Jingle Cross: Meet the pediatric surgeon who launched the UCI’s newest cyclocross World Cup event

by Neal Rogers


“Brain damage.”

That’s the short answer John Meehan gives when asked how a pediatric surgeon, based in Seattle, came to be the race director of an Iowa City cyclocross event that will make its debut as part of the Telenet UCI Cyclocross World Cup on September 24.

The longer version? Dr. Meehan, a former runner who specializes in minimally invasive robotic surgery, fell in love with cyclocross while working at the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital, produced his own event (starting in 2004), and watched it flourish, even after he relocated in 2007 to take a position with Seattle Children’s Hospital.

John Meehan, executive race director for the Jingle Cross World Cup event, is an attending surgeon in the Division of Pediatric General and Thoracic Surgery at Seattle Children's Hospital, and an associate professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
John Meehan, executive race director for the Jingle Cross World Cup event, is an attending surgeon in the Division of Pediatric General and Thoracic Surgery at Seattle Children’s Hospital, and an associate professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

Known throughout the U.S. cyclocross community as Volkswagen Jingle Cross — in World Cup parlance it will simply be referred to as the Iowa City World Cup — Meehan’s event began in December 2004 as “Jingle Cross Rock.” Sixty people showed up. Over time, it moved to the Johnson County Fairgrounds, attracted local elite racers such as Jason McCartney and Steve Tilford, and dropped the “Rock” from its name.

But the vibe has remained the same — a party atmosphere, complete with DJs and bands, fireworks, food trucks, a Friday night race under lights, and a kids’ race “marshaled” by The Grinch (Meehan in costume, who hands out Build-a-Bears to all participants).

In 2016, on the heels of Cross Vegas being added as the World Cup opener, the race has moved to September, just three days after the Vegas event. But the name for the race weekend remains. So does the man at the helm. Working with what he said is “an amazing group of volunteers,” led by course director Todd Gillihan and merchandise coordinator Jean Gilpin, Meehan has been able to continue on as executive race director.

“Every year we got a little bigger, and every year, they all thought I was nuts,” Meehan told CyclingTips. “Somewhere along the line I told them all that I have plans, that I wanted this to be a World Cup. I wanted to know what it would take, financially, in terms of infrastructure.

“I kept watching my colleagues, guys like Richard Fries, who were putting on these incredible events, and I kept asking, ‘Why did they not take that step to become a World Cup?’ It’s not easy. It’s very expensive. A lot goes into it. I wanted to watch to see how they grew their events. I’ve been waiting to pull the trigger, until it was strong enough, and the key to that was building the amateur race. That’s what makes this event so good, and also that’s where you get your spectators —  and they are frenzied spectators.”

This year, the four-day event features a Thursday night team presentation, Friday night amateur and elite racing (a UCI C2 race), the World Cup on Saturday, and a full day of age-group racing on Sunday — allowing amateur fields the opportunity to race on a World Cup course — capped by another elite UCI race (C1), where most World Cup competitors are expected to compete before heading back to Europe.

Essentially, fans will be treated to two World Cup-caliber races, with the opportunity for amateurs to compete on the same course before the Sunday evening pro race.

“You get to compare your split times to Wout Van Aert,” Meehan said. “How cool is that? Imagine going to the watch Game 2 of the World Series, and then staying the next day to play a pickup softball game with your buddies, with everyone still watching.”

Amateurs won’t be left idle on World Cup Saturday, either, with the Volkswagen Jingle Cross Gravel Grinder (60km) and Road Fondo (70km) led by McCartney and Christian Vande Velde. The $75 entry fee includes t-shirt, socks, bottle, and an admission ticket to the World Cup race.

Sponsors of the nine-round UCI World Cup series include Telenet (telecommunications), Shimano, Santini, Beko (home appliances), and APB (asbestos removal).

Unlike most groups that run world-class cycling events, the Jingle Cross organization is an IRS 501(c) nonprofit — an extra appeal to sponsors. All proceeds, from the inaugural event in 2004 through this year’s World Cup weekend, go to the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital.

