We don’t have a race this year, but we’ve all got memories to get us through winter and all the way to November 2021. Here’s my favorite.
In 2016, I was in a slump. I was working at a bike shop and putting in some incredibly long weeks. I was squeezing in the same old rides, on the same old routes, and feeling lethargic. I was still having fun, but cycling had turned into something sort of static after a long spring of summer. In the run-up to Iceman, I was really looking to do something different.
Earlier in the year, I’d signed up for the Pro race, which I always did. I never considered myself anything like a Pro, and I doubted if winning my age group would have been in the picture. I always raced Pro for two simple realities. First, cycling is the rate sport that offers riders a chance to line up next to some of the best riders in the country. Over the years, I raced alongside national champions and even world champions, even if calling my ‘alongside’ might be a bit of a stretch. Still, if Michael Jordan was in town playing one-on-one, why wouldn’t you want to get on the court?
Second, Pro was also just more convenient. Working at a shop, Iceman Week was always a marathon. The shop was always insanely busy, with last-minute repairs and upgrades and emergencies. Working the SRAM Ice Cycle Expo was always a ten or eleven hour day, not counting an early ride on the finishing circuit to move the legs and test out the bike.
Still, I needed something more to get excited about, so I spent a day or two trying to come up with something. Initially, the idea was just to ride out the afternoon start, but that didn’t seem too exotic. Somehow, that turned into racing twice. The idea gathered some momentum around the shop, and we worked out some details. I’d race the Fat Bike Race in the morning, then put 27.5+ wheels on the same bike and race Pro in the afternoon.
Simple. Easy. What, maybe four hours, max? Plus a nice long break for lunch. Let’s do it.
That year, I also had some guests in town. We knew Stephen Ettinger from his BMC days, where he was the 2013 US National Champion. Stephen was looking for a couch to surf, and I raised my hand. This time, he was bringing his buddy Spencer Paxson with him, a pro for another brand we carried, Kona. I borrowed an inflatable mattress and stuck him on the floor in the spare room.
I eagerly took note of everything they did. I always try to play it cool around all the big names, but these guys were just the coolest. The first thing they did was go shopping; luckily, my 1998 Subaru Outback started and tacked on a few more miles to get them to the store and back. Seeing the bags they brought in, I assumed I’d misheard them; they must be staying for a month.
Then, they took over the garage to build their bikes. I worked at a bike shop, by my greatest mechanical skill was being able to drop by multitool every single time I had a bike in the stand. I was usually chased out of the service area, so I was really impressed how quickly and expertly they put their bikes together. Spencer certainly wasn’t worried about a pre-ride and was much more excited about riding out on Old Mission Peninsula to see all the sights. Coming from Bellingham, he had plenty of mountains to look at, but not the beautiful water we have here.
The Expo was a blur, and all I remember from it was texting a friend my food order for what I wanted to eat between the races the following day. GT Pie Co. is kind of my comfort food, and I always get the exact same thing. The manager, Heather, usually has my order in before I make it from the door to the register. The promise of a sandwich, blueberry applesauce, and a giant sugar cookie (with sprinkles), plus some rice pudding from my friend Don Marsh, was the carrot at the end of the stick in the morning.
That night was also the night my Chicago Cubs won the World Series. I fell asleep in the third inning and slunk off to bed. I still kind of regret that.
In the morning, I was all-in for my friend and teammate, Ryan Kennedy. I didn’t know if I’d be in the mix on a fat bike, but I was going to try. My strategy was simple. I was going to race the first ten to fifteen minutes so damn hard that no one would want to ride like that for another hour and a half. I had an incredibly lucky and fast start and popped onto the singletrack on the front, with Kennedy comfortably in touch.
A smarter way to race would have been to measure my effort, stay in the wheels, and put in one or two efforts when Kennedy needed it. But I felt great; really, I’ve only felt that good on a bike two or three times in my life. I couldn’t get tired. I rode on the front as much as possible, and if I wasn’t leading, I would get right back on the gas whenever the pace dropped. By Williamsburg Road, there were just a few of us left, and Kennedy was looking imperious. At the Boonenberg, I was in just a bit of trouble, but without someone insisting on things at the front, I got back into the wheels and even survived Anita Hill in contact.
If you’ve ridden Speed of Light with me or with my brother, Wes, you know that Sovis’s just do not get up Anita. We just don’t. We can gut things out anywhere, anytime, but that hill always has our number. I don’t think I’ve ever stuck on a wheel going up that, except on that race on that Iceman. I won’t forget it.
