attending the largest single-day mountain bike race in the U.S., it became evident that the Iceman isn’t only a race but an event and a force for change.


Brian Matter celebrates another Iceman victory. Photo by John Russell at Great Lakes Images
Brian Matter celebrates another Iceman victory. Photo by John Russell at Great Lakes Images

The 2010 Iceman Cometh Challenge saw close to 4,700 riders across three events — the Iceman 29.5-mile point-to-point, the 16.5-mile Slushcup and the Kid’s SnoCone race.

I asked the Iceman’s creator, director, and one-man-show, Steve Brown, how he manages to get so many people to northern Michigan in November to race bikes.

“Honestly, I don’t really know,” chuckled Brown. “I think it has something to do with the unpredictability of the weather. There could be snow, or it could be 62 degrees and sunny.

“There’s a sense of adventure and of battling the elements that attracts people,” added Brown. “For me, that’s the spirit of mountain bike racing.”

And attract it does. Registration for the event reached capacity in less than one day.

20 percent of the racers came from 37 states outside Michigan. Some Iceman fields were so large several age groups were their own categories. The men’s age-40 field, for example, had 120 riders to itself. Not to be outdone, the SnoCone rallied 300 kids to race.

A total prize purse of roughly $43,000 was no small carrot either. The startlines saw our reigning cross-country national champ, Todd Wells, and my teammate, reigning National Ultra Endurance Series winner, Amanda Carey. Amanda and Wisconsin rider Brian Matter both walked away $3,500 heavier in the pocket for their pro class wins.

The attraction of Iceman is varied, Brown said.

“You’ll have riders who train for this race and some who will pull their bike out of the garage two weeks before,” he said.


L to R: National XC champ Todd Wells, Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski and Russell Finsterwald start the 2010 Iceman. Photo John Russell at Great Lakes Images
L to R: National XC champ Todd Wells, Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski and Russell Finsterwald start the 2010 Iceman. Photo John Russell at Great Lakes Images

Created as something to do in the downtime between the first snowfall and the start of deer hunting season, the inaugural Iceman goaded 35 riders to prove mountain bikes, while still in their infancy, could ride through the forests from Kalkaska to Traverse City.

Twenty years later, roughly 4,000 riders made the same trek. But for many I talked with the big draw is the atmosphere. Last year’s Iceman winner, Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, broke his collarbone before heading to Iceman a few years back, but he chose to still make the trip just to be a part of it.

All events finish in the campgrounds of the Pere Marquette State Forest, making for crowd sizes to match the jumbotron results board. The gathering grows till the last event of the day with the finish of the men’s and women’s pro race; a deliberate design by Brown.

“[People] are there celebrating their own finish and then sticking around to see their heroes ride” he said.

Rick Kozole of Clarkson, Michigan, races only a few times year but has been making it back to the Iceman for five years. Somewhat typical, Rick came out with a crew of 15 friends and family to race and enjoy a little après Iceman.

“What’s nice about the race is it’s a family sport,” Kozole said. “It’s not just for hardcore racers.”


Maybe a lesser-known Iceman staple is “The Party Bus.” The bus has made it to more Icemen than its owner, Kent Noller. Never having raced the event himself, Noller has been to the Iceman about eight years now to watch the race, visit with friends and “guilt himself into exercising and eating right by surrounding [himself] into with world class athletes,” he said.

And this could be true. The bus itself has hosted about six national mountain bike champs, a few Olympians and one World Champ for post-Iceman celebrations.

But on a serious note, Noller, a long-time Traverse City resident, finds a positive impact on the city because of the race.

“It brings an element of athletic activity that most of Michigan isn’t really aware of,” said Noller, citing the growth of the Cherry-Roubaix road race.


Brian Matter and Amanda Carey with their Iceman hardware. Photo by John Russell at Great Lakes Images
Brian Matter and Amanda Carey with their Iceman hardware. Photo by John Russell at Great Lakes Images

Brown would agree, likening the effect to that of the Red Zinger Road Classic on Boulder, Colorado, Brown said that for cyclists, the Iceman “has put Traverse City on the map.”

Brown also reports the race has an economic impact of roughly $1.5 million on Traverse City and the surrounding the area.

Community groups look forward to participating in the Iceman. Local high school sport teams volunteer for the race and in return receive fund raising donations.

The city of Kalkaska asked Brown to move the start more toward the town center. This increased community involvement and helped Brown lengthen the start before the singletrack to alleviate bottlenecks.

“The town welcomes the riders and [the riders] feel it,” said Brown. “I hate to [use a cliché], but it’s a win-win situation.”

Even the local Coast Guard installment asked to be part of the Iceman; having a presence and adding a dramatic flyover to finish the singing of the National Anthem at the race’s start.


When asked what’s the coolest thing about the Iceman, Brown said he “gets a kick out of seeing a cycling culture develop in Traverse City. There’s a lot more commuting by bike.”

Just this summer, Brown bumped into a father of one of the football team volunteers. The parent had lost about 50 pounds and looked a completely changed person. A new-found love of cycling, instigated by the Iceman, was the cause.

So, with thousands of racers, top pros, huge crowds, financial boon and life-changing effect, it is somewhat Olympic-esque. Maybe Tom was right, but just this once.

Judy Freeman is a pro mountain biker out of Boulder, Colorado. In 2009 she represented the U.S. at the World Championships in Canberra, Australia. For 2010, she’ll be racing for Kenda/Felt Mountain Bike Team. Other sponsors for 2010 include TrailMaster Coaching, Hayes, Manitou, Voler Apparel, Pearl Izumi, WickWerks, KMC, SDG, Crank Brothers, Uvex, Pika Packworks, Smith Optics and Mighty Good Coffee.

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