Jingle Cross: From grassroots to World Cup

US cyclo-cross race takes a deliberate and steady path to the top of the sport

Round 2 of the UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup is ready to smash through the fields of Iowa City Saturday afternoon when Jingle Cross rolls out with the world's best riders competing for series points.

Two world champions will toe the start line at the Iowa City Fairgrounds on Saturday, going up against some of the best Europe has to offer and a cadre of Americans hoping to crack into the upper echelons of the unique discipline.

But it wasn't always this way in the race named 'Jingle Cross' because it used to take place around the Holidays. Back in 2004, a surgeon at the University of Iowa Children's Hospital and some of his friends thought it would be a kick to put on a local cyclo-cross race in the cross-country field behind his house.

Coming from a cross-country running background of his own, race founder and director John Meehan thought it would be a good idea to start all 66 riders in the one race of the day shoulder to shoulder on a single start line. It was a classic rookie mistake.

"It was December and the wind was like a 30-mile-an-hour headwind," Meehan recently recalled for Cyclingnews. "So everyone was going downhill at about 3 mph into this ridiculously strong headwind, going nowhere all in one line. That was the very first one in 2004. It was just me and a bunch of friends and one girl doing registration in a tent that kept blowing over in a field."

It was an inauspicious beginning, for sure, but Meehan already had ideas about taking his race to another level. The week before his inaugural event, Meehan travelled to Portland, Oregon, to see the thriving Cross Crusade and the US national championships. He was impressed.

"The atmosphere I saw there, aside from being national championships, was like, 'Wow, this is different. This is big. We need to make something big like this,'" Meehan said.

The first order of business was to bring in some big-name riders to help attract spectators to the race. Meehan knew Jason McCartney and invited the Discovery Channel team rider to the race in 2005. They found a sponsor, upped the prize money, added two more races during the day and doubled their participants.

In 2006, former winner Megan Elliott invited her then-boyfriend Chris Horner to the race, adding another marquee name to the event.

"So Horner comes in for our third year, and we have a two-day event, and all of the sudden now we have 250 people," Meehan said. "So it kept doubling in size. The next year we were a C2 and Todd Wells came. At that point we were 500 people over two days.

"It kept getting bigger after that. It became a C1 eventually, and then we decided to up it a little notch higher," he said. "In 2004, did we have aspirations of being a World Cup? Absolutely not. We just wanted to put on a little local thing, and I just inched it up, just tweaked it up a little bit higher and higher every year, and thanks to some amazing volunteers."

Todd Wells races Jingle Cross in 2008
Todd Wells races Jingle Cross in 2008

More than a cyclo-cross race

Racing at the 2018 three-day Jingle Cross Festival starts Friday night with a C2 event under the lights for the elite men and women. Saturday afternoon is round 2 of the UCI Cyclo-ross World Cup, and racing continues Sunday with a C1 race. All three days of racing are part of USA Cycling's Pro CX Calendar and feature a full schedule of amateur categories as well.

A key to the success of Jingle Cross, however, is that the weekend is about more than the racing. Friday night's entertainment is billed as the Musco Friday Night Lights and DJ Party, with DJ Jay Herman "spinning tunes" on top of Mt. Krumpit, the course's climb that is lovingly named after the mountain featured in Dr. Seuss' The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

Saturday's race is followed by the Jingle Cross Music Festival featuring a three-hour line-up of DJs and Bands. Other weekend events include the Jingle Cross Doggy Cross event for humans and their four-legged friends; the Grinch Kids Race, where every kid gets a stuffed bear at the finish; the Single Speed Speedo Spectacular; a Kids Zone and, of course, a beer garden sponsored by Deschutes Brewery.

For more refined tastes, the race has added a World Cup Wine Walk on Saturday, where vino enthusiasts can sample wines from around the world at stations positioned along the course.

"I heard from some people, including my daughter and some others, who pointed out we don't have wine," Meehan said. "So we added a World Cup wine walk for this year."

Meehan said listening to what his customers want has been crucial to the race's success. The amateur racers and their paid entries keep the race afloat, and so Meehan and the race focus on providing plenty of reasons to keep people coming back.

"I think it's important to grow and change and make things bigger and better, and so we're gonna listen to what people like and what they don't like and try to make it better each time," Meehan said.

"That's a very important point for my colleagues out there who want to make their events bigger and better. It's important to look at the whole event and look at what are the things that people are going to want to do and see, not just cyclo-cross, but everything.

"It's like when you go to a Major League Baseball game," Meehan explained. "There's so much that you can take part in for the family. There's a fun zone and there's good food and there's good things to do and see besides just the amazing baseball game. You kind of have to take that attitude as well."

Meehan's efforts to build a world-class race from scratch haven't gone unnoticed. USA Cycling Vice President of Events Services Joan Hanscom, who previously ran the US Grand Prix of Cyclocross, said what Meehan and Jingle Cross have accomplished is "amazing."

"The growth of this weekend in both participation and stature has been so inspiring to see," Hanscom said. "The event's longevity and its continued growth is a testament to treating your customers well and giving them a great experience, delivering for your sponsors and most importantly, partnering with a community that shares and supports your vision for making a great international weekend of cyclo-cross."

One more rung to climb

Now in its 15th year and third year as a World Cup, Jingle Cross was voted top World Cup race last year by riders and staff. Meehan said that leaves just one more hill to climb on the cyclo-cross calendar.

"That was overwhelming being labelled that distinction among some amazing and storied programs around Europe," Meehan said of last year's vote. "It was quite an honour, so you feel like you've gotten to the very top. There is one other rung above that, but February in Iowa is a little interesting, so I'm not sure I should comment further on that."

Meehan is referring to the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships, although he never actually uses those words. The US last hosted the 'cross world championships in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2013, and Meehan would like to see them return.

"That's something that would be exciting for us," he said. "The logistics of it are a little challenging because of where we are, but I would never discount it."

World championships in the future or no, Jingle Cross appears to be thriving in an unlikely enclave in the midwest, and it looks like it will be around for a while.

"We are very excited about our World Cup and how we do it," Meehan said. "The riders seem to enjoy it. There's great hospitality provided by the city, the course is good, we create a great atmosphere for the amateurs - who are also our spectators - and the city is very much behind it. I think we've got something quite unique."

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