The Double was a dream of ours for a few years now, but it wasn't until this fall that we were ready to give it a go. And it really was a team effort to make it happen, from manning the Iceman Expo, to running the shop on race day, and handling the logistics of two races.
The decision was finalized just after Labor Day. Looking at the schedule of races and thanks to the flexibility of Dan and Ben, I knew I would be able to make it to a run of events that would be huge in order to be ready for a double Iceman. Rather than train into the race, I wanted to compete as much as possible, which meant the busiest fall calendar that I've ever done. I raced Uncle John's Dirty Ride and The Vineyard Race in September, then a double-header weekend to start October with the Michigan Mountain Mayhem Gravel Grinder and Clarabella GROAD Race to kick off October ahead of Peak2Peak. Those gravel races are the best Iceman training out there, and led perfectly into my other big goal of the fall, the Lowell 50.
Lowell is a race that fascinates me every time. It's a lottery of a race, much like Uncle John's Dirty Ride. With the exact same fitness and legs, you could easily finish first or thirtieth, or anywhere in between. The race splits and comes back together a dozen times or more over 57 miles, and you can make 9 splits out of 10, and somehow that last one was the lucky one. This year, I went in with my best form yet and managed 12th, riding a hard chase to try and catch a group of four that got away. I think that day and that effort were a big lesson for me, and a solid effort perfectly timed ahead of Iceman.
In the week of the race, we are always really busy around the shop, but I was able to get in every ride I wanted. I really enjoy riding in the dark, getting up before the traffic, or hitting the woods just as the first bit of pink and red peaks over the trees on the Vasa. Even the frost, crackling under four inch tires, was a bit of a pleasure.
The Iceman Expo is always a bit of a circus, and having two guys on at the shop is always a long day. While we were up at the Resort, Dan and Ben were working miracles well past our normal working hours. From flat tires, bent hangers, lost end caps, and every other last minute thing you could think of, the guys were bouncing all over the place to make sure people got to race on Saturday.
With some help from our #YOUTH Ethan McKenna, I got to leave the Expo right after our Michigan Youth Opportunities Initiative Raffle, where Ben Smith won himself a Bearclaw Bicycle Co. Balthazar. Sure enough, when we went to drop the bike off at the shop, Dan and Ben were still there at 7pm, and they weren't home for another hour. I got to slink in the door around 7.30, just in time to see what my short-term roomies were up to.
Stephen Ettinger and Spencer Paxson stayed with me for a few days leading into the race, and just being around those guys offered a lot of insight into what being prepared really means. They knew what was going to work for them to feel their best for race day, right down to how long and hard to ride, what to eat and when, and how to identify the important parts of the course. I was also really impressed with Stephen's cooking; whenever he's done with this bike riding thing, he has a deft hand in the kitchen.
Saturday morning I left the dudes to sleep in, with Brian Beckwith picking me up at 7:15 to make the trip to the start. Beckwith volunteered to drive me around all day, and I can't tell you how much of a relief it was to have him take care of so many things. I am a bit weird about punctuality, and his view of "If you're on time, you're late" gels extremely well with my race day habits. We cruised out to K-Town, and I followed Brian Beauchamp on a serpentine route to the start line. I got in a short warm up before I rode past the start, where riders were already lining up. I sped into the chute and perched front and center....forty-five minutes before the gun.
We had a lot of time to chat and talk, with Ryan Kennedy, Paul Olsen, Craig Webb and a whole bunch of the locals smartly in front and ready to pin it. The wait was more relaxing than nerve wracking, and by the time they counted down to the off, I was more tranquilo than I am for most events.
I used to be really, really good at hole shots. I used to be. But sometimes I forget that I'm not, and when I was barely in the top ten into the congested first corner, I was a bit fired up. So when the others eased up slightly, I got back out of the saddle and drove it on, first into the woods. I knew a lot of the fat bikers were already a long ways back in the line, and I wanted to bury them there right away. Josh Zelinski came by twice to help with the pace making, but the second the pace slowed I went back to the front, looking back every few minutes to see if I was doing any damage.
My favorite race to watch is Paris-Roubaix, and a lot of those lessons apply to Iceman. Sometimes the fast sections before the pave are harder than the actual cobbles, and for Iceman, the sprints to the decisive sections are just as important as the climbs or singletracks themselves. I tried to control the pace as much as I could, looking back to see the gaps starting to open as we crossed Smith Lake Road and then Dockery. I knew I had Kennedy in the group and every reason to push on, opening up the gap as much as I could.
