Ah.......the Iceman. Part race, part destination, part fun, part pain, but always in one way shape or form worth the trip. The race has exploded over the last several years and really shows no signs of slowing. When I first began racing this event, the limit was capped at 2000 riders and often you could take a few months once registration opened to mess around with whether or not you were going to ride. Now.............5000 riders flock from all over the Midwest, Canada, and yes even the world to race this crazy little race through the woods of Northern Lower Michigan. Servers crash and lightning streaks across the sky (not really;) when enrollment opens every year and 10,000 people vying for an open spot wonder for days whether or not there frantic mouse clicks have put them on the starting line for a race that will occur 6 months later. Pure Michigan indeed!
Anyway, in recent events over the last several years, the races have become well, a bit different. Originally when I started doing this race, it was a test to see whether or not I could actually hang with some of the top riders from around the mid west. Back in the day, I was happy to trudge through to the finish line managing a top 20% overall finish and occasionally breaking the top five in my age class. Now, with the woods teeming with 5,000 rabid dogs in their PJ's slavering through the woods, I routinely struggle to crack the top 30%. Not as you might wonder due to my decreasing fitness and slow, inexorable march towards baldness and middle age, but really it's due to the monster amount of people linked up like a giant centipede connected almost continuously from Kalkaska straight through to Traverse City. Race line....yeah right, you make your own line!
In the week leading up to the race, there are so many distractions, I barely manage to look at my bike. Normally I'm tweaking, greasing, lubing, torquing my way towards the weekend. Thankfully I cleaned it up from the previous ride, because other than throwing it onto the back of the minivan, she never received more than a sideways glance. But with all the things going on as of late, I was glad to get in a couple of rides in the basement in the week leading up to the race. As always, even that would not have been possible without the support of my lovely wife. Thanks again for supporting the addiction babe.
We had a great ride up on Friday before the race. The girls were good in the van, we hit the expo in Traverse City and they absolutely loved running around the Grand Traverse Resort. We checked out a few booths (not as thorough as I'd like), but much like the lack of time for biking etc. we're always on the lookout for the next upcoming nap time! Harper started to fuss a bit so we grabbed some insanely over priced ham sandwiches and Bug Juice from the "deli" and made room for Carys's picnic at a table in the hallway! Unfortunately, we pushed our little trooper a bit too far that day. Harper could not be calmed. She was hungry, but wouldn't eat, she wanted to walk, but also wanted to be held, and she was thirsty, but didn't want milk from that particular cup.....and yup then the meltdown. Christa tucked her unceremoniously into the stroller and headed for the van while Carys and I finished our picnic in a rush. Upon review, Christa said that once Harper got the milk in her own cup, life was good and she settled for the short, hour long ride (and nap) to Boyne.
It was snowing on that drive and of course my bike was being laced with crud from the road. I groaned as later after settling in and putting the girls to bed, I would have to clean it up......again. Alas time always the challenge, she got no more than a brief chain cleaning with a paper towel! I traded a clean bike for a steak dinner and good night's sleep
Fast forward to the morning of the race. We had a good morning. A little hustled, but nothing I didn't over plan for! ;) We arrived in time for a good warm up and a 31F start temp...
31F, overcast skies, and yup.....snowing! Perfect. The weather for The Iceman is anything but predictable. It could be sunny and 60F, it could be snow covered and 20F. This year was right in the wheelhouse for decent race conditions. Lots of sand in this area of Michigan so the cold weather along with the moisture helps to firm up the soil.
Iceman race starts are, I have to imagine, unlike nearly anything else. 5000 people, 1 start line, and one race line! Wow! The start is staggered, so that helps. Waves start about every 2.5 minutes or so. It's a frenzy to say the least.
Pre-race jitters now. Light headed feeling, hands tingling, guts turning. I'm in the back of the minivan, pulling on my PJ's getting ready to warm up. I hop out and kiss the girls,and Carys tells me "hurry up daddy". Ha! So off I go with those ample words of encouragement ensuring that I will give it all I've got!
