The Tough Call, The Right Call: How We Got Here

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! 

Iceman Update: A Crisp Start To The Finish (Venue)

Know what makes it really feel like the Bell’s Iceman Cometh Challenge is just around the corner? 40 degrees and rain. 

I always smile the first time we see this kind of weather because of something my friend Sean Kickbush said while lining up at Peak2Peak a couple of years ago. We were doing that awkward dance before the Elite start; pedaling around in small circles just a few yards from the start line because we didn’t want to be the first to line up, but didn’t not want to be first, either. It was cold and, as if often the case, windy at the base of the ski hill. Nerves, as you’d expect, were frayed. Just then, ten minutes before the start, a few sprinkles fell, followed by something more steady. Sean, tense but smiling looked over and voiced his opinion on conditions. “You know what’s better than racing in 40 degrees? Racing in 40 degrees in the rain. Yeah, that’s a fun idea.” 

Of course, we all clamor to do it when it’s Iceman. Some of you nutcases even do your snow dances or hope for freezing weather. Once the gun goes off, the weather doesn’t matter. This is Michigan, and this is Iceman; we all know what we signed up for, and we’re going to give it hell no matter what. 

This past Sunday, a few of the crew made the short trip up to Timber Ridge to start preparing for 10,000 of our friends to party. It was the perfect Iceman morning; grey, cold, and just damp enough to control the sand. As I pulled in, a solid group of riders from all over the state were pumping up tires and sliding snacks into their pockets. I’ll admit, this weekend was the first time I had a fuzz of jealousy of the folks racing. Those guys and gals looked excited, eager, and ready for what is always an adventure. 

Instead, I joined Mark Frick and Dave Heim on breaking out the stuff that makes the Iceman Iceman; the banners. Well, they may not be the most important or exciting part of the event, but this infrastructure is precious. We popped open the massive shipping container and started organizing by the sponsor; a massive pile of Bell’s signs, Trek banners neatly stacked next to Bontrager, a bunch of BISSELL close-by, and the Subaru VIP signs next to the golden VIP Parking banners. Seeing the container slowly empty was a great feeling, but the real treat was when Mark rolled out the barrels. Literally. The Bell’s Brewery barrels, for me, immediately send a jolt of electricity through me; this thing is SO CLOSE!

Throughout the morning, we also got a few updates from Northern Michigan Mountain Bike Association and their trails crews. They’ve been working every night well past dark to get some of the course’s re-routes finished up and packed in. Much of these re-routes will be flagged and started by the weekend, but there’s plenty more to do to get them up to NMMBA’s exacting standards. When you see a few guys in the woods over the next few weeks, make sure you give them a shout and say thank you! 

Last week, transfers officially closed, which means we’ll be polishing up wave assignments over the next few days. We’ll be doing what we can to get people where they should be, if not exactly where they want to be. Our registration crew has been getting 60-80 emails a day for the past two weeks with questions and requests, and they’ve given me two tips to pass along to those looking to skip up a few starting positions. First, just remember that we can only do so much shuffling. Second, Jessica and Denine like Two-Hearted Ale in a bottle. 

Finally, the weather. I’ll admit, I caught myself checking the long, long-range forecast the other day, and finally smacked my own hand away from the weather app. It’s northern Michigan; the weather is going to change a dozen times between now and November 2, and another dozen times during the race. Don’t sweat it. Just like the course, we’re all in the same rain, snow, wind, or heatwave, and we know it’s not going to stop you from finishing…or hanging around to party.

30th Annual Bell’s Iceman Cometh Challenge Takes Off!

30th Annual Bell's Iceman Cometh Challenge Takes Off!

July. The very height of summer in Northern Michigan. Hot days, warm nights, searing sun and plenty of time between now and November 2…or so you’d think! Today, we had our first full staff meeting to bring you the 30th Annual Bell’s Iceman Cometh Challenge. From logistics, security, course marketing, shoot, even where we’ll put the Kiwanis Pancake Breakfast, the first thing I’ve learned over the past six months is that there isn’t a detail, idea, or improvement that we leave to chance! 

One of the biggest things that makes Iceman so exciting are those little changes to the schedule or course. Starting in August, racers are putting in Out’n’Backs to scout out that new turn, climb, or descent that might give them the edge, or at least buy them a handful of seconds. Those recon rides are a part of the buzz, the excitement of the race, and a fixture for locals and a real treat for folks who make the drive to Traverse City to see the course for themselves.

Well, for the 30th ‘gala’, as Steve “Iceman” Brown has taken to calling it, we’ve cooked up something big. I was going to start this announcement with a pun, the best (worst) of which follow below:

  • I hope this new idea has wings!
  • The new start venue has taken off! 
  • 2019 will see all new heights! 

Due to the number of eye-rolls, however, I’ll just let this parachute down and land on you: we’re moving the start venue to the Kalkaska Airport! The Village of Kalkaska has been such an incredible host for years, and when we sat down about the move, they were way ahead of us. Not only was it on their radar, but it was also on their to-do list! They’ll be making some changes to allow for all of our parking, bus drop off, rider drop off, start chute and over a mile of the course to all easily fit on the airstrip! 

The move to the airport, from a racer’s perspective, achieves a lot of good. Logistically, every aspect of race morning will be easier; you’ll be able to park close to the start, warm-up on dirt roads, watch your friends take off (another pun, you’re welcome) for over a mile, and have access to vendors for your support crew. We’ve got packet pick-up and the Pancake Breakfast within site of the start banner, plus Porta Johns right where they’re handy as you line up. 

Additionally, the start has plenty of time to shake out. Since the move to the Fairgrounds, the Iceman start in every wave has felt a bit like riding in a mob of Black Friday shoppers; there’s not much of a lead-in before you slam into a narrow opening. It’s made the opening two minutes of the race more important than ever, but that can be frustrating when you’ve spent months training, just to get buried on the first bit of singletrack. 

Instead, you’ll have nearly a mile and a half of wide, fast riding on grass, gravel, and a bit of paved runway to sort yourselves out before slashing across Island Lake Road and onto a wooded two-track. You’ll have another three-quarters of a mile until you see singletrack, giving each wave roughly two miles to shake things out. The first ten minutes still matter a lot, but you’re going to slot in where you deserve to be. 

We’ve got a lot more to come about the race over the next few months, and we’ll be sure to keep you updated about some exciting stuff from Bell’s Brewery, Trek Bikes, and everything Iceman Cometh Challenge. Are you getting ready for November 2? You better be!