From Labor Day to the first weekend in November it’s Bell’s Iceman season. Mountain bikers flock to Michigan’s Pere Marquette State Forest to train for one of the biggest mountain biking events of the year, the Bell’s Iceman Challenge.
Over at the finish line, Bell’s Iceman creator Steve Brown is busy building what many competitors consider to be the main event, the finish line party. “One year somebody described the end of the race as being like Christmas,” chuckles Steve, “you wait all year for it and never know what it’s going to be like. So I make the finish venue more of a big Christmas present every year”.
The 30-mile point to point mountain bike race began back in 1990, with just 35 entrants. “We had one woman and 34 guys,” says Steve. “I set up a little card table right at the starting line and charged them each $5 entry. I started the race, then I ran across to the Northland grocery store in Kalkaska and bought burgers for a barbecue that night”.
These days the Bell’s Iceman attracts 5,500 riders, competing in the main event and the smaller Meijer Slush Cup and kids’ Meijer Sno-Cone events. “There’s pretty much a class for everybody,” Steve explains, “from ranked amateurs who train for the race by riding a lawn mower, to seasoned professionals. We’ve got 60 different age levels, four categories for people riding fat bikes, two for anyone weighing over 200 pounds, and two for single speed mountain bikes”.
Steve’s been passionate about racing as long as he can remember.
“I raced through high school and college, then hit Europe and raced in the cobblestones and gutters of western Belgium. Cycling just got into my blood”.
For Steve, the key to the Bell’s Iceman lies in its annually changing track, as the race navigates its way around forestry operations, and the extreme November Michigan weather. “Our riders pit themselves against mother nature,” says Steve. “Every year is different, and that keeps the competitive spirit alive. In the early years, it seemed like it snowed every year. Some years it’s all wind, rain and sleet, but last year was gorgeous. Everybody stuck around for the afternoon, faces soaking in the sun, watching the pros finish”.
And for many, the big finish is what the Bell’s Iceman is all about. In the morning, the amateurs set out from the village of Kalkaska on a brutal ride that takes some of them five hours. When they’ve cleared the course, Steve lets the pros through. “The pros complete the course in about an hour and a half,” he says, “arriving east of Traverse City around 4pm, when everybody else is partying and sampling the Bell’s beer. They get a big reception,” Steve smiles. “Last year it was so warm, we went through 58 kegs”.
Despite his accomplishments, Steve remains humble. “The success of the Bell’s Iceman’s far more about the racers than anything I’ve done,” he says. “Right out of the blocks, they’ve embraced the whole concept. I just try to facilitate that”. Somehow, it seems Steve’s magic may have a little to do with it too.