I knew Brian Geshel and Evan Simula are great distance fat bikers, and I had to expect that the longer the race went on, the faster they would get. Once or twice I was thinking of sitting in so I might contest the sprint into Timber. But, I'd entered with two goals, winning fat bike and having a solid time in the Pro race, so I decided to do my best to deliver Kennedy. He's a great teammate and it has been so cool to see him come back to top form after his crash this summer.
Much like Paris-Roubaix, another Iceman axiom is that you can't ever give up, because with groups scattered all over, you have no idea what's going on ahead or behind. I didn't want to ease up, because there was no way to know if the next group behind was 20 second behind or two minutes behind, but experience led me to trust the former.
Webb went with 2km to go and Kennedy jumped with him. The group disappeared ahead of me, but I stuck to my pace and finished 30 seconds down to Webb. Craig Fortuna raced over with a jacket, and after shaking some hands and congratulating our group on staying away, I got right back on the bike and rolled down to the shop.
I walked in and Dan jumped into action, swapping out my wheels and going through my bike while I checked my splits. I wanted to use the time checks to see where I was at in the afternoon. The fridge was well-stocked; Don Marsh had left me some of his famous rice pudding, Boss Lady Kristie Lowetz handed me a frosted sugar cookie (my favorite food) and the guys had my bike ready to roll with a lot of time to spare. I think the key was to get away from the noise and hubbub and get warm and comfortable.
We packed up and headed back to Kalkaska. It was really cool to see all those guys, and with my own ambitions already tempered, I was really excited to see how Matt Acker, Brad White, Sean Kickbush, Jeff Owens, Nate Williams, Jorden Wakeley, Alex Vanias, all those Michigan guys would do in such a stacked field. To have those guys in for the win, or even a top ten, is a real testament to the quality of riders the state can produce, but also of the cycling communities we enjoy in TC, GR, Detroit, and really all over.
It also meant a lot to have my brother, Wes, on the line, too. With work and home life, he drifted away from bikes last year, and it was really only midsummer in 2016 that he really nailed down the balance to ride, work, live and enjoy all of it. I think people underestimate how hard he worked to get to the level he is at right now, but he's only going to get faster over the winter. Having him on the line, and our dad leaning on the barriers to tell us to be smart and have fun, really brought it back to what it was like when we started riding when we were ten years old.
I can't stress enough what a different level the afternoon race is. If I could dictate affairs in Wave One, I was at the mercy of many in the second race. I had a better start than expected, perhaps in the top forty. We tip-toed through a few crashed riders before a horizontal Jeff Owens brought us to a slow roll. The gap was open, but who could bridge? Nate Williams, who I've been lucky enough to ride with a lot this fall, put in a massive dig that splintered our chase. I found myself on the front and eyed the gap. Ten seconds, maybe fifteen...on a normal day, maybe....not there. I stood up with everything I had, and on my left, a blur rushed past like a shot. Alexey Vermeulen, caught behind the crash, was desperate to get back to the front group, and when a WorldTour rider is desperate, watts happen...like, a lot of watts. It was as if both of my brakes were locked up, so quickly did his yellow jersey disappear up the trail.
I settled in with a few groups the rest of the way, including some with Chad Wells and Shawn Davison. We were still going hard, but it was a bit more of a group effort. I was relieved to hit the Vasa, reminding myself of all the SOLs we've done. It was like a check list; Boonenberg, Anita's, Go!, Vasa CC Climb, Wood Chip, Icebreaker. It really went by too fast, and before I knew it, I was up Icebreaker with a roar of people cheering me up. I finished and felt pretty solid, and it was so cool to hear how the race went down, especially from Alex, who had an incredible result and did it against one of the toughest fields we've seen.
The real culmination was seeing everyone back at the shop for pizza. Tim Reicha will be the first to point out that I drank an entire beer, my first since The Vineyard Race in February, where Short's unveiled HASHTAG SPORTS. To hear how everyone did and see them so excited about their race is really the most enjoyable part of Iceman, because you get a sense of the accomplishment for people who work, raise kids, and train as life lets them, not as a way of life.
Thanks to everyone who cheered, and a special thanks to Beckwith, Dan and Ben, Jason and Kristie Lowetz, and everyone who helped make race day stress-free.