I roll to the start line and wow, the people. My wave has 99 riders. I'm 6 from the back. I'm warmed up, but will need it to get around the crowd for certain. The wave rolls to the starting gate and the announcer is babbling on about how he loves the snow. Seeing that he's dressed in North face parka and snowmobile boots, no wonder he "loves the snow"! Christa stops along the fence for pre-race kiss. This helps settle my nerves and bring me back down to earth. I realize that this is still just a race and helps me come down from the ceiling as to my poor start position. I bet the guy in the front of the pack didn't get a good luck kiss before the start of his race.....Ha! sucker.
Anyway, my vision narrows, the seconds slow and the bell rings and we're off. The Iceman starts are notoriously hard fought. The tip of the spear establishes and the geese replace the front end repeatedly to keep the pace nice and high. When you're in the front, this is helpful though a bit painful. When you're in the back, you're just trying not to let the elastic snap. I roll near the outside of the V about 93 riders back and drop the hammer. It sounds easy on paper to drop the hammer when you have an engine with 300hP on unlimited reserve. When you do this with a body only capable of sustaining about 1 HP for indeterminate amount of time, you wonder whether or not you will crack. Not to mention you have to do it with 30.5 miles left to go in a 30.6 mile race! Alas, I do it anyway.
I begin to knock of riders in groups of 3, hovering inches from their handlebars peloton style trying to get a bit of draft as I crash towards the front. we approach the first 90 degree turn and the pack begins to slow, this is the elastic snapping part that makes riding in the back so difficult. As the group slows, the riders near the front corner at speed and accelerate out of the turn, in the back you slow as not to crash, but then have to go full gas to keep touch with the draft......I drop the hammer and hop the curb knocking out 25 positions inside 5 seconds. I'm sitting about 30th now with a mile (or less) to go to the woods. Riders are beginning to crack. The top 6-7 guys are trading the headwind and everyone else is just hanging on for dear life. I'm frantic now, because I'm pinned on the red line. Heart rate unknown, but it hurts.....a lot. I draft for several seconds, the riders crack and I'm forced to close the gap. Couple riders, couple seconds, dropped, then pass and close the gap again. We hit the gravel and I'm 8th. There's a strong group of 5 left. 6 and 7 and bouncing on the pedals trying not to crack. I'm better than them, but not by much. As we hit the dirt adjacent to the middle school (old starting area) 6 and 7 begin to lose the gap. I've recovered for about 30 seconds in their slip stream and am able to lift up to the 6th position easily. We cross pavement, drop into the ditch and the top 3 attack!........Really???
Damn it.......(Hurry up Daddy).....Damn it. Yup I went with them. I'm scrambling to hang onto the 4th place wheel, but know if I drop it, I'm gone....the race as they say is over. I have his slipstream now. I'm recovering....now not the lazy boy, smoking a cigarette recovering, but the heart rate is south of 180bpm now and feeling in my hands and normal vision are returning. Good, and I'm hurrying Carys!
I'm feeling better but I notice 2 and 3 and starting to look not so good. When you've spent enough time on the bike, this is easy to spot by the way. It's not always as evident as someone just sitting up and quitting. Oftentimes is starts with a bad line here, or a bump that catches them by surprise there. Riders that have been there (me included every time I race) understand when it happens to them and learn when to recognize the signs. If you don't, that's when gaps form and you could be in trouble. Number 1 is tamping out one hell of a pace now. He's not looking for any help. If I don't get behind him, I may never see him again.
I pin it (again) after only 2 miles into the race I'm wondering how in the heck I can keep this up. I pull alongside the 2nd place rider and he doesn't even look over, he sits up and rolls away quickly. I drop into the groove and realize, there's not much to hide behind. #1 is about 5-7 140 lbs (best guess) and he's running about 8% body fat by the looks of him......uh oh. I manage to hang on until about mile 4 before the rollers start. Bottom line, 140lbs lean machine vs 190 lb beer swilling weekend warrior. Guess what happened next?
