Commentary: Jingle Cross was Christmas in September for US cyclocross fans
Iowa City was not the first place in the U.S. the big stars of European cyclocross showed up to race in America; that was the Trek CXC Cup, in Waterloo, Wisconsin. Iowa City was not the first cyclocross World Cup event in America; CrossVegas was, earning the UCI’s prize for the best World Cup event last year.
But let’s put those other big races aside for a minute. Louisville, which hosted the first American cyclocross world championship a few years ago, now seems a distant memory. CrossVegas is a trailblazing event all its own. But it’s one that resides on another planet — in another galaxy, even — a crazy blowout party as much as a race, all rolled up in neon and noise, playing like a paean to the sport, all befitting its namesake town.
For the next few minutes, let’s shine a light on Iowa City, on Jingle Cross, the second stop of the 2016-17 Telenet UCI Cyclocross World Cup
And let’s say this right from the start: Jingle Cross was an enormous success.
On a blazing hot and muggy day, at the Johnson County Fairgrounds, close to 10,000 fans gathered to watch the sport’s biggest names do battle. From a distance, the swooping, off-camber descent of “Mount Krumpit” looked as fearsome as the legendary Koppenberg, host to some of the most epic Belgian battles in cyclocross history. The heavy rains that fell late Thursday and turned the course into a muddy morass only added to the authenticity.
Riders and team directors struggled to find a comparison. It’s like the Koppenberg or it’s like Overijse, they said. It’s like building a baseball stadium and comparing it to Fenway, to Wrigley Field. These are legendary places, imbued with history, but the comparison seems apt. A day may come when Mount Krumpit is as famous as “De Kuil” — the sand pit — in Zonhoven. The new Jingle Cross World Cup was an instant classic.
And yet, American cyclocross continues to carve out its own individual identity too.
“I know the atmosphere in the U.S., I raced here a few times before, and I see that it’s everywhere the same,” said Sven Nys, the two-time world champion — his second earned in Louisville — who now runs the Telenet-Fidea Lions team. “A lot of people come to cyclocross, but they all race. And that’s different than what you see in Europe. All people who come to cyclocross in Europe support the riders, but they don’t race. But I think here in Iowa you see that there is the most people coming to the race. You see that here there is a lot of potential for cyclocross also. You see that in Madison very well, you also see that here. I think that Vegas is something very special. But [Iowa City] is a nice cyclocross course. It’s really, extremely — it’s a little bit like the Koppenberg and Namur.”
But when on the Koppenberg or in Namur has a podium finisher taken the time to applaud the fans at the end of the race like Belgian Laurens Sweeck (ERA-Murprotec) did on Saturday? Sweeck rolled across the line clapping, pointing to the fans, cheering for them.
Sweeck was overwhelmed by the support on the course, he said later, and simply wanted the fans to know how much he appreciated it.
“The people here are really — they are also [cheering] for the second or the third or the tenth guy. It is different than in Belgium,” he said.
Compatriot Dieter Vanthourenhout (Marlux-Napoleon Games), racing in America for the first time, agreed.
“Very warm,” he said of the American fans. “The atmosphere is very good. That was the first thing I said after the race, it was a very nice experience.”
Vanthourenhout went further than some of his countrymen, saying the Iowa City course was perhaps the most difficult he had ever raced on.
“Belgium has no course as difficult as this, I think,” said Vanthourenhout. “Maybe the World Cup in Namur.”
American Jonathan Page (Fuji), a veteran of European cyclocross who recently returned to the U.S., said the American fans had shown the European riders something totally unfamiliar — and special.
“It was great,” said Page. “There are a lot of people here and they’re all cheering and having a good time. I think it’s good for the Europeans to see such a great crowd here. It’s much more enthusiastic and fun. Here in America, they cheer for everyone, not just the first three, or the first Belgian.”
Helen Wyman (Kona) — the nine-time British champion, two-time European champion, and Page’s former neighbor in Oudenaarde, just down the street from the Koppenberg — said the course was impressive.
“It’s really Euro,” said Wyman. “I think it’s the most Euro American course I’ve ever ridden. It’s pretty tough, it’s got lots of hills. The descent is really like the Koppenberg, it’s even a bit steeper in some of the corners. And there’s plenty of climbing, there’s quite a lot of technical stuff that isn’t cornering, which is really Euro, something you don’t usually get in America.”
Three-time British champion Ian Field (Hargroves Cycles) was one of the few riders to compare the race to one outside of Belgium. Field pointed to the World Cup course in Milton Keynes, in Britain, run once in 2014, another event that was praised for its difficulty, dramatic racing, and its wildly enthusiastic crowds.
