Three decades ago, 39 mountain bikers with nothing better to do on a Saturday morning gathered in Kalkaska. It was frigid; winter had swept in early, and for the first edition of the race, it piled up. That year, Steve Brown had put together something that was certainly competitive in spirit, while also offering a sense of adventure. It was an event that posed a rather simple question: what if?
What if we sent riders from Kalkaska to Traverse City? What if more showed up a year later, and even more the year after that? What if Iceman brought in riders from across northern Michigan, across the state, across the Midwest? What if we finished here; what if we started over there? What if we had beer at the finish venue? What if that microbrew festival turned into nearly a decade of Bell’s Brewery, and our very own ale?
Over two years ago, just before Christmas, Steve Brown gave me a book called Tai-Pan. It was about an ambitious trader in Hong Kong that built the largest, most ambitious trading company in the Far East called “The Noble House”. Just one book in an epic saga, it’s the story not of one person, but of an enterprise bigger than a single person, and about the commitment to carrying on the standards, the morals, and the idea for generation after generation. Before I was too far into the book, I started to get the idea.
Last year, I showed up to the start line knowing that it could be the last time I race. It was quite the feeling; I’d been sick for two weeks leading up to it, but instead of being disappointed, it let me just relax and soak it all in. The nerves, the last-minute decision on what bike to ride, the long, agonizing wait for the Pro 2:30 start. Every second meant something, and that odd perspective stuck with me. What could possibly attract thousands of mountain bikers from around the country to travel to Traverse City, in terrible weather, to race bikes?
When you take that step back, what you see is that because of what Steve and Connie Brown have poured into this race, and the incredible people that they’ve tied in to make it happen, Iceman truly is more than a race. Competition is just one small ingredient of a recipe that combines tradition, hardship, passion, failure, resilience, success, and a quiet sort of relief that comes not at the finish so much as it does at the start. We have all faced challenges and sacrifices just to show up; we’ve put in the miles, we’ve traveled the hours, we’ve made it all come together for one special day in November.
Looking at the race now, I don’t see a race by which my friends will judge my fitness or ability. I see riders that wake up at 3:45 am to ride their trainers in the basement before work so they can train and still make it to Junior’s soccer game that evening. I see a guy who lost 55 pounds riding bikes not to win his age group, but to just finish 30 miles of everything the Pere Marquette can muster. I see a woman who requested to move back fifteen waves to ride with her sister so they could motivate each other, no matter the weather. I see a dad who, though he could probably win his age group, enter the Pro race so that he won’t miss his son take on the Slush Cup.
I’ve got two simple requests for you tomorrow. First, please appreciate those banners. Seriously. As a racer, I used to think they just appeared, already draped over the hard fencing and magically removed Saturday night. They’re not. Dozens of volunteers spend countless hours setting up the start and finish venue, and they do so in the rain, in the snow, and in the cold. Those venues aren’t just parts of the racecourse, they’re the stage for the biggest show in mountain biking. Behind every banner and sign is a volunteer and a sponsor; without them, this show wouldn’t go on.
Finally, look out for each other. To preserve our natural spaces, to promote our sport, and to ensure that events like the Bell’s Iceman Cometh Challenge have a future for the next thirty years, it’s going to take every single one of us. If we do nothing else with this race, I hope we continue to grow the sense of community that is fostered by joining a local club or team, becoming a member of your local trail association, and by participating in and supporting events that have a larger purpose.
Now go lose sleep about which tires you’ve picked out for tomorrow, and we’ll see you in Kalkaska!