I lost him but would continue to push near my limits. I began to get out of the red zone and realize that our efforts have brought us within the next wave after only 4 miles of riding. I roll around man after man and gradually settle into a heart rate south of Canada and begin to feel the groove.
I hate the two track. It's all about sustained effort, little skill, and just keeping yourself just shy of passing out if you want to stay ahead of the pack. But there's a lot of two track at the Iceman and if you wanna go fast, you gotta go fast. The miles continue to tick off and we hit the single track. I'm hoping to swoop through and pull back some time. But alas there's a traffic jam. I actually stopped several times and waited for others to meander through the woods. One hapless cat decided to run through the woods cx (cyclocross) style with his bike slung over his shoulder. After about 10 riders, he decided 25 more weren't going to get him much. He dropped off the berm and set his bike in front of mine......nice! Unfortunately for him the conditions were worsening, he slid out and off to the side. I was "forced" to run over his back wheel and continue on with a smile. Hope they weren't too expensive Captain America. The 10 or so riders that he vaulted in front of him needless to say weren't giving him his spot back.
After that section of single track (I think maybe the last major one until the finish) it was pretty uneventful. You know, the usual stuff: climbing "near vertical" dirt walls of mud strewn with weary cyclists and using said mud mixed with sand as a drive train lubricant! Talking or rather gasping out a few pleasantries to fellow suffering cyclists. All in a good day of racing in Northern Michigan!
Flash to the finish. I has been battling back and forth for some time with a svelte 5'6" 150 lb racer for most of the last 10 miles. He'd been dropping me on the climbs and I'd been blasting down hill around riders and off the beaten path like an out of control juggernaut.....recall 6'1" 190 lbs. Anyway, he dropped me on the last climb and I couldn't bring him back. We ducked into the familiar mud infested single track before the corral style finish through the snow fences. At this point the riding slowed (again) and a guy two men back from me had had enough. He bellowed out "for F's sake it's a mountain bike race!" He elbowed past the rider behind me causing him to tap down. Then he tried his hand with big bear.....recall 6'1" 190 lbs. He put his wheel in where it wasn't wanted and oddly enough, I didn't move? He was hollering to beat the band that he needed to pass. The only response I gave, "yup, you and the rest of the conga line."
At the exit of the muddy single track. Mr. Road Rage came around with a vengeance which woke me from my slumbering slog through the mud towards the snow fences. The road widened and I grabbed his wheel. I was gearing up for a hard fought sprint to the finish, but he wasn't as fast as I'd thought. With all that blustering I assumed Ryder Hesjedal had returned to the Iceman for a cameo. I grabbed the outside line off the last corner and wheelied past him at the finish line. I saved the Contador pistols for another day.....I finished in 2hrs:12 min. I hope my finish time will improve my placing at the start of next year's race! Last year was 2hr:22min.
I finished just behind another Team Sand Bag racer. Brad Dunkin had just finished up and was looking for the beer tent! I found the girls who gave me an "it's about time" look
and the race was done. Another one in the books. Christa had a couple of beer tickets (bless her heart) ready for the Bell's Beer Tent so we grabbed a couple of those (Two Hearted and Amber) to chug before exiting the campground. The girls got a couple of "Racer's only" cookies and later we found the TSB campsite, had a PBR, was afforded some shelter for a much needed change of clothes, swapped a few stories with friends, and made the return commute to the corn fields....corn fields you ask....well, that is another story. With nap time fast approaching (isn't it always!) and the girls' faces getting long, it was time to hit the road.
I'll be back next year. It'll all start at 9:00am in the middle of March, frantically clicking the submit button hoping to ink in another spot for this legendary race. Can't wait