With about five kilometers to go, a rider went for it, and Kennedy took a deep breath and gave chase. I was cooked, and I spent the last mile or two straining my ears to hear the loudspeakers at Timber Ridge, urging Kennedy to the line and soaking in the smiles from friends on Icebreaker. Kennedy didn’t take it, but he won his age group, and I won the fat bike race.
I rode down the hill to the shop and shivered out of my wet clothes and dove face-first into the GT Pie Co bag waiting for me. One of the best parts of the day was sitting on the couch and seeing all sorts of our pals stop by and tell us how their race went. Who they raced with, where they got a gap or got dropped, what they would have gone differently; we don’t need the race on ESPN, because each and every one of us can offer up our own play-by-play.
Wheels swapped and body refueled, we headed back to Kalkaska. The saving grace of the whole idea was the weather. It was something like 46 degrees at the start, and after a long warm-up to get my legs moving again, I was taking off layer after layer to stay comfortable. Brian Beckwith even let me borrow his sunglasses, because I hadn’t anticipated needing them.
I lined up nearly dead last; I wanted everyone ahead of me and I was going to make sure I wasn’t last. Even if it meant sitting on one wheel the whole way and sprinting away, I wasn’t going to be the lantern rouge.
If you’ve never raced the Pro race, the first five minutes isn’t dramatically faster than Wave One. The difference is that the speed of the first five minutes never stops. Ever. What ‘normal’ guys do for five minutes, that top twenty or thirty riders can do for thirty. It’s like riding a wave that doesn’t break, or a rocket ship that keeps heading to orbit dropping off its boosters at regular intervals on the ascent.
There’s always a pile-up, too. Put one hundred aggressive, testosterone-fueled gentlemen on bikes and throw them from a twenty-foot wide gravel road to a two-foot singletrack, and no one is going to give an inch. I’ve been in the top twenty going into the woods, and I’ve been near the back. It doesn’t matter; there’s going to be a crash, and you’ll either be ahead of it and happy, behind it and stopped, or in it and the ground. I’ve experienced all three.
That year, however, I was well behind it and stood with one foot on the ground while watching the leaders up the trail going thirty miles an hour after hearing the crash, thud, crink of bikes and bodies piling up. As we got going again, I heard Nate Williams shout, “Get ready!”. That year, and for a few years, Nate and I almost always ended up chasing together, which said a lot about our luck. Usually, he’d pull me and I’d contribute a few turns, largely for my own ego and simply so he could get a drink or eat. Just a few weeks earlier, I’d been chasing at the Gravel Grinder in a group with Nate and Mike Simonson. When they pulled, we went twenty-eight, and when I came to the front, we’d sink to twenty-three. After a few rotations, Nate very kindly said, “Hey man, we’ve got this, just hang on.” Mike smiled when he went by, stifling a laugh.
On this occasion, Nate wheeled by and immediately disappeared. One or two riders tried to go with him, but I think he was the only guy to actually make it back to the lead group. The rest of us had our own races to run, like so much debris in the wake of a hurricane.
For me, it was a time trial, and I went “full Froome”, as my brother would say. I have a habit of staring at my heart rate on my GPS head unit, and knowing the course intimately meant I didn’t need to look up often. At Make It Stick!, I could tell by how Eli and the Keen guys were cheering that I was looking tired, but I knew there were plenty of us hurting by that point. Getting to Williamsburg Road is always a benchmark, and after I hit the Vasa, I looked back to see a few riders sitting on my wheel, enjoying the tow. I’ve never quite figured out why people won’t take turns, but I’ve also learned over the years that it’s a race; no one owes you anything. I was racing my race, they were racing theirs. I kept chugging.
Just before Icebreaker, I eased up. I always did. I took ten seconds and about three deep breaths to gather myself to sprint up the hill. There truly isn’t a better feeling in the world than climbing that last ascent in a tunnel of noise. The best part, though, is that they aren’t strangers. So many of them are people we ride with all year or have known for years, and for all the riding and hurting we do in silence in training and racing throughout the year, that boisterous sound is a real reward.
Finally, I finished. Stephen and Spencer were mostly changed and almost cleaned up, and we rode down to the shop for pizza and festivities. I was smoked, but it was a great experience and something I’m really proud to have tried. I do hope that other people give it a shot, and I really hope they get the same perfect weather to make it more fun.
We’ve all got stories. Over the next two weeks, make a point of telling them. Post it on FB, share your photos, and your tales with us, and if we can’t live the 2020 race, we’ve got thirty years to celebrate in the meantime.