Organizers hope pro races will help establish South Sound as ‘Wrigley Field of cyclocross’

The South Sound will get to play the role of hero this weekend when it hosts a pair of International Cycling Union cyclocross races.

“We’re trying to do about a year of work in two weeks to make this happen,” said Zac Daab of Seattle-based Low Pressure Promotions.

At least 600 athletes from around the Northwest are expected at Spanaway’s Marymount Event Center on Saturday and at Lakewood’s Fort Steilacoom Park on Sunday to participate in the region’s most popular form of bicycle racing.

Cyclocross combines elements of road and mountain biking on short courses that travel over terrain ranging from gravel and asphalt to sand, mud, dirt and grass. Courses also have obstacles such as logs, low hurdles, stairs and steep hills that require cyclists to dismount and carry their bikes.

The Waves for Water Cyclocross Collaboration is an 11th-hour production filling a hole in the sport’s professional racing schedule left by the cancellation of a race in Bend, Oregon.

Dean Burke, executive director of Tacoma South Sound Sports, said his phone “has been ringing off the hook” since the races were announced Nov. 6.

“It is a big deal to get a race like this out of Bend and into our area,” said Burke, whose nonprofit organization works to bring amateur sports events to Pierce County.

If all goes smoothly this weekend, Daab and Burke believe it could pave the way for more major cyclocross events in the South Sound. And neither is afraid to dream big. Both mentioned one day bringing a World Cup race to the area.

“Tacoma could provide a nice, intimate atmosphere for an event like a World Cup,” Daab said.

“We want to make Pierce County the Wrigley Field for cyclocross,” Burke said.

The Northwest’s cross scene has grown from a few hundred competitors in Portland and Seattle in the early 1990s (smaller races were staged as far back as the 1960s) to a sport that can stage 1,300-racer events in both cities on the same weekend.

Cyclocross races typically draw more than twice as many competitors as other forms of bike races, Daab said.

Several factors have boosted its popularity.

Not only does it appeal to cyclists from other disciplines, but races also are much shorter (30 to 60 minutes) than other types of racing. Courses are about two miles long, and racers make numerous laps, giving spectators more action to watch than at longer courses used in other disciplines.

Promoters also work to make the sport accessible to cyclists of all levels. Even this weekend’s pro races will have heats for amateurs and chances for kids and beginners to try the sport, Daab said.

As the sport grew, Bend’s annual Deschutes Brewery Cup became an important late season event for racers hoping to earn points to qualify for the national championships.

But in late October, promoters abruptly canceled the event, saying they had no sponsor and that construction was about to begin around the course.

“We wanted to keep the race in the Northwest,” Daab said.

He and his business partner, Terry Buchanan, scrambled to see if they could bring the event north. They had about 72 hours to make their case.

“Zac and Terry are the cream of the crop so they knew how to make this happen,” said Burke of Tacoma South Sound Sports.

They needed a venue, and they aren’t easy to come by at the last minute.

“We have events booked at venues into 2016 already,” Burke said.

Daab said the promoters’ relationship with Burke was instrumental in making the event happen.

Fort Steilacoom Park has a reputation as the South Sound’s best cyclocross site, Daab said, and its 340-acre park was available for Dec. 7.

Ideally, both races would be at the same site, but an orienteering competition at the park meant it wasn’t available on Dec. 6.

The group thought it found a suitable second course in Pacific Lutheran University’s old golf course. But shortly after the race was announced — and in the final stages of finalizing the contract — PLU officials decided it couldn’t host the event and canceled the reservation.

Organizers weren’t sure what to do next.

Then the phone rang. It was Trudy Cofchin of the Marymount Event Center.

“Marymount just fell out of the sky,” Burke said.

PLU officials had contacted the Marymount Event Center — home to the LeMay family car collection — to suggest it offer to host the event.

The boys-military-academy-

turned-car-museum had never crossed the organizers’ minds.

They told Cofchin it was probably too small.

Cofchin’s replied, “Eighty acres is too small?”

Unaware the facility was so large, organizers dashed out to see the facility. They were stunned when they saw the woods, paths, staircases, lawn and the car collection.

“It could be the coolest place for a cyclocross race,” Burke said.

While the course won’t be set up until Friday, cyclists might race through old car boneyards and past historic buildings and vehicles.

Organizers have agreed to reseed the lawn after the race and hope Marymount will become a regular venue for the sport.

Cofchin said some at the museum are concerned about the impact the race will have on the grounds and called Saturday’s event “a test run.”

“But it seems like a good community event and they (race organizers and Tacoma South Sound Sports) have been good to work with,” she said. “It is a great opportunity.”

It’s also a test run of sorts for the South Sound as a host for major cyclocross events. With more time to plan and promote, Daab said, future races could draw more than 1,000 racers a day.

“It’s going to be a fun weekend,” Burke said. “… And it could pave a great path for future events.”