It was way, way back in March on the long drive down to Bell’s Eccentric Cafe for the registration party that we started bracing ourselves for this possibility. The Festival Foundation was scrambling not only to sign up eager Icemen and Icewomen for our 31st edition but also to switch the Leapin’ Leprechaun 5k to a virtual event. To my knowledge, they were the first event to make the move. They were not the last.
On the drive home that night, I thought that, at most, we’d miss a few of the spring races. Over the next few weeks, events in April, May, and June canceled or postponed. Then, it was July and August. I got texts, emails, phone calls, and messages almost every single day asking one thing: “We’re still racing Iceman, aren’t we?” By August, that had changed to something more frustrating, more disappointing, and more honest: “Why have you’ve canceled Iceman yet?”
We weren’t sitting on our hands. Iceman planning starts the Sunday after race day, and that was certainly the case in 2019. By the time we flipped the calendar to 2020, we’d already restructured parking, changed traffic flows in Kalkaska, created the new course, and looked at how we could build more participation in our women’s Pro race.
All of those plans were put on the back burner with COVID-19. By the end of March, we were already looking at a ton of ways to tweak our race for fall. As confident as some of our racers were, our team watched as event after event were forced to throw their hands up. For the Foundation team, canceling the National Cherry Festival was almost certainly the most difficult decision of their professional careers. In the process of evaluating that event, we started to realize more and more that Iceman as we all know it wouldn’t be possible.
We ran through dozens of changes to the event, eliminating the obvious elements such as cutting the SRAM Ice Cycle Expo, removing our busing and shuttles, and drastically whittling down race day infrastructure. The finish would have no BISSELL Celebration Zone, where we often get more than 10,000 racers and spectators. In fact, after cresting Icebreaker, racers would be able to see the extent of the finish area in a split-second, with only a timing tent, first aid station, and a very apologetic race director asking them to keep rolling through to the parking lot to get picked up.
There were many reasons to cancel the event and very few feasible ways to put on anything that resembled the quality race that’s become such an institution in bike racing. First, I think it’s important to say that even if we could have put on the race, bringing over 4,000 people to our region during a pandemic would have been dangerous. Especially with many kids heading back to school, it was impossible to forecast what conditions would look like not just in Traverse City, but in major population centers like Detroit, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Lansing, and other places that send their best riders north for the weekend.
Next, we were denied a permit from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. From the beginning, we’ve trusted and respected the guidelines and restrictions put in place by the state to keep people safe. The DNR denying the permit wasn’t a barrier for us; we believe it was yet another way for us to measure and evaluate risk, and we thank the DNR for working so closely with us this summer. It confirmed what many of us knew to be true; bringing together people from across the state, Midwest, and country isn’t the right thing right now.
Finally, the decision came down to quality. The Bell’s Iceman Cometh Challenge earns its reputation each and every year by being the biggest show in town. Our race committee spends months planning and weeks setting up something that feels a bit like the Super Bowl halftime show. We were very concerned that a watered-down version of our race would leave a bad taste in the mouths of participants; come for the Rolling Stones, but see the middle school band? It just isn’t what we do.
I want to thank the Foundation staff for working tirelessly to try to make this happen. We met weekly (on Zoom, of course) to discuss safety procedures, bounce new ideas off each other, and constantly find ways to make the 2020 Bell’s Iceman Cometh Challenge a reality. I strongly believe that if any group of people could have pulled off a safe race for thousands of people in a pandemic, it would have been this team. But because they are the quality, caring people they are, they also knew that the best decision for our racers, our sponsors, and our wider community would be to wait until 2021.
Racers, we’re going to work just hard to make sure that 31st edition of the race happens. What we need is your support to get this staff through 2020 and ready to work on making 2021 the biggest party yet. We understand that times are difficult, but if you can afford to leave your donation, you’ll be ensuring that our tradition of racing through the snow, mud, and rain in November carries on for generations to come. We’ve lined up prizes from Bell’s, a Trek Top Fuel, tons of Clif Bar, and other awesome rewards for donating, including a chance to ride with 2019 Pro winner Alexey Vermeulen!
Be safe, stay healthy, and look out for each other. Until next time, we’ll see you in the woods!