Ever since Jingle Cross was awarded a World Cup calendar spot, many have been wondering how long that was in the works. And with the race’s move to the early Fall, many have also wondered what racers and fans can expect as a result.
I spoke with Jingle Cross race director John Meehan yesterday to find out how the event’s move to September has gone, the recent UCI ‘cross directors summit and to get some perspective on how it all started for the man who is likely the only pediatric surgeon/World Cup race director. Meehan was in Iowa City, Iowa when we spoke, back there for the first time since last year’s race.
Find out in the interview below how Meehan and Jingle Cross are preparing for their first run as a World Cup event, and take a look back at the race’s 2010 edition in this morning’s Throwback Thursday.
Cyclocross Magazine: For those not familiar with your race, how many years has Jingle Cross been going on and have you been involved from the beginning?
John Meehan: It’s been 13 years! I’ve been involved from the start. I started it as a small race between me and my friends. For that first year, we set it up like a cross country running race. There was one race and one start time for everyone, men and women. There was a single start line that we all lined up on, so everyone was on the front row.
For that first race in 2004 there were 56 of us. It was December. We’ve always been in November or December. And so we took to the Christmas theme right away. The name came about because it was Christmas time and the song Jingle Bell Rock came on, and I thought, well, that works, and we started as Jingle Cross Rock. That first year, it was really a very cold, very windy Iowa City, Iowa, day. I remember there was a downhill stretch that you really had to pedal on to keep moving because of the wind and the thick grass. It was really fun. And we kept doing it.
Jason McCartney who rode for the Discovery Channel team, Steve Tilford, all these guys came to the early years and the event just grew. In 2006 the race went to two days and the following year in 2007 we became a UCI C2 event. In 2009 we added the night race, and that was huge. We work with a great Iowa-based company called Musco Sports Lighting and they did the lighting for us. The lights that they bring to Vegas, they got that idea from us and we recommended Musco to them. That was right around when we moved to the Johnson County Fairgrounds, which is where the race is held now.
CXM: How is it that you came to be the race director for Jingle Cross living in Seattle, Washington?
JM: I’m a pediatric surgeon in Seattle, Washington. I went to medical school in Iowa at the University of Iowa and then was all over completing my studies and residency. Nine years later after getting out of school and starting to practice, I was back in Iowa. I was racing some on the road and in 2004 did my first cyclocross race and thought this is the coolest thing I have ever done, and I knew I had to get involved. So I put that first race together.
CXM: So you’re a doctor practicing medicine halfway across the country from Iowa City. Who is the team that assists you with race director duties, or do you manage it all directly?
JM: There is an army of people that help! Todd Gillahan, who I didn’t meet until the day of the first race, he offered to help set up the course that first day. He’s been the right hand man ever since. Ask anyone in Iowa, and they’ll tell you he can do it all. Of course, he has an army of friends that came along to help as well. There are 30 to 40 regular volunteers and a core of 10 or so people. All of them great.
CXM: What is your personal riding like? Do you still have time to ride? Do you still train and race cyclocross?
JM: I raced a ton when I lived in Iowa, and did some in Seattle, but not as much any more.
When I moved I was missing my friends that I trained and raced with and I slowly pulled out of racing and ultimately stopped road racing, although I still raced cyclocross. I was a Cat 1 on the road in Iowa, and after a certain point I started doing more Masters races. But my level of interest slipped, and I stepped away. But I love putting on the event and that’s how I stay in it.
When I was racing I had hooked up with the Priority Health team. I was riding with their Masters squad. I raced some with those guys, the Masters guys, and I of course stayed friends with them. Well they went on to become Bissell and I worked with them as team physician. So I got to go to some of the big races on the US calendar, like the Tour of California, the Pro Tour Challenge. Of course, I wasn’t racing those!
Truth be told, what really knocked me out of racing was I was at the Joe Martin Stage Race. I was about to win the crit. I was off the front solo and I was going to win. With a few turns left I leaned in too hard and crashed on a turn. A solo rider crash. No reason for it. I got up with a broken collarbone and my wife looked at me and said “you’re supposed to be a surgeon, now what are you going to do?” That was a wake up call, and then I re-broke it at Nationals and decided it was time to hang it up. But I kept at it with ‘cross.
CXM: For most racers, vacation time and travel budgets are limited. Why is someone best off electing to race Jingle Cross over other premiere events on the calendar, especially other well-known early season races?
