A Farewell-to-Autumn Stroll Along East Bay

By MIKE NORTON

Much as I hate to admit it, color season is coming to an end. There are still some pockets of brightness here and there -- including some surprises. (For instance, the vineyards of the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas, usually bare of leaves by mid-October, are full of buttery yellow foliage this November. Maybe it's all the late rain we had, but they're really spectacular.) Last week's high winds really knocked the leaves out of the forests, and most of what's left is the rusty pumpkin color of the oaks -- which sometimes hold on to their leaves until spring.

Golden Vineyards in Smoky Hollow, near Old Mission

No problem. It was a long, lovely fall. Now we come to the austere weather of November -- good weather for hiking, for bonfires and for good fellowship. And, not coincidentally, for one of the most interesting bicycle events known to humankind: the Iceman Cometh Challenge, which will be held Saturday.

For some cyclists, this annual bicycle race between Kalkaska and Traverse City is about as close to pure delight as it can get. In spite of chilly temperatures, chancy visibility and the constant danger of flipping over on a patch of ice or deep sand, the Iceman has become the biggest single-day mountain-bike race in the world.

Every November, almost 4,000 competitors and 4,000 spectators from all over the U.S. and Canada gather here to participate in one of the strangest and most grueling cold-weather events in off-road bicycle racing, now in its 21st year. And organizers had no trouble filling all 3,700 available slots by mid-June. That’s a far cry from the 35 riders who showed up for the first race. But cyclists seem to enjoy the difficulty of the course, the unpredictable weather and the sheer wackiness of the whole idea.

Racers at a Recent Iceman Cometh Challenge

“More of an adventure than a race,” is how Mountain Bike Action magazine describes the Iceman, in which ice-hardened cyclists from the U.S. and Canada are sent off in successive waves depending upon which of the 39 classes they compete in. Starting in the village of Kalkaska, the Iceman trail runs for 27 miles along a combination of pavement, dirt roads, two-tracks, abandoned railroad beds, and parts of the Vasa ski trail, finishing at the Timber Ridge RV & Recreation Resort just outside of Traverse City. Most of the course lies in the Pere Marquette State Forest, a region of steep, sandy hills, tiny lakes and stands of postcard-perfect pines.

Although snow isn’t guaranteed at the Iceman, it’s been present for at least half of the previous 20 events. Sleet, rain, mud, ice and warm sunshine are also distinct possibilities – often on the same day! This year's riders, who include both amateurs and professionals, will compete for more than $25,000 in cash prizes and $10,000 in merchandise.

For those whose competitive instincts aren’t quite so extreme, race organizers have also put together a pair of less punishing events during the same weekend, the 17th Annual Meijer Slush Cup is a “half-frozen” version of the Iceman that offers beginner and recreational riders the chance to test their skill on an eight-mile course. For younger competitors, there’s the Traverse Sno-Cone, a free trail event for 100 youngsters between the ages of two and 12.

On Sunday, there’s yet another event for competitive cold-weather racers: it’s the secopnmd annual ICE CROSS Cyclocross race. Cyclocross is a sort of Motocross event for mountain bikes, where competitors ride on a created course that includes sand, dirt, gravel, asphalt, mud and lots of barriers, both man-made and natural. (It's now the fastest-growing segment of the U./S. cyucle racing movement.) The ICE CROSS will be held at Timber Ridge Resort.

For more info about the Iceman Cometh Challenge, go to www.iceman.com or call 231-803-4259. To lean about the ICE CROSS Cyclocross race check out www.twinbaysracing.com or call 231-941-7050.