‘Wrigley Field of cyclocross’ could lure nationals

On Oct. 19, while hundreds of high school kids raced in the South Puget Sound League cross-country championships at Lakewood’s Fort Steilacoom Park, something bigger was going on behind the scenes.

Representatives from USA Cycling and USA Track and Field were touring the park and sizing it up as a potential venue for their national championships. The organizations are looking for homes for the 2019 or 2020 cyclocross nationals and the 2018 junior national cross-country championships.

Dean Burke, director of the Tacoma South Sound Sports Commission, is confident the organizations liked what they saw, “but I can’t really say a lot right now.”

The 340-acre Lakewood park has a reputation for being one of the South Sound’s top locations for running and cyclocross. Burke wants to take it to another level, calling Fort Steilacoom “the Wrigley Field of cyclocross.”

Cyclocross is the fastest growing form of bicycle racing in the United States. It’s essentially a cross between road and mountain biking and has a reputation for being spectator-friendly and welcoming to participants of all levels. Racers frequently must dismount their bikes to get over obstacles and climb steep, muddy hills. Northwest winters often make for filthy yet ideal racing conditions.

The Northwest is considered a hotbed for the sport – although many of its races aren’t sanctioned by USA Cycling – and in recent years the South Sound has welcomed the sports with open arms.

Washington’s two largest race series (Cross Revolution and MFG) are based in Seattle but four of this season’s 12 races are in Pierce County. This includes Sunday’s MFG race at Spanaway’s Marymount Event Center and the Nov. 20 Cross Revolution race at Tacoma’s Swan Creek Park.

In 2014, the South Sound was site of two days of international racing at Marymount and Fort Steilacoom. Bend, Ore., was scheduled to host the International Cycling Union race but when it was forced to cancel, the South Sound stepped up to save the event. And in 2015, Fort Steilacoom played host to two days of UCI racing that included Olympic athletes.

“We were super happy with how both of those went,” Burke said. “Both were critical building blocks. If we don’t do those, we don’t get here.”

USA Cycling announced recently that the South Sound is one of five finalists to host an upcoming national championship. The competition is Bend; Louisville, Kentucky; Ogden, Utah; and San Diego. One will host the 2019 championship and another gets the 2020 event. USA Cycling plans to announce the winners in January.

Burke estimates the national championships would bring 2,000 cyclists to the South Sound for six days of racing. He’s not sure yet what the economic impact might be, but says “it would be north of $1 million for sure.”

Cyclocross Magazine posted a survey on its website last week asking where its readers would like to see nationals. After five days of voting (and 4,050 votes), Tacoma led with 41 percent. Louisville was second with 39 percent and Bend was third with 10 percent.

The Seattle area hosted four nationals from 1987-96, but Pierce County has never played home to the event.

“It’s been really competitive,” Burke said, “and we are super-stoked to be shortlisted.”

Burke is also excited about how appealing the South Sound has become for sporting event organizers.

“It is really cool that we had USA Cycling and USA Track and Field out here on the same day,” Burke said.

The delegation showing the organizations around the park included Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson.

“These are sports people do for life,” said Anderson, who has worked as a track and field official, “so I think these events help fulfill the mission of our parks department.”

That mission is to get residents outside participating in healthy activities, Anderson said. These events could also help enhance Lakewood’s image as a destination for participatory outdoor activities, Anderson said.

Anderson points to the growing popularity of the SummerFest Triathlon as an example of events that draw athletes to the area. In five years, the event is near capacity with more than 200 participants, Anderson said.

“Fort Steilacoom Park has diverse terrain and natural beauty,” Anderson said. “It’s an ideal place for cyclocross or cross-country.”

Reigning mountain running world champion Joseph Gray recently told The News Tribune that the park is his favorite place to run in Washington. The variety of terrain meant “I can do everything I need there,” the Lakes High graduate said.

The park hosts several races each year, the largest of which is the annual Fort Steilacoom Invitational for high school cross-country teams. This year’s event included 15 races and more than 2,000 runners, some from as far away as Boise.

Anderson said the junior national cross-country championships could draw 3,000 runners. USA Track and Field could announce the location for the event in early December.

While the South Sound will have to wait to find out if it will land these events, Anderson said, prospects look positive. “I think we have a good shot at both.”

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