At Volkswagen Jingle Cross, the muddiest run you’ve ever biked

Meet cyclo-cross, the part-bike, part-run, all-fun sport

Ice and snow were replaced by sunshine and a good deal of mud at this year’s Volkswagen Jingle Cross cyclo-cross bike race, a 12-year-old Iowa City holiday tradition with an international class of competitors. Volkswagen Jingle Cross was brought forward into September this year to accommodate scheduling of the Telenet UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup—the first time this prestigious international event has been held at the Iowa City Jingle Cross festival. Volkswagen Jingle Cross owes much of its success and its newly-found international prominence to the event’s Executive Race Director and Founder, John Meehan.

Meehan discovered the sport of cyclo-cross sometime between his career as an electrical engineer working on fighter jets and the start of a new vocation as an attending surgeon at the local university hospital.

“I ran in college and enjoyed it, but after a while I kind of got bored with it,” explains Meehan. “I started racing bicycles—road bikes first—and someone said, ‘Oh, you used to be a runner? Here’s something you would like: why don’t you try cyclo-cross?’ I’m like, ‘Cyclo-what? What is this thing?’”

John Meehan directs placement of a camera location ahead of this year’s Volkswagen Jingle Cross races. (Photo by Peter Minnig)

Meehan would soon become intimately familiar with the discipline of cyclo-cross racing—a sort of hybrid of traditional road cycling and cross-country running. At several points throughout the course of a lap of a cyclo-cross circuit, riders are required to dismount and carry their bicycles, either to avoid manmade obstacles on track, or if conditions such as a particularly steep hill or thick mud make it impossible to ride.

The new surgeon began to compete in cyclo-cross races across the country, using the opportunity to learn about other events and what made them successful. He decided that Iowa needed a race of its own, and set out on a plan to build a big-time cyclo-cross festival in Iowa City, Iowa.

“In 2004 we put on the very first Jingle Cross,” Meehan recalls. “We had 60 people and it was just me and my friends. The next year, the race was double the size.”

In 2006, Meehan began to seek out sponsorship to grow the event even further. One of his first stops was the local VW dealer, Carousel Volkswagen, and its General Manager, Pat Lind.

“John stopped in one day all excited about a ‘bike race’ and asked if we would consider loaning him a pace car,” recalls Lind. “I had no idea what cyclo-cross was and wasn’t really a bike fan—I want a motor!—but he was so passionate, I said ‘sure.’”

As his dealership became more involved with Jingle Cross, Lind began to recognize that cyclists and VW owners shared a similar passion for life and adventure.

Start of one of the many races throughout the Volkswagen Jingle Cross festival. (Photo by Peter Minnig)

“You see it when the mud is so thick that a rider has to carry his or her bike to the finish and you see it when a grandfather accompanies his grandson to take delivery of a new Golf while regaling him with stories about his first Beetle,” Lind explains.

Jingle Cross continued to grow in popularity—with both the local, Iowa City crowd, and the international cycling community. In 2007, the event hosted its first race sanctioned by Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the sport’s international governing body. As time went on, Jingle Cross became home to higher-level UCI events before hosting an internationally televised UCI World Cup race this year. With fewer than ten World Cup events taking place worldwide each year, it was a huge accomplishment to bring one to Iowa.

Six-time National Cyclo-cross Champion and Jingle Cross race winner Tim Johnson appreciates the effort it takes to put together an event of this magnitude.

“Races come and go over time and are really successful only when the local community takes ownership and dedicates energy into making it great,” Johnson says. “Having had a glimpse at the work needed behind the scenes to bring a World Cup Cyclo-cross race to American soil, I can speak for most Cyclo-cross fans when I say ‘Thank you, John!’”

Tim Johnson conducts a cyclo-cross clinic for riders wanting extra preparation for their races. (Photo by Peter Minnig)

Meehan is quick to point out that he is not alone in making Jingle Cross and the UCI World Cup event a reality.

“The amazing thing is, the same friends that helped me do the race when we were just racing against each other all those years ago are the people who helped make this race happen—they’ve been with me all along.”

Jingle Cross has continued to flourish even though its founder no longer resides in Iowa City. Meehan moved in 2007 to accept a new position in Seattle where he specializes in minimally invasive robotic surgery. Each year, he returns during his two week vacation to organize the event.

“I love it so much and it’s so much fun,” he explains. “It’s hard to imagine being able to put this race on anywhere else.”

There’s an immense amount of work to be done, from planning with county and city officials, working with UCI race stewards and TV crews, to the very physical work of setting up the course and its surroundings for riders, spectators, and many on-site vendors. In the days leading up to the race, Meehan arrives at the venue before anyone else and stays late into the night. You can see him zooming around the course on his bike, making sure everything is set up just right before the public arrives. Despite all that effort—and a major case of sleep deprivation—Meehan somehow finds the energy to compete in one of the event’s many races.

“I used to run in the UCI race with the pros, but now I’m too old and slow,” he says with a laugh. “For me, it’s all about participation and everything. Riding around and having people cheer for you and heckle you at the same time is always fun. I actually used to do quite well and now I’m in the bottom two or three, but I still love it.”

Participation is one of the elements that remains key to the event’s success.

“Inclusiveness was our goal,” says Meehan. “What’s really cool about cyclo-cross is that the pros are going to be racing on nearly the same course as the amateurs. That’s one of the ways I knew this was going to work and people loved it.”

Even in the midst of running a complicated event, Meehan takes the time to entertain children in his special holiday attire. (Photo by Peter Minnig)

Since its inception, proceeds from Jingle Cross have been donated to the local children’s hospital, but the event works to include children in more than just its charitable efforts. There is a series of short children’s races which Meehan leads from his bike in costume as a favorite holiday character, while podium ceremonies at Jingle Cross look a little different than those of a traditional bike race. Instead of being greeted by a kiss from a podium girl, winners receive their prizes from patients of the children’s hospital.

“When you talk to the pro riders, they absolutely love it,” says Meehan. “They think it’s the coolest thing to be up there on the podium with these kids who’ve maybe had some serious struggles, and here they are, enjoying a fun day of sporting and entertainment.”

Meehan’s efforts to build Jingle Cross into what it is today have not gone unnoticed by the professional cycling world or the citizens of Iowa City.

“It’s not about ego for him,” says pro-rider Johnson. “John has impressed me with his incredible dedication to our sport. Jingle Cross is a weekend made with a lot of heart and soul.”