Freezing rain with the breeze turning the precipitation white throughout the day, the 2014 Iceman Cometh Challenge is in the books, and it's a chapter in the race no one will forget any time soon. After years of relatively nice weather and snow more picturesque that challenging two years ago, mud, for the first time, completely altered the look of the event...and the riders.
Over 5,000 racers were signed up to make the annual pilgrimage from Kalkaska to Traverse City. The forecast was taciturn throughout the week, but the race day reality surpassed what anyone expected. The temperature was just above freezing, with a 20mph wind bringing the chill straight through the bone. Thousands of racers swarmed to Kalkaska, turning the small village into the center of the cycling universe for a few hours, with spandex-clad cyclists everywhere trying to warm-up and somehow keep warm. More than a few reduced their pre-race ritual to simply sitting in the car and listening to Metallica until their wave went off.
Einstein Racing came out in numbers, with nearly 40 riders taking part in the biggest mountain bike race in North America. More than a few were making their first start, including riders like relative newby Kathleen Kerr and mountain bike legend Joe Sovis. Experienced or first-timers, young or old, the race was almost immediately a mental struggle against the urge to quit in ugly conditions. The first three waves had the best of the course, and Jason Lowetz, Jason Whittaker, Nate St. Onge, Rob Goepfrich and others made the most of the relatively clear (not clean) lines to put in some podium-worthy efforts.
Beyond those first three waves, it was a veritable morass for the other 4,000 racers left to start. The trail grew wider, deeper in mud and sand and splashing wet, and with each wave passing over, turned into a quagmire marked by a few red arrows and a long line of unsteady, filthy racers. By the tenth wave, much of the course was almost unrecognizable, with the already ripped up logging area by Dockery Road looking more like a swamp than a mountain bike course.
It was quickly apparent that the old benchmark of two hours was going to be achievable by a select few. Jeff Owens took the honor of being the first person to Timber Ridge after a tremendous effort from teammate Eli Brown, who was rarely off the front applying the pressure. It's always a point of pride to have a Traverse City rider first home, and Keegan Myers was third in, giving two riders a special note in their palmares.
It was Laura Webb first in for the women, a great ride ahead of teammates Lauri Brockmiller and Susan Vigland. Einstein's Beth Collins battled to yet another gutsy ride in a season of impressive efforts. She's been the most dedicated and consistent finisher on the team since March.
There were heroic efforts all over the place. The most impressive came in the later waves, where riders had no illusions of podiums or glory or fleeting attention. Those efforts went unnoticed, and they went slowly along, covered and caked in mud, brakes squealing and gears of questionable disposition. Scores of racers called it a day at the first checkpoint at Dockery Road, and the temptation was greater at Williamsburg Road. Still, nearly all of the Einstein Racing entrants made it home to Timber Ridge.
One that didn't make it into the lodge was Wes Sovis. While riding strong in the Pro race, he was nearly to Dockery when he happened across a quietly distraught Cody Sovis walking in the brush, bike over shoulder. A broken derailleur hanger had knocked him out of the race, and his gloves were literally and figuratively off as he started to make "The Call". Wes asked what he needed, and quickly offered up his bike, even taking the professional second to swap out his brother's Garmin and check that the water bottle on the bike was full. It's a tremendous effort to finish an Iceman Cometh Challenge, and it was a far bigger one to give such a finish away. Wes wins the teammate award in a very big way.
The result of the day goes to Ryan "Mr. President" Kennedy, who finished his best ever Iceman in 19th place in the Pro race. In the most challenging field and in the most disgusting conditions of 2014, Kennedy's finish was the culmination of a tremendous amount of hard work and dedication to perform at an incredibly high level.
To get just a taste of the Iceman Cometh experience, check out a very impressive gallery from Pink Bike.