The other side of the tape: US amateur cyclocross racers relish in opportunity to compete on World Cup course

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When Europeans talk about American cyclocross, they almost always note how it is a participatory sport and contrast it with what you see in Belgium and the Netherlands, where it is decidedly not.

But that’s not the whole story. Amateur and masters cyclocross is alive and thriving in Belgium. For example, in a country roughly the size of Maryland, amateur and masters racers will have their pick of eight different races over the October 22-23 weekend. If an amateur wants to race cyclocross in Belgium, opportunities abound.

But the amateur scene in Europe exists on a completely different planet than the professional scene. Comparing most of the low-key local races where amateur racing sizzles to the World Cup events that draw 20,000 spectators is a little like comparing a rec-league softball game to playing in the major leagues. It’s the same game, but on vastly different scales.

So when we talk about how unusual it is for amateur racers to get a taste of a World Cup course, know this: Even in Belgium, with its burgeoning amateur scene and access to all the big venues, it basically never happens.

In recent memory, only two World Cup events have allowed amateurs a taste of the very same course as the pros: CrossVegas and the World Cup stop in Igorre, Spain, which last ran in 2011.

So the racers who came to Iowa City for Jingle Cross got a special and pretty unique treat — the chance to race on a world class cyclocross course, one that Belgian Dieter Vanthourenhout (Marlux-Napoleon Games) praised, saying, “Belgium has no course as difficult as this, I think; maybe the World Cup in Namur.”

Namur, muddy and precipitous, first ran as part of the Trofee series in 2009, became an instant classic when it joined the World Cup, and moved to December in 2011. The comparison speaks volumes. So do the racer reviews.

“For me it was the most physically challenging course I’ve ever raced,” said Mark Savery (Trek Cyclocross Collective), a former masters world champion from Omaha, Nebraska. “With two-and-a-half times up the hill and four dismounts a lap, including a long mud run and uphill run, there was never any chance to really recover. The course just kept hitting you and hitting you. I think the longer climbs make it more difficult than the Pan-Am Championship course in Cincinnati. And then stack on the technical aspects of climbing and descending off-cambers, sand, flyovers, mud and you’ve got the toughest course in the U.S.”

No pressure, but that's Sven Nys, winner of two world championships and 50 World Cups, critiquing your line choice. Photo: Jeff Corcoran/www.corcoransphotos.com
No pressure, but that’s Sven Nys, winner of two world championships and 50 World Cups, critiquing your line choice. Photo: Jeff Corcoran/www.corcoransphotos.com

Riders almost universally cited the course’s several running sections — especially the ascent of Mount Krumpit and the nasty, slick off-camber — as the race’s most difficult and frustrating features. Likewise, the switchbacked, roller-coaster descent from Krumpit was the singular highlight of nearly every day.

Al Krueger, who rides for the Wisconsin-based KS Energy Services team, agreed.

“The course is certainly one of the hardest of the year,” Krueger said. “We have some tough ones in Wisconsin as well, but the World Cup course, with its huge run up of Mount Krumpit, is very special. Plus, there is a bunch of other climbing, as well along with a great deal of technical bits.”

Younger riders, such as Caleb Swartz, a junior on the Trek Cyclocross Collective team from Madison, Wisconsin, are one group who do occasionally get to test themselves on the world’s hardest courses, but only if they are selected to travel to Europe and race World Cups as part of the U.S. national team. Swartz described racing at Jingle Cross as “unparalleled.”

“A very difficult course,” he said after a second-place finish in the Category 2 men’s race. “With the soil being more tacky on Sunday it was more physically demanding than technically demanding. Faster conditions meant more laps, and so more times up Mount Krumpit.”

Swartz, who despite his age has a race resume that includes nearly all of America’s best known and hardest events, said the Jingle Cross course was “by far the most demanding of any course in the U.S.”

Andrew Frommer, from Illinois, a relative newcomer to cyclocross racing, could only joke about what it was like to race on a World Cup course. Was it a special experience?

“It was special,” he said. “E-special-ly hard! Watching the men and women race Saturday and then riding the same course Sunday makes me realize — not that I didn’t before — how much of rock stars on a bike they are.”

Geoffrey Siepker, a Masters 45+ racer for the Cycle-smart Grassroots Team from the Chicago area, agreed.

“The crowds were awesome, very loud and very supportive,” he said. “I was very humbled getting to race on the same course as the World Cup pros. The pro women and men are at a different level, for sure.”

But it wasn’t just the challenge of battling one of the toughest cyclocross courses in the world that made the weekend something special. The weekend in Iowa City, said Krueger, was like a master class in cyclocross.

“It was a unique opportunity to watch the World Cup pros navigate and attack the course on Saturday,” he said. “Getting to see where they dismounted, how fast they were going, lines they took, where they relaxed a bit, and how they bombed descents was exciting, and educational. We were able to take some of those learnings and apply them the next day — just a bit slower.”

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15-year-old Dillon McNeill (Trek Cyclocross Collective) had the rare opportunity to race on a World Cup course, finishing third in the Cat. 2 omnium over the weekend. His teammate, Caleb Swartz, won the Cat. 2 omnium, and said the Iowa City course was “by far the most demanding of any course in the U.S.” Photo: Jeff Corcoran/www.corcoransphotos.com

Others cited the energy of the crowds, which saturated Saturday’s World Cup races, then overflowed into Sunday, as another singular experience.

“I can’t say enough about the crowds,” said Frommer, whose sister, the recently retired pro Meredith Miller, knows a thing or two about crowd support herself. “Supportive, loud, and after all those years yelling for my sister it was pretty awesome to have her out there supporting me. The whole atmosphere all weekend was unforgettable.”

Savery said that while the racing was unforgettable, the opportunity to get a truly immersive view of a World Cup race was magical.

“I [watched] from the pit,” he said, of Saturday’s World Cup race. “I was lucky enough to be the pit man for Quentin Hermans (Telenet-Fidea). With nine riders it was all hands on deck to support our Trek family members. It was definitely a bucket-list day for me being able to work the pits at a World Cup. The crowds were incredible. The biggest for any cross race in North America, for sure.”

The verdict was nearly unanimous. Jingle Cross delivered on Saturday, but it also managed to deliver something truly unique as well: engaging the fans who lined the course and helped make Saturday so magical and turning things inside out, giving them the front seat view on Sunday.

It’s one thing to be part of the crowd, to feel the energy and enthusiasm pulsing around the Johnson County Fairgrounds from outside the course tape. It’s another to have it lift you up and carry you around the course. Jingle Cross gave its fans and faithful both.

Swartz summed up the weekend with a sentiment even the Europeans shared.

“It was pretty incredible to see so many fans out going crazy and supporting cyclocross in the U.S.,” he said. “I think this race has done a lot for the reputation of American cyclocross.”

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