You gotta earn these #plusgyle PJs, and you earn them by toeing the line against the best riders at the biggest races.
And things don’t get much bigger than the Iceman Cometh Challenge. Now in its 29th edition, the race has grown from 35 haggard, frozen riders to nearly 5,000, and the annual trek from Kalkaska to Traverse City has gone from a bush-whacking adventure to a high-speed drag race. Even with the fast course, the sheer size of the event is pretty mind-boggling. For example, the first waves start at 9:30 am, with the fastest riders first and slower riders coming later on. These waves are usually around 150 riders, and even leaving in three-minute intervals, it takes just shy of three hours to see everyone off, including a 30-minute break for the Michigan Scholastic Cycling start wave at noon.
All those bodies battle over roughly 28 miles of two-track, singletrack, gravel road, and pathway, including roughly seven miles on the Vasa 25km. The course includes just under 2,000 feet of elevation, with much of the climbing skewed deep into the second half of the race. With some changes in the opening sections of the course, including the elimination of a short but sandy climb early, our local racers Cody Sovis and Sean Kickbush are predicting a rather sizable front group for the afternoon’s Pro race, which goes off at 2:30.
That delayed start lets the thousands of other racers plenty of time to reach the finish at Timber Ridge, change, get properly lubricated with Bell’s beer, and flock to iconic parts of the course like Ice Breaker and the two flyover tunnels, both constructed by burying shipping containers. That’s a massive, energetic, and vocal audience for the race’s finale, often a group of just a few riders going elbow-to-elbow in a tight, technical sprint to the line. This year has an especially long singletrack finish at Timber Ridge, and while the speeds may be low, it’s going to be a broken-beer-bottle of a bar fight to take the win in both the men’s and women’s races.
We’ve got a total of four riders looking to play a role in that finale, with Scotty Albaugh and Sean Kickbush both rock-solid picks to break the top twenty against a field that includes US and international professionals. Last year, Scotty went for an incredibly 10th place, just 20 seconds back from winner Geoff Kabush. Sean wasn’t too far back; after fixing a mechanical while riding strong in the chase group, he came in with 25th place, a result he’ll be looking to improve upon with a bit more luck this season.
Cody Sovis is also locked in for the Pro race this year, and he’ll be looking to make the most of a course that suits his preference for drop bars and 35mm tires to go a few spots better than his 27th place a season ago, coming home within sight of Sean. For the first time, Jay Ellis is making the jump to the Pro ranks, and he’s a shoo-in to make the biggest improvement on 2017. We’re looking for Jay to knock a few minutes off last year, with a faster course and dry conditions and perhaps tickle the 1:45 mark, a really good benchmark for riders looking to finish at a high level.
We’ve also got a little spoiler in the form of the decidedly on-firm Luke Mullis. He’s confirmed to join the team in 2018, and he made his presence preemptively felt with a killer second-place finish at the Lowell 50 last weekend. He’s going to be right up this with Scotty and Sean, although he won’t quite have our colors on…yet.
If there’s a year for drop bars, this is it. One of the wettest Octobers in memory has completely changed the face of the course, made all the better with a huge amount of work from the local trail organization, Northern Michigan Mountain Bike Association. The course, once known for soul-sucking sand pits, has received some patches and re-routes that make it faster, safer, and a lot more fun, especially for the morning racers. They’ll be more lines and more room to pass, especially in the crowded opening ten miles of the race.
You can flip through all the race info, check out last year’s results, and get text updates from your favorite riders (that’s us) at checkpoints through the course right here. We’ll keep you up-to-date on all the fun on Instagram, so make sure you’re following. Good luck, guys!