IOWA CITY — Next weekend, millions of TV sets in Europe will be tuned to a live broadcast from Iowa City.
The city is hosting an international cyclocross World Cup event, one of just 10 across the globe in the 2016-17 racing season.
“This is a chance to see some of best racers in the world,” said John Meehan, the event’s race director.
The Telenet UCI Cyclocross World Cup is Saturday at the Johnson County Fairgrounds. The women’s race is at 3:30 p.m. and the men’s race at 5 p.m. The World Cup is the centerpiece of a four-day Jingle Cross World Cup weekend, which includes additional professional, amateur and kids races, off-site bike rides, 18 food stands, craft beer, bike vendors, music and fireworks to kick off festivities Thursday at Terry Trueblood Recreation Area.
In the pro ranks, points awarded at the race will contribute to totals that help determine the season’s champion. About 65 men and 50 women are expected to participate in the respective World Cup race, including last year’s champion, Wout Van Aert of Belgium, on the men’s side. Some 2,500 additional professional and amateur racers and 15,000 spectators are also expected to descend here.
How Iowa City landed the World Cup is almost as improbable as how an annual local cyclocross race has gained a cultlike following.
Meehan, a pediatric surgeon and amateur runner and cyclist, returned to Iowa City from a big 2004 cyclocross race in Portland, Ore., amped from the event and with an itch to do something.
“We need something like that here,” he said.
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Later that year, Meehan and friend Todd Gillihan of Iowa City planned the first of what’s come to be called Jingle Cross on the University of Iowa’s cross-country fields.
A couple years later, Meehan’s wife suggested they check out the fairgrounds instead.
The property at first appeared flat and unremarkable for a race. But when Meehan pivoted his head he noticed the looming hill and woods at the edge of the property. For a sport that likes varied terrain, obstacles and challenging hills, it was an ideal spot.
That steep slope has become the hallmark of Jingle Cross, which is popular among local bikers and has gained attention from the national and international racing community. Typically held in late November or early December, the race has embraced a “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” theme, with the hill dubbed Mount Krumpit.
Jingle Cross has gained popularity each year. Volkswagen signed on as a presenting sponsor to help cover the costs. Entry fees paid by the amateurs also are essential in making the event viable.
Five or six years ago, Meehan, who now lives in Seattle but returns annually to organize the race, started working on an idea to lobby Union Cycliste Internationale for a tour stop on Mount Krumpit. At that point, no North American city had held a World Cup event. Las Vegas was the first to get a stop last year, and is the only other North American city on the circuit this year.
It took a few years to assemble a serious proposal for UCI, the organization that governs competitive cyclocross, cycling and the Tour de France. Josh Schamberger, president of the Iowa City/Coralville Convention and Visitors Bureau, had independently been looking to land a championship race, and the groups connected.
Schamberger, Meehan and former Iowa City Manager Tom Markus traveled to Koksijde, Belgium, to hand deliver a bid last November during a cyclocross race.
“We wanted to stand out,” Schamberger said. “We wanted to separate ourselves from Winnipeg and Providence. Having the city manager there saying, ‘You let us know what you need’ made such a good impression.”
It worked, but at a price. The event will wind up costing about $400,000 to $500,000.
Jingle Cross was moved to September this year to coincide with the World Cup.
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Last week, organizers and volunteers — some 480 in all will help by the end of next weekend — were readying the grounds. The track is under construction. The 2-mile course takes cyclists through hills, sand, woods, mud, grass, gravel, a barn, two flyover ramps and more hills.
“This course has speed and power, it’s technical, it’s a runner, and climbs on your bike — this course has all four elements that make a great course, and a lot of variety,” Gillihan said. “The goal is just so it’s a total challenge. It keeps them guessing.”
Because it’s UCI sanctioned, the course must meet specific requirements. A UCI official will do a final inspection Friday, he said. Gillihan noted the event has required twice the planning of a typical Jingle Cross, of which he is course director.
Riders are expected to come from 15 to 20 different countries, predominantly from Europe.
More than 50 media personnel, including The Gazette, have requested access. Telenet will air the event live in Europe as well as on tape delay on NBC Sports.
Tickets for the World Cup events Saturday start at $15 and go up to $135 for VIP tickets, which includes all-you- can-eat food and drinks and access to a special viewing area. Other tickets options package the World Cup events with a Jingle Cross Road Fondo and Gravel Grinder ride for $75. Tickets to the Northside Octkoberfest in Iowa City also include a complementary World Cup ticket.
Race admission and parking on Friday and Sunday are free. Parking is $10 Saturday, although parking ramps in downtown Iowa City will be free Saturday and there will be a free shuttle running to the fairgrounds, Schamberger said.
The Iowa Bicycle Coalition will coordinate a bike parking valet at the fairgrounds, and the western lane of the four-lane Riverside Drive will be closed to cars from the fairgrounds to the bike trail along Mormon Trek Boulevard to accommodate bike traffic.