Sponsors of the Jingle Cross event include Volkswagen, the City of Iowa City, Clif Bar, Maxxis, Shimano, Deschutes Brewery, Musco Lighting, and Champion System.

Iowa-based Musco Lighting, which has provided lighting for the Olympics in Vancouver and London, has made it possible for the race to hold its well-attended “Friday Night Lights” event to kick off the weekend.

John Meehan, Jingle Cross executive race director, racing in his own event in Iowa City, Iowa, November 2014.
John Meehan, Jingle Cross executive race director, racing in his own event in Iowa City, Iowa, November 2014.

“I’ve spent seven months this year talking to sponsors,” Meehan said. “We have several revenue streams — beer sales, food vendor fees, sponsor fees — and everything is paid for. I’ve been carefully looking at the books. Putting on a UCI cyclocross race is already expensive; putting on a World Cup is on another planet. But we’ve made enough to make a nice donation to the Children’s Hospital. A few weeks out, we’re still sitting good, barring any extreme unforeseen circumstances.”

Meehan acknowledged that directing a weekend of UCI racing, remotely, was already difficult, but directing a World Cup event — while also traveling to far-flung nations such as South Korea, India, and Russia to teach pediatric surgeons his robotic surgery techniques — has been an extraordinary challenge.

“I did spread myself a little too thin,” he said. “I should have delegated more this year. I’m so used to taking care of so many facets by myself, such as the website, and setting up race registration online. I should have done a better job of hiring people in. We have an amazing team of volunteers. It’s an unbelievable amount of work, but everyone has stepped it up a notch. My family has sacrificed a lot to support me in this endeavor, and I appreciate it. It’s been fun, as an alternative career.”

As the host nation of Cross Vegas and Jingle Cross events, the U.S. will be allowed to have 16 riders in each World Cup race.

American Stephen Hyde (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) said he’s grateful for the effort Meehan and his team of volunteers have put into the event, as well as the efforts from Brook Watts and his team at Cross Vegas.

“I am really happy and proud to see how much work these organizers are putting into making these races happen,” Hyde said. “It takes an unreal level of commitment to organize and produce such events from basically scratch. I hope that their burdens are not forgotten in the future. I hope that it becomes easier for these events to happen in the future, and that this is not an era that ends abruptly and is forgotten.”

American Katie Compton, the 12-time national champion and two-time World Cup series champion, raced at Jingle Cross last year for the first time. Though she didn’t win, she finished third on each of the three days of racing.

“It’s great that we have two World Cups [in the U.S.]” Compton said. “It makes for a more efficient trip for the Europeans who come to race. They get a feel for what it’s like to travel in the U.S. and have to do two races in one trip. It will be nice to compare what we have to do to what they have to do when they just have to drive an hour to race a World Cup. Some of the best racers in the world will be racing here in the U.S.”

John Meehan, Jingle Cross executive race director, dresses up as The Grinch during the kids' race.
John Meehan, Jingle Cross executive race director, dresses up as The Grinch during the kids’ race.

Asked what sort of crowds World Cup racers should expect to see in Iowa City (population 72,000), Meehan pointed to the “captive audience” of amateur participants.

“I think we all have that question,” he said. “The average Iowa City resident doesn’t know much about cyclocross, even though it’s been in his or her backyard for 12 years now. Still, our race has more spectators than almost any pro race in the U.S. We get a captive audience, because it’s not just a bike race, but also an event. We make it for the family — good food, beer, DJs, bands playing, fireworks. We make it a community event.”

The convergence of the sport’s biggest stars in Iowa City, as well as the UCI cyclocross commission, could mean more than just a World Cup. Asked if the inclusion in the UCI’s crown jewel, the World Cup series, might mean another world cyclocross championship on North American soil, following the 2013 worlds in Louisville, Kentucky, Meehan was coy.

“That’s a question a lot of people are asking,” he said.

First, however, is the World Cup debut. The cyclocross world will be watching.

NBC Sports Network will stream the Iowa City World Cup live online on September 24, from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. (ET), and will re-air the event on its national network from 6-8 p.m. on Sunday, September 25, and 10 p.m. to 12 a.m. on Monday, September 26. All times Eastern; check your local listings.

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