Last year, Geoff Kabush won the 29th edition of the Bell’s Iceman Cometh Challenge. This was no surprise. The kind of bike he won it on did, however, raise some eyebrows.
Riding the Iceman on drops bars isn’t new; we’ve seen plenty of riders brave the course on cyclocross and gravel bikes over the years, with varying degrees of success. For racers with plenty of experience on skinny tires and the handling skills to throw themselves through sandpits and come out the other side upright, it can actually be an advantage to have bigger gears and a more aerodynamic position on the bike.
New kinds of bikes are making drop bars more and more realistic for races like Iceman. With tire clearance for 650b wheels and 2.25” tires, they’re essentially putting mountain bike wheels on gravel or road bikes. Our course doesn’t offer rocky, rough terrain that demands suspension, and if you can do a dozen push-ups, you’re probably strong enough to meet the rigors of splashing down a few tree roots, even if your teeth chatter.
We’ve already heard a ton of people talking about riding drop bars this year, and Kabush’s win last year is definitely a big factor behind the renewed interest. It’s something I’ve done plenty of times on Out’n’Backs and, I’ll admit, I loved having the big gears and smaller tires barrelling down Sand Lakes Road en route to the start in Kalkaska.
My very first Iceman I decided to race the Pro wave, mostly due to spending a good fifteen hours the day before manning our booth at the SRAM Ice Cycle Expo all Friday. Pros have the luxury of sleeping in a bit! I lined up dead last, hoping to stay out of the way. I was the only rider on a cyclocross bike; next to me, coincidentally, was the first rider to ever to do the Pro race on a fat bike. Less than five miles in, I hit a root so hard that it bent by rim and the brake pad (and these were cantilever, remember those?) got stuck against under the rim. After a few minutes I got the wheel rolling, although the brake was ruined. At the very least, I was moving, but spent the rest of the day battling that fat bike not to get last.
Since then, I’ve done the course on everything from 35mm cyclocross tires to thick, meaty 2.25” Thunderburts with drop bars, very similar to Kabush’s winning set-up. It is so fast on the open sections of the course, and if you have the right gearing, you won’t suffer at all on the climbs or descents. Where drop bars hurt you is when you don’t get to decide where to ride. Riding in a big bunch or group means you’re constantly switching lines, whether by design or at the mercy of a fellow rider. It’s in those moments where having a rigid bike makes you pay more; the speed-robbing root, bouncing through loose sand or along a deep rut. Suspension is really forgiveness, and with drop bars and your weight over the front of the bike, you pay for every single mistake.
Can you race Iceman on drop bars? Totally. First, fit the biggest tires you can into your bike; most traditional cyclocross bikes can fit a maximum tire width between 38 and 43mm. Some can fit a 650c wheel with 27.5” mountain bike tires; that’s the way to go if you can! Get out as often as you can and work on your handling skills, and give the course plenty of recon rides to know where you want to be in each section. Additionally, ride the wrong lines, too, so you’re ready to recover from bobbles on race day. Can you win Iceman on drop bars? Well, are you Geoff Kabush?