'Tis the season. It's a Northern Michigan standard, a sign of the seasons as sure as a quickly setting sun and sand layered on your down tube. It's Traverse City, it's the Iceman, it's the Out And Back!
Few rides signal the start of something as completely as an Out and Back. A week or two after Labor Day, Traverse City shifts its already divided attention away from the road and into the rolling, forested hills east of town. Casting an eager eye into the frosted mornings and massive crowds of November, the Iceman Cometh is already at the forefront of the community's collective mind. By mid-September, the weekly caravan of riders gathers to make the trip that defines a region, and serves as a sort of rite of passage for cyclists gearing up for The Big One.
An Out and Back is an adventure, even if the route is essentially the same. Like the great pilgrimages of Europe, there is a dedicated itinerary to follow, winding travels through sections of trail like "Steve's Secret" and "Anita's Kitchen", murky abstractions for all but the most experienced riders.
The ride starts from Timber Ridge and takes riders along the Vasa 25km to "The Rock", the corners of Strombolis, Sand Lakes and the 25km. From there, it's a straight shot on gravel roads along Sand Lakes, which eventually turns to Island View. It's an unwritten rule that the group stays together on the way, although often a form of Gentlemen's Rules can leave a slower group to make its own merry way home before hitting Kalkaska. This is the Out, the way to the start of the Iceman, a good-natured and exciting warm-up of 50 minutes or so before the fireworks go off.
The Back typically lacks the structure of the Out, and often becomes every-man-or-woman for themselves. Usually small groups will stay together, finding the path and reliving memories from Iceman Cometh's past. Certain turns, big climbs or bone-rattling descents scare up ghosts we've tried to forget; to this day, I can point to the exact root that knocked by wheel crooked in 2011, forcing a half-mile jog before I finally was able to wretch the brakes from the rim and finish on a wobbler with the brake cables unhooked.
Half of the back is a reconnaissance, half a work out, with a lot of attention focused on the biggest challenge of every Iceman: the sand. Cold and snow and rain are not fun, but it's the sand that decides the race. Pockets of it ebb and flow over the years like oceans, worth noting and always shifting.