JM: The atmosphere that we create. We really have a family-friendly, festive atmosphere. We don’t just put on a race. We put on an event. The race is a focal point, sure. But the weekend is really an event. There’s a great overall experience, and the entire event is about entertainment. The race is the coolest part, of course. But we want other people, not just bike racers, to come and stay and enjoy themselves. Another point is that all proceeds go to the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital, which is great.
CXM: After the race saw some success, was the clear goal to have Jingle Cross become a World Cup race? When did that become the target for you and why?
JM: It was the goal after we we did our first UCI event in 2007. I had been watching videos to see what a World Cup race really was and just to see how to put on a UCI race, what needed to be done. For the course it was always trying to cater to the pros to make things better for them, but also at the same time looking at the amaetuer racers, because they are the lifeblood of the event and the sport.
It was probably 2012 when I got really serious. When Helen Wyman came and raced our race and said this is where the World Championship should be held, that was it. The wow moment. Praise from someone who knew what she was doing was a strong motivator.
CXM: Did you talk with Brook Watts about the move to a World Cup event in advance of making the leap?
JM: We spoke briefly on a few occasions, and I shared my intention. That was important to me to be open with other race organizers, who I respect very much. All the promoters have friendly competition trying to get riders and grow our events. That sharing of our plans was really important. We all need to work together, that helps us and the sport over all. We talked with other promoters who put on UCI races and they shared ideas on what works and doesn’t and we all learn from each other.
CXM: You were recently in Switzerland at the UCI for the ‘cross directors summit. How was that and what was discussed there?
JM: It was fun! Just really outstanding. I got to meet Erwin Vervecken. He puts on 17 UCI-level races between Superprestige events and Bpost races and his World Cup!
It’s funny because all the other promoters, they have the same complaints and successes, get the same praise and critiques that we get. It’s just with a different accent! But really it was super helpful and a really great experience. The UCI’s new leadership is really good, and they’re moving in the right direction.
CXM: Not to be too presumptuous but many European racers and fans may not be familiar with Iowa and Iowa City. Did you get any interesting questions when Jingle Cross got the World Cup nod?
JM: Nothing but positive things. The Iowa City local visitors bureau has helped with resources we didn’t otherwise have. Spectators and riders locally have really helped get the word out. From the European side, and I haven’t confirmed this, but supposedly the Iowa City was the most searched term on Google in Belgium when we were announced as a World Cup race.
CXM: For the race itself, moving to September, what do you think conditions will be like?
JM: It will most certainly be the warmest race we’ve had!
We had to move the race to accommodate the World Cup calendar. But we’re sticking with our theme. So this year, Christmas comes early! Besides, stores have Christmas stuff up early, so why not us? Mt. Krumpit will still be there and other winter themes. We’re sticking with our history.
CXM: Will the Grinch make an appearance?
CXM: How far out will you get to Iowa City before the race weekend? Are you making additional trips there before the race?
JM: This was my first trip back since last year. I’ll be coming back over the next few months, at least twice more before being here for the race.
CXM: Generally, what can racers and fans expect compared to prior years?
JM: The schedule is still being finalized, but what we’re looking at is a Friday course with some limited racing on Saturday, mostly centered on the World Cup. Then come Sunday, everyone will ride the World Cup course. [The UCI currently lists Jingle Cross on their calendar as three days of UCI racing, with the World Cup race being Saturday, September 24, 2016 – Ed. Note.]
CXM: So enough differences in course design between Friday and Saturday to have essentially two courses?
JM: That’s what we’re looking at. We’ll see what happens when the schedule is finalized. Right now we’re looking at the UCI race schedule being Friday Men’s and Women’s C2 race, on a different course than the World Cup. Saturday will be the World Cup event. And Sunday will be Men’s and Women’s C1 races. Amateur and masters will race all day Friday, with a potential to race Saturday and then again all day Sunday in the actual World Course. But we’re still getting the details complete.
CXM: Anything else for the weekend?
JM: This year we’re doing a road/gravel Grand Fondo with Christian Vande Velde and Jason McCartney. That’s going to be great.
CXM: Easier to pull off in September than November or December?
JM: For sure! It should be a really great weekend.
CXM: Thank you for taking the time, John. We’re looking forward to your race.
JM: Thank you!