The Dirt: How (and why) Kabush won Iceman on a gravel bike

Geoff Kabush won his third Iceman Cometh MTB classic, but this year he left the mountain bike at home and instead rode a gravel rig.

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Welcome to The Dirt, the weekly news round-up on what is happening in the worlds of gravel, mountain biking, and all things rough and dirty.

I have a soft spot for people who take on tough races on unconventional bikes. So as soon as I heard that Geoff Kabush (Yeti) did the Iceman Cometh mountain bike race in Michigan on a gravel bike, I knew I had to talk to him to get the story. Better still, this wasn’t just a stunt for Kabush. He collected his third career win in the classic late-season mountain bike race on Sunday, beating Alexey Vermeulen out of a two-man breakaway. Here’s Kabush talking about Iceman, his setup, and why the gravel bike was actually an advantage in this race.

VeloNews: Why is Iceman Cometh so special?

Geoff Kabush: Iceman Cometh is kind of a special one. It’s the end of the year, you never know what you’re going to get. It’s been around forever, started out as a small event, and it’s grown into one of the biggest participation events for sure. They really take care of us athletes, put up an awesome prize purse. It’s point-to-point, about 48k or 30 miles, and it’s always kind of a tactical race, hard to read. It’s fun to stay motivated and have a chance at duking it out there.

VN: So the big story is that you won Iceman on a gravel bike.

GK: I’ve got a Yeti turquoise colored Open U.P., which might confuse people, but yeah it’s an Open U.P. … and it has the option to run 27.5×2.1-inch mountain bike tires. Racing it in a mountain bike race is something that I’ve wanted to do for a while. I thought about doing it at Carson City Off-Road but didn’t quite get it together. I was a little nervous about running it this weekend but it was perfect conditions and I was pretty psyched it worked out.

VN: So why were you nervous about running this bike? You’d usually be on your 29er mountain bike, right?

GK: I was trying to think through the course and how technical it was. It was obviously going to be an advantage on some sections. Just depended on the conditions and how well-suited a bike like that would work. Wasn’t quite sure of how much of an advantage it would be. But man when I got there and rode the second half of the course it was really buff this year, and I could really take advantage of the light weight and speed out there.

VN: Are there other advantages of riding a gravel bike versus a mountain bike in this race?

GK: Just having the drop bars, it’s almost like being in an aero tuck on a mountain bike. It’s a really high average speed, over 30k an hour, so it’s a bit more like a road race. Especially near the end, I attacked and got away with Alexey Vermeulen. We were in a little breakaway and it made it easier to roll at speed when we snuck away near the end.

VN: So how did you make your winning move in the end?

GK: Obviously [Vermeulen] is really talented, super-strong. I knew he definitely had some strength. I knew once we got away with 10k to go, if we rolled together, we definitely had a chance of staying away. The race always finishes at the Timber Ridge Campground, weaves around through the finish for the crowds there. I made my move with a couple K to go to get to the front and was able to stretch it out through the winding finish and up the final hill to the finish line. Really cool crowd and a cool way to finish off the race there.

VN: Your bike fits a 27.5” wheel while most people race 29ers for XC. Were you worried about rolling speed?

GK: Not too much. It’s not as rough so there’s not as much bumps to roll over. It’s pretty smooth, sandy terrain. The other advantage for me was I had a much taller gear than a lot of guys. I was running a 46/34 [chainrings] by 11-32 [cassette]. I was able to keep it in the big ring the whole day. The 46, when we were cruising at high speed I had a tall gear, a little more efficient. Just carrying the speed with the bigger gear and lighter bike over all the little hills, it just added up, and I was able to save a little energy toward the end.

VN: When you first came up with this plan, what realistically was your expectation for a result?

GK: Well, I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think I had a chance to win. I was home here in Squamish and was on the fence trying to decide. I took it out for a ride on the mountain bike trails here in Squamish and was surprised by how well it handled, how fast it felt cruising around some of the XC trails here. I felt pretty confident it was going to be a good fit and it would just come down to figuring out the tactics and the competition, the guys who were going to be out there.

VN: That’s insane that you were out riding those rocky, rooty, muddy BC trails on a rigid gravel bike!

GK: I obviously didn’t do any of the really tough trails here. It’s amazing. Any of the technical stuff isn’t too bad, climbing, but if it’s really rocky and lumpy, obviously you can’t carry as much speed riding full-rigid. The Iceman Cometh course is smoother and definitely has a few sections of singletrack. You just get down in the drops and your arms soak up all the bumps. Not a big disadvantage. I grew up riding rigid mountain bikes up here. The Open is quite an advance from the first bikes I started riding. Has a drop bar but it’s still super capable off-road. Obviously, without suspension you can’t roll through the lumpy stuff as well. … It was a lot of fun taking it off-road, out of its environment. I don’t even know what to call this bike. It’s my road, ’cross, gravel, adventure bike.

VN: Were there any moments in the race when you regretted having this bike?

GK: Not really. It’s usually a big group out there, 20-25, so it’s really hard to break it up. Some of the guys early on in the race thought I might be at a bit of a disadvantage in the singletrack and they were really pushing it, the line was getting stretched out. I felt really comfortable and in control. I knew there would be lots of sections where I could roll back on and get in the group. I knew once we got to halfway, there’s a feedzone with 18k to go, and from there it’s a pretty smooth run-in. After riding in Squamish, I knew I could handle the singletrack there. It was just a matter of tactics. It was a lot of fun. Even in the twisty singletrack having the skinnier drop bars was actually kind of nice, you could lean into the corners in the tight trees.

VN: What kind of tire pressure were you running?

GK: I was running 20-21psi, I had Maxxis Aspens. I had the EXO tires on, which I probably didn’t need, but that’s what I had from the summer. They’re just a nice rolling tire.

VN: Would you recommend it to anyone out there, trying a mountain bike race on a gravel bike?

GK: I think it’s a terrible idea, no one should race one out there. None of the other guys should try it, definitely doesn’t work. I don’t know how I got away with it [laughs].

Listen to an extended version of this interview on the VeloNews podcast:

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