The Race That MFG Built
Anyone who has seen a cyclocross course instantly recognizes the tape, the stakes and the winding path they take across parks, parking lots and woods. But how does it get there, in all the right places? Who puts in the time to design and build a race course used for just six hours a year?
To indulge my curiosity, the organizers of MFG Cyclocross let me join them and a group of volunteers one morning as they put together the flagship CX event of the Puget Sound region, the Woodland Park Grand Prix. This story tells a small part of their tale.
Six a.m. is far too early to be roaming around a dark urban park alone, but I could see lights ahead and work was getting done.
I soon came to a service truck in the center of a flurry of activity, with people filling empty waste containers with wooden posts, tape, mallets and assorted post-pounders. Once supplies were acquired, groups of twos and threes raced off into the darkness.
The veterans of the job were smartly wearing headlamps, which made their faces invisible beacons of light, so I navigated by voices. The first person to laugh as I took a few flash shots became my partner, a choice he didn’t get to make as I followed his light out to the dark hill above the start/finish line. Aaron knew exactly where he was going. He set up this course, in the dark, for the last 10 years, as had the rest of the volunteers from Alki Rubicon Racing.
As Aaron worked to outline the path and then pound stakes into the solid ground, we chatted about the course, racing in Seattle and the history of this event — and how much he enjoyed getting to be here for this race. Even at this hour. It was agreed this event was one of the key races in the Seattle racing scene. It brought out the best in competitors and fans.
The light began to seep over the curve of the Earth — or maybe my eyes finally adjusted — I could begin to make out other figures in the distance, little lights bobbing through the trees, a flash of gates coming off a truck, shouts for more supplies or offers to help tape the posts now lined up behind us.
When the sun began to make a real appearance, I moved on to the southeast side of the park to meet some other volunteers. The first person heading in the direction of the sun was Lincoln, an arborist who had also put in 10 years on course setup. While he worked, I got a lesson on the trees of Woodland Park. “Over here is this beautiful Larch; it’s really looking good,” he said, as he pointed to a glowing yellow tree. “And this Birch used to be so small, but every year it just grows so well and now it’s really big and healthy!” I later learned Aaron and Lincoln were brothers, a happy accident that I got to chat with both that morning.
As the sun rose, all the posts were pounded in, every inch of the tape was unrolled, and pit fencing was installed. Volunteers would spend all day keeping stakes upright as the errant racer took them out, but for now they were solid and would stoically observe a day’s worth of competitors between the strips of tape. While the city finished dreaming, the entire course of the Woodland Park cyclocross race came together, ready for the first whistle at 9:30 a.m.
There’s more to the story, of course. There is 10 years’ worth of history, as MFG Cyclocross celebrated a decade at Woodland Park in 2018. A daunting endeavor to manage relationships with the city, the park and undoubtedly the “neighbors.” It is Seattle after all. The masterminds of this crazy race are the duo of Terry Buchanan and Zac Daab. They wanted to bring a high-energy cross series to Seattle, and they succeeded in creating a Grand Prix of races that competitors mark on their calendars months in advance.
In their effort to make cyclocross racing as accessible as possible, they consciously chose to make MFG races non-sanctioned events. This, I presume, is why we get slip-n-slides and banana-themed run-ups each year, and how they can pull off the LeMans-style start to single-speed racing. It’s about bringing people into the race, into the sport — not making it exclusive. In this, I believe most would agree, they have been spectacularly successful.
The course at Woodland Park has changed over the years, accommodating new locations for the starts and edits to make sure they’ll be invited back the following year. Much of the design has been spearheaded by their partner in crime, Rich McClung. But the basics have remained the same — make the start/finish fair, keep it wide where possible and accommodate a functioning pit accessible to both ends of the course. After that, Zac says, everything is arranged from the POV of the rider to make it as race-friendly as possible.
All morning of the race, Zac and Terry worked to get posts placed in far corners of the park, tents up and organized, check-in ready and begin greeting teams as they arrived. Then, they raced. What good is a setting up a race course if you can’t enjoy it yourself? They continued their work all day long, never stopping long enough for me to snap a photo, but I can tell you the grins never left their faces.