Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Scene magazine's June 2021 issue. Pick up a free copy at area hotels, visitor's centers, chambers of commerce or at the Record-Eagle building on Front Street. Click here to read GT Scene in its entirety online.
Hunched over, atop her mountain bike, Susan Vigland’s joy-fueled grin gives away that she’s having the time of her life when she’s competing in Bell’s Iceman Cometh Challenge.
The world-renowned northern Michigan-based event hails itself as the country’s largest mountain bike race spanning point-to-point in one day.
Vigland, who races in the Iceman pro category, has maneuvered her bike among some of the best women cyclists in the world.
“I’ve had the opportunity to line up at the starting line with women who have raced in the Olympics, who race on the World Cup who are national champions…,” she said. “You line up and look around ... ‘I know who they all are because I follow them!’ And then to literally race with them and go shoulder-to-shoulder with them, it’s kind of indescribable.”
Vigland is one of 13 percent of the female contingent of Iceman riders signed up for a past November race, according to Cody Sovis, the Bell’s Iceman Cometh Challenge race director. Sovis is working on increasing that percentage at the Iceman and otherwise, he said.
“There just isn’t the system or the platform to put, to get women into the sport and keep them on there and let them get to the highest levels of the professional peloton,” said Sovis.
The Iceman, focuses on inclusivity by awarding the same amount of prize money to both male and female racers. This year, the $110 race fee will be waived for first time pro women cyclists, according to Sovis. To that end, one of his main goals is to increase the number of pro female Iceman competitors to 100. Currently, anywhere from 15-20 women participate in the pro category according to Vigland. That’s compared to a range of 60 to more than 100 male pro cyclists, Sovis said.
“The goal with that is women see each other racing at the highest level there in that race in that community, they are kind of pushing each other to improve, it will just benefit women at every level, and make it more inclusive to not even race but to get on a bike even if it’s just to ride around town, “ said Sovis.
Community support is already encouraging more women to put their feet on the pedals, according to Vigland. This includes age-diverse women’s cycling teams that help Vigland stay at the top of her game. That age spectrum was highlighted on one of Vigland’s recent rides which featured a rider in each age decade spanning the 30’s to 60’s she said.
The voracious crowd support helps too. Vigland recalled a time when the energy of the crowd seemed to propel her up one of the last race hills on the course.
“I honestly felt like I was in the Tour de France. I just had a narrow path, the ride up and I honestly don’t even remember pedaling, like the energy from the crowd was so incredible. It was like effortless to get up that hill,” Vigland said. “It was just the crowd “I mean they were just crazy, going crazy about me coming up that hill!”
However, women don’t have to participate in a bike race that prides itself on frigid temperatures as a possible selling point to enjoy northern Michigan outdoor adventures.
Some, like Stef Staley, joined a group to just get moving again, which can lead to aspirations never thought possible.
Facing down her 50th birthday compelled Staley to join the Traverse City Track Club with fitness on her mind.
When she joined, she was out of running shape. The track club paired her with a training group and running mentor to reach her goal of completing a 13.1 mile race.
“I went from not running for 20 years to I’m gonna run a half marathon,” Staley said.
Physically depleted, when she crossed the finish line, she told herself that was her first and last long distance run.
“A few days later or a week later you’re like, ‘oh you know I did that, I can do it again.’” she said laughing.
Staley then transitioned to competing in triathlons and completed a full marathon.
Next up is a half Iron Man for which the distance is a 1.2 mile swim, followed by a 56 mile bike ride, and then a 13.1 mile run. If that weren’t enough, next March Staley plans to compete in the Mongol 100 — a 100 mile trek over a frozen lake in Mongolia. The event touts itself as “the most surreal, audacious and hauntingly beautiful adventure challenge known to Man.”
Staley credits the support of the track club for giving her renewed confidence in her physical capabilities.
“These people who you’ve never met before and you’re passing on the trail during a fun run, they’re like, ‘yeah keep going, you’ve got this,’ you may not even know by name yet,” she said.
For women who aren’t necessarily looking to compete, Meetup groups that connect them with each other and nature have been a reprieve from a chaotic world, according to Jodie Gobler.
She organizes the Meetup group Traverse City Adventure Girls which focuses on mostly local hikes.
“There’s something to me about, like especially right now, with the world — seems to be very divisive … that a group of 10 or 20 women can go on a hike together they can be from all different backgrounds have all different lifestyles right, and it’s just like going out and enjoying each other’s company and really enjoying nature,” said Gobler.
Luring women outside to enjoy nature and learn new skills is the focus of the Department of Natural Resources Becoming an Outdoors Woman workshops and classes.
Participants can learn a smorgasbord of skills from fly fishing to dog sledding, to wilderness survival skills.
“It’s designed to break down barriers for women in a non competitive environment introducing them to activities and the outdoors,” said Michelle Zellar, the BOW program coordinator for the DNR.
The program has an enthusiastic ambassador in recurring BOW participant Stephanie James who has attended several weekend workshops.
“The atmosphere at these worships is just so supportive,” she said. “They show you all these new skills, they help you use them, just the instructors are fabulous,” she said. checked
The skills James has learned include fly fishing, backpacking, cross country skiing, orienteering, and stand-up paddleboarding, which she was especially timid to try.
“I was so hesitant, like I don’t know if I’m going to have the balance. I’m not going to be able to do this, and then there are all these other women, they have these same hesitations but they are getting up and doing it — of all age ranges too,” said James.
During one workshop, James even helped build a large snow hut for herself and three others to sleep in. James, who stands at 4 feet 9 inches, also learned self defense skills that showed her how to extricate herself from her 6-foot tall male instructor, she said.
James gained from BOW what other female adventures have also harnessed from seeking out new experiences set in the scene of northern Michigan’s outdoor beauty, together.
“A confidence and an empowerment to go out and do things and try these things and know that I can,” said James.