“I would say it’s similar to — not quite as technical — but similar to Milton Keynes with the constant up and down and with all the rain even the flat sections are hard now,” said Field.
Rider after rider heaped praise on the event, on the organization, on the fans, and on Iowa City in general.
“Today we saw a track here in Iowa and, when you have a track like that in Belgium, you get 15,000 people,” said Crelan-Vastgoedservice sport director Niels Albert, himself a two-time world champion. “Because the place is amazing. You have a hill, running, accommodation, parking. Everything is there. So I think the place is perfect.”
Wyman, meanwhile, who spent a week in Iowa City exploring the roads and countryside, said she loved her time there.
“Iowa is amazing,” she said. “The riding here is amazing, really beautiful riding. Loads of twisty, turny roads and really gorgeous and not much traffic.”
Belgian Tom Meeusen (Telenet-Fidea) agreed. “I like it here,” he said. “We just went for a spin on the gravel roads. It’s a nice neighborhood and I would like to spend more time here.”
The thing is, riders had plenty to complain about. It was hot and humid on race day, with numerous riders clearly paying the price in the heat. Many were without the conveniences of home: mobile homes and support networks. The weather was unpredictable and the course conditions changed by the minute. There was the long transfer from Vegas, on top of the long flight a few days earlier.
But in spite of that, almost nobody complained. Riders acknowledged the heat, some said they had struggled with the travel, but quickly shifted to praise the race, its organization, and the fans.
The world champion, Wout van Aert (Crelan-Vastgoedservice), remarked about the race’s charitable aims. Presented with flowers on the podium by two children, direct beneficiaries of the race’s support of the University of Iowa’s Children’s Hospital, Van Aert bent down to talk, and smiled broadly, an outpouring of emotion after what had already been an emotional day.
“I don’t know, but I think it’s unique,” he said. “In Belgium most of the organizations are held to earn money, because there’s a lot of business over there, with the VIPs and stuff like that. So maybe it’s unique. And that’s a good thing, of course.”
Van Aert said the atmosphere in Iowa City was incomparable.
“Today it was a new experience,” he said. “Before I was really impressed about [American ’cross], but this was next level. It was crazy how many people were here, and how hard they were cheering.”
— Wout van Aert (@WoutvanAert) September 25, 2016
For American fans, the chance to see a world cyclocross champion race, up close, was unusual. Van Aert, used to Belgian races where he and his rainbow jersey are fixtures, said it was an unexpected pleasure to be able to show the rainbow stripes in America.
“It’s strange to feel that, because you’re not thinking about it by yourself,” he said. “It’s really good to be here, and especially this race is a really big gain for the World Cup. I’m happy we could do more races for the first time, and I hope it will be more in the future also.”
About a week before riders began departing Belgium for the U.S., Belgian newspapers began running stories about the expense of the trip to the U.S., about the riders who would not make the trip, and about why it might not be such a good idea to hold two World Cups in the U.S.
Although most riders and team managers expressed support for the international expansion of the sport in general, they asked many questions — some legitimate, some less so — about the whys and the hows of the World Cup’s diversion overseas.
Some of those questions were answered on Saturday, and the answers were resoundingly, overwhelmingly positive.
And now, we can ask a few of our own.
How many of the doubters became converts? How many riders, who rarely hear a cheer at all, found themselves engulfed in the wall of sound that resonated down the slopes of Mount Krumpit and rose to a roar at the race’s finish line? How many of those riders slapped hands with fans on the finish line, or signed autographs and took selfies in the parking lot? How many found themselves battling a course as challenging as any on the European circuit, scraping for places at the back end of the top 10?
Nobody knows the answers, but they were written in the mud-streaked smiles, the high-fives and hand-slaps, the buoyant din that poured across the Johnson County Fairgrounds on Saturday.
Jingle Cross, as it does every year, began with “The Grinch,” leading a kids race around the lower end of the course. The Grinch, whose heart was two sizes too small, tried to stop Christmas from coming.
In Iowa City, the Grinch is really Dr. John Meehan, pediatric surgeon and director of Jingle Cross, the man who began the event and donates all proceeds to the University of Iowa’s Children’s Hospital — a guy who seems to have ended up with a heart that’s about two sizes too big. He wears that costume and shines light, and laughter, across a whole community.
It may have felt like midsummer on Saturday, but Jingle Cross, and all its muddy and boisterous fun, was an early Christmas gift to cyclocross fans across the U.S.