Cyclocross
Spectators found shade in the barns while they...

Jingle Cross Photo Essay: Field of dreams

Jingle Cross transforms a little hill in Iowa into cyclocross's version of the "Field of Dreams" with the second World Cup of the season.

You think about sports and Iowa and, after Hawkeye football, it’s hard not to think about “Field of Dreams” and its mystical baseball field out in the corn. You wonder if maybe Dr. John Meehan, who started Jingle Cross about a decade ago, heard that same enigmatic whisper — “If you build it, he will come” — when he decided to build a world-class cyclocross course out in the cornfields south of Iowa City.

Maybe not, but somehow he and his race captured some of that same magic. Because Jingle Cross, second stop in the Telenet UCI Cyclocross World Cup, really was magical. According to the race organization, perhaps as many as 10,000 people came, and they poured out sound and support and won a lot of hearts in the process.

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Two things to know about Jingle Cross: First, it moved from a long-held place in the winter ‘cross calendar to September to accommodate the World Cup, but still offered cyclocross fans a taste of Christmas on a scorching hot day. Second, the race has always been about kids, from the everybody-wins kids races early in the day to the money it raises for the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital. Many young fans sported a look commonly seen in the fields of Flanders in Belgium, but perhaps not so often in the fields of the American midwest.

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The course was a sprawling, labyrinthine tangle that snaked around the barns of the Johnson County Fairgrounds before climbing the steep slopes of “Mount Krumpit” and plunging back down a descent that might as well have been the steep and technical Koppenberg. After heavy rains on Thursday night, the course was a muddy mess, despite temperatures close to 90 degrees on Saturday.

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In the rider parking area, it was like any other World Cup. Generators and power washers hummed, riders of the Telenet – Fidea Lions sorted tire choices, and American Courtenay McFadden got some help pinning up one last number ahead of the women’s race.

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The early lead in the women’s race went to Dutchwoman and World Cup leader Sophie de Boer, who got special dispensation to race in her trade kit instead of the series leader’s jersey thanks to the fact that UCI only had clothing suited to colder temperatures. De Boer could not sustain her early tempo and eventually faded to seventh place.

“I never raced in this heat, even in the summer. It was really warm,” she said later. “My heart rate was stuck at 80 percent, and I couldn’t go harder. I don’t know. I only was thinking, ‘I want to stop’ because it was so hot. The running parts there was no wind, it was insane. It was so warm. I don’t know how the other girls in the front can handle this.”

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As the early leaders faded, the race became a battle between U.S.-based riders: Czech Katerina Nash, American champion Katie Compton, French champion Caroline Mani, and others, with Kaitlin Antonneau chasing into the group from behind.

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Compton blew the race open with a series of attacks near midpoint of the 37-minute race. Only Nash could stay with her, and the two appeared to be headed for a classic duel before Nash suffered a mechanical.

The short running time sparked some minor controversy, and UCI officials acknowledged an error, saying they expected the race to slow as riders tired, but instead it sped up as the course continued to dry out. Few of the women in the race complained about the length though.

“It was hard. I definitely struggled,” said Compton. “I’m kind of glad they ran us a little short. Initially I came through with one lap to go and thought, ‘We’re running short!’ But then halfway through the lap, I decided it was OK. It’s just so hot, and when you’re not drinking — we’re all out there suffering the same, but I struggle a little bit towards the end of races that are warm.”

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For Belgian and European champion Sanne Cant, it was a second ugly day after a ninth-place finish in Vegas on Wednesday. Cant is a back-to-back World Cup series winner but appeared to struggle in the heat and finished 13th. She is now in 10th place and more than 60 points off the series lead.

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For Compton, meanwhile, the tables were turned. After a frustrating 2015–16 season, a World Cup victory looked like an enormous relief. If she was suffering in the final meters, she didn’t show it.

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Meanwhile, others clearly had suffered. Antonneau, who finished third behind Compton and Mani, collapsed on the ground in a tiny patch of shade just across the finish line. De Boer, meanwhile, sought cool in a bottle of water.

“My first lap wasn’t as good as some of the other people,” said Antonneau. “I think I was out of the top 10, 13th or something. But then towards the end of the last lap, I got into my rhythm and got going. These are the type of courses I excel at and like to do, so I’m happy to be able to finish on the podium here in the U.S. in front of my friends and family.”

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American Ellen Noble, who leads the World Cup’s under-23 category, earned a stunning fifth-place result, well ahead of a host of more experienced and accomplished women. If there had been any doubt about the present — or future — of American women’s cyclocross before this weekend, the first-, third-, and fifth-place finishes, won by a long-established veteran, a rising star coming into her own, and a comparative newcomer, respectively, dispelled them.

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Meanwhile, fans went crazy for an all-Colorado Springs podium. Compton, Mani, and Antonneau live within a few miles of each other at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.

