Two decades ago, a small cycling club on the North Shore called Essex County Velo decided to host a cyclocross race.
Developed as an off-season training tool for cyclists in Europe, cyclocross features short but brutally hard races over a clover-leaf course littered with obstacles that force competitors to dismount and run with their bikes.
Interest in the sport was reaching critical mass in New England, but the key was finding the right location. Stage Fort Park, tucked between Gloucester Harbor and Route 127, surfaced as the ideal site.
“I’d been wanting a race there for a few years,” said Paul Boudreau, a member of Essex County Velo. “We would ride by on our group rides, and I always thought it would be amazing to pull off.”
On Oct. 13 and 14, the Gran Prix of Gloucester will celebrate its 20th year at Stage Fort Park. The race is now old enough to welcome a second generation of competitors.
“My parents and I would go to Gloucester and make a weekend of the racing when I was young,” said Jeremy Powers, a four-time national cyclocross champion from Connecticut. “I hope to be a part of this event for another 20 years. It’s truly iconic to American cyclocross.”
Boudreau, the event’s longtime organizer, said still remembers how the first race got off the ground.
Dan Tieger, a bike advocate from Manchester-by-the-Sea, arranged a meeting with then-Gloucester Mayor Bruce Tobey, who “was very supportive” of the idea, Boudreau said. Stu Thorne of Wenham, who worked with USA Cycling’s national cyclocross program, designed the inaugural Gran Prix of Gloucester course in 1999.
“It was a nice urban park,” Thorne said. “It was a challenge, but when we were done, it was a really good course. The city was incredibly helpful. They were great to work with.”
The race started out as a single-day, regional event that attracted about 150 racers and almost no spectators, Boudreau recalled. The event immediately became part of the New England cyclocross calendar, and the following year was tabbed for an elite Vittoria Northeast Cyclocross Series. In 2001, the race earned Union Cycliste Internationale status, which lured top-flight competitors from around the world.
“Within two years, we expanded to a two-day weekend, and were part of a handful of North American races to be added on the international cyclocross calendar,” Boudreau said. “The then-world champion from Belgium, Erwin Vervecken, raced, and people from California, Colorado, Washington, and all over the United States and Canada made the trek to Cape Ann.”
Despite its limitations, Stage Fort Park proved irresistible.
“Bringing cyclocross to Gloucester, less than an hour from Boston, was an advantage in those early days,” Boudreau said. “Amateur racers in Boston and Cambridge didn’t need to travel far. Pros arriving from out of state could get from the airport to the host city within an hour. Add to the mix a gorgeous oceanside park, and it didn’t take long to grow to a two-day, 1,000 rider-per-day event.”
Still, there were road bumps. The race took a toll annually on the park. Although organizers committed to mitigating the damage, many city officials were skeptical.
“When there was a possibility of losing the race, we sprang into action to defend it and promote it,” said Heidi Wakeman, co-owner of the former Harborside Cycles in Gloucester. “Our children grew up at the races. To host such a prestigious race in our hometown is a privilege, and an opportunity to showcase Gloucester’s best.”
Today, the race, nicknamed the “New England Nationals,” sells out each day, and draws hundreds of cowbell-toting spectators.
Ellen Noble of Maine, who won two women’s elite races last year, is following in her folks’ footsteps.
“My parents — Sandy and Tom Noble — raced Gloucester way back in the day,” said Noble, 22. “I did my first Gloucester in 2011, and it was also my first cyclocross win ever, which has always made it a meaningful event for me. Now, as I start to travel internationally, Gloucester has essentially become my home race. I don’t think that there’s a race that rivals it in terms of energy and love.”
For details on the Gran Prix of Gloucester, visit www.gpgloucester.com.