We are gearing up for the biggest one-day mountain bike race in North America, conveniently located right in our own backyard.
The has clicked under one month until the Iceman Cometh Challenge, a point-to-point mountain bike race of around 30 miles from Kalkaska to Traverse City. The has grown from a half-dozen locals to a mass off spandex, teeming with over 5,000 riders from all over the US, Canada, and globe. Reigning and former MTB World Champions, Canandian and American champions, World Cup winners and legendary professionals have all tackled the same course as fresh beginners, weekend warriors and local heroes, and sometimes gone bar-to-bar with our friends and teammates.
The race transforms Traverse City; it's almost customary to put away your road bike after Labor Day and start putting in a half-dozen or so of the infamous "Out and Backs", a 17 mile ride to Kalkaska along gravel roads and the return leg on the 29 mile course, complete with a loop to Timber Ridge, the now traditional finish of the race. Subtle changes to the course are the topic of heated debate and conjecture; are they skipping that section of singletrack? Is that section going to be rerouted? We will still hit Anita's?
2015 looks to have two such reroutes, including the trimming of the singletrack introduced three years ago that took racers spilling out onto Sand Lakes Road after a few miles of great singletrack. For the early waves, that trail was a selection point. For the later waves, it was a parking lot, often turning into a backed-up queue akin to a scene at the mall before a Star Wars film debuts. Now, the stretch from Guernsey Lake Road stays on two-track and winds through a logged field, giving an eerie feel of a inoffensively constructed set for a WWI film. It's a no man's land, one punctuated by hitting Sand Lakes and bringing riders back onto wide-open, fast trail for nearly four miles.
If that change is jarring, the early singletrack just before Dockery has also been axed, for similar reasons. Now, it's a six foot wide grass drag race lane along the ridge, with a subtle incline setting up a nice platform for those looking to hit Dockery in front. The change should relieve the backed-up traffic seen there in past editions of the race, with plenty of room for passing and, for the Pros, a chance to jostle for valuable spots lost before Smith Lake Road.
It's the opening salvos of the race that have changed the least. Now, as autumn rains only just begin to pack the trail, the first miles of dirt are pockmarked by deep sand pits in every low point, and more than a dusting of loose sand on the straights and ascents. It might be the characteristics that almost nearly divide the race as a tale of two halves. The opening miles are a dash to sand and two-track, with short singletrack serving more as choke points than selection points.
After crossing Williamburg, it's a battle of attrition as the climbs begin to take a toll. One minute, maybe two minutes at a time, the trail turns up, at steep grades and with loose earth underneath. There isn't an unearned inch in the final ten miles, with the Vasa CC Climb coming on the heels of Anita's Hill and offering three pitches before the tantalizing sound of the faithful at Timber Ridge comes within earshot. It's cruel, then, to turn your back to the finish and curl around the Truee de Madeleine. It's not even two miles, but the straight, flat stretch a few hundred feet in is a tortuous experience after 27 miles of racing. Riders can be just seconds ahead but feel like miles out of reach. Turning back onto the Vasa and back to Timber, braving the Icebreaker climb, it's only a bit of singletrack and a ceremonial crossing of the flyover until, very suddenly, it's over.
We get to take our first look at the course together this Saturday at Gears'n'Beers.