“It just cool,” said Antonneau. “Everyone was yelling and you could hear everyone saying your name, and it was so fun to be up there with Caroline and Katie. We all live in Colorado Springs, and they’re my friends. It was cool.”

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By the time the men blasted off the line about 30 minutes later, the sun may have been a little less intense, but the race was still swamped by the heavy, mostly windless weather. It was still hot, and the hazy early evening sunshine dappled the fields almost gauzily. The calendar may have said autumn, but the air said early August.

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Fans had thronged the hillside of Mount Krumpit, while others crowded into the barns of the fairground at its foot. A wave of sound followed the riders as they plunged down its slopes. It was classic American cyclocross. They don’t cheer like that in Belgium.

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The climb took a toll on riders like Marcel Meisen, who grabbed his bike and pushed, propelled by an enthusiastic crowd that mobbed the sides of the course. The descent might have offered a bit of relief from the heat, but the nasty off-camber turns demanded perfect concentration from riders like Thijs van Amerongen.

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Belgian Michael Vanthourenhout, who days ago looked like he might be headed for the win in Las Vegas before Wout Van Aert overhauled him in a dramatic final charge to the finish line, gave it another go. Vanthourenhout led, significantly, at mid-race. But the attack came too early; this was a race to be won with the slow burn.

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It was a long, lonely day for American national champion Jeremy Powers. Powers, normally all but unbeatable in domestic races, has struggled since a hard fall in Wisconsin the weekend prior. In spite of overwhelming support from a partisan home crowd, Powers could only manage 43rd place, two laps down.

Meanwhile, Laurens Sweeck, third in Vegas, was next to take a shot. But by the time he reached the front of the race though, Van Aert, who had been hampered early in the race by a jammed derailleur and was racing with a broken toe, was moving forward as well.

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“In the beginning I had a piece of wood in my derailleur, so it was a small problem, but I knew 20 seconds on this course is not the same as 20 seconds on a fast course,” said Van Aert later. “So there was no panic at that moment. Today I just focused on my own race and not what the others were doing. I tried to get back in my own rhythm, and it worked out.”

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Americans like Anthony Clark wrestled with a course more difficult than anything they typically encounter outside Europe. It was full of viciously off-camber turns, deep ruts, and rapid transitions between surfaces. It was enough to keep even the best riders off balance. Still, the unforgiving course was offset by the enthusiasm of the fans of all ages who poured into Iowa from around the country for the race. Screaming, ringing cowbells, they all but propelled riders around the track.

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And it was spectacular. The course offered dramatic views and generous sight lines, and was packed with features that gave it its own offbeat character. Like Belgian classics such as nighttime urban assault-style Diegem race or Zonhoven’s otherworldly moors and epic sand pit, Jingle Cross carved out its own identity with barns and corrals and barbecue smoke.

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By the final laps, it was clear Wout Van Aert had control of the race, easily distancing Laurens Sweeck and Kevin Pauwels, who himself overtook Sweeck late in the race. Racing with a broken toe — and a only couple of acetaminophen and ibuprofen pills to dull the discomfort — did little to slow the world champion down.

“There was pain, of course,” said Van Aert. “More in the beginning because, when we got in the field on the first running sections I felt it. But when the legs were suffering more in the second part of the race I forgot the pain. Only on the barriers I had some pain. So it was not the biggest suffering of the day.”

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It was all a gift to American cyclocross fans: seeing so many national champions so close up, enjoying a hard-fought race on a late, lingering summer afternoon.

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It was a gift to the riders as well. Sweeck, on the line, applauded the fans, pointing to them, thanking them for the support. It was something totally unique, he said later.

“The people here are really — they are also [cheering] for the second or the third or the 10th guy. It is different than in Belgium,” he said.

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In the end there were high fives for fans, handshakes for teammates and rivals, and more bottles of cold water.

“It was amazing! It’s incredible!” said Stephen Hyde later, top American in 10th place. “I had never — the only time I’ve ever heard anything like this was, not to compare myself to him, Sven in Europe. Sven goes through and everybody erupts. It’s the first time in my life it’s ever happened. It’s unreal. I couldn’t have imagined it. It gave me so much motivation.

“I think every single person cheered for me. It gave me an extra set of legs. It was unreal. I loved it.”

He wasn’t alone, there was plenty of love to go around. People came, lining the slopes of Mount Krumpit, which loomed over the cornfields of eastern Iowa like the Koppenberg looms, grassy and green, over the Flemish Ardennes.

Most of the time, hills like the Koppenberg are silent, lazy with the grazing cows and puffy summer clouds, sleepy and softened in the autumn rain. But you go there and you feel it: History has been written there, magic has happened there, and happened more than once.

So too with the ball field out in the corn. The movie magic that brought Shoeless Joe back to life became something deep and abiding.

Mount Krumpit has it too, for cyclocrossers, anyway. Long after the crowds depart and the muddy scars become faint tire tracks in the tall grass, cyclists go out to the Johnson County Fairgrounds and just feel it: Something special happened here.

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