We roared across the land like a spandex-clad apocalypse, the leaves whirling into the air in our wake, for we’d sucked the air out of the forest and into our own little vortex, into our lungs to fuel our legs to push harder, and harder still, chests heaving like bellows, and we weren’t so much on wheels as we were just flying, gravity an afterthought, and still we pushed for more, like we wanted to burn our tires clean off our bikes, which shuddered and hissed and left arched slashes through the sandy soil. Behind us the leaves settled back down onto the dirt path and the orange and red Michigan forest was still, finally. We were the last wave of the day.
The square red signs with white numbers counted down to what couldn’t come quickly enough, or was about to arrive too soon, the finish of this race, the 27th Iceman Cometh Challenge. We started as a group of 92, local heroes and characters, Olympians and World Tour demigods, keeners all of us. And now, a short 80 minutes in, just 5km to go, 38km behind us, and there were 10 of us, following the same track that 5,000 other racers had done earlier.
One rider was off the front and out of sight, the rest of us chasing and racing for second. One of us would be the first to launch a final attack and it would be too soon, too soon before the line where it counted to cross first, and the rest would scurry around the miscalculation and, like pinballs astray, we would zigzag up the final steep hill, squinting out of pain and the afternoon sun glinting through the trees, the scent and sensation of beer particles spraying out of the mouths of the screaming crowd. Across the line, we’ve finished in some order or other, screeching to a smoldering halt. Any longer and we would have been spewing blood out our eyes.
Released from our manic state, we’re suddenly all smiles and high fives, catching our breath, talking about this race, unique and bigger than any other mountain bike race in the country, all the way up here in northern Michigan in November. I was the one in the lead group who had gone too soon, and the cold beer was dulling the sting of my misjudgment and missing out on a larger portion of the $32,000 up for grabs amongst the top-10. In just under 85 minutes of racing, the winner had just made around $70 per minute, me around $4.16. But money mattered less with each recounting of the day, and this weekend spent with new friends from Traverse City and the crew at Einstein Cycles. Over more beer and pizza and day-old scones back at the shop, we joked and talked bikes. The day was already good history, a notch in each person’s own folklore. It felt good to be a part of the day and this buoyant sector of the cycling community. From the first wave to the last, it’s what it’s all about.