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Outgoing cyclocross race director leaves legacy of fun, inclusivity

Cascade Cross series known for technical, rugged routes

Cascade Cross Director Kip Zwolenski counts down to begin the 12:45 p.m. cyclocross race Saturday
Cascade Cross Director Kip Zwolenski counts down to begin the 12:45 p.m. cyclocross race Saturday (Jack Warren/Cascadia Daily News)
By Julia Tellman CDN Contributor

On a brisk, sunny Saturday afternoon in Cornwall Park, Kip Zwolenski wrapped up his final race as director of Cascade Cross, Bellingham’s homegrown cyclocross series that’s been going strong for nearly two decades.

With a full beard and an oversized black anorak, Zwolenski looked a bit like a wizard as he stood at the start line and counted down to the last race of the day. The field was a motley mix of spandex-clad cyclists on carbon race bikes and tandem-riding twosomes in sequined jumpsuits and overalls. 

Cyclocross, a niche genre of off-road bike racing that pairs competition with a touch of the absurd, consists of multiple laps on a short course that can include dirt, pavement, grass, mud wallows and sand, as well as obstacles and staircases that necessitate dismounting and running. The season stretches through the coldest, wettest months of the year, when cyclists have nothing else on the calendar. 

Cornwall Park is likely the only cyclocross race in the region with a mandatory rock roll on the course. On Saturday, Jan. 13, spectators gravitated to the feature to watch and heckle as racers on fully rigid drop-bar bikes descended the slab. 

The Cascade Cross series has garnered a reputation for being more technical and rugged than the many races hosted in Seattle, Tacoma and Portland. This is partly due to Bellingham’s inescapable mountain bike culture; Zwolenski said that at each race, teams of volunteers are responsible for designing and building the course, which means they’re the ones concocting novel challenges and sending riders up rooty climbs and through narrow, slippery chicanes. 

Also, he added, it’s the landscape. 

“It would be more difficult to build courses here that avoid singletrack,” he said. 

Race roots stretch to 2006

photo  Cyclists hop on their bikes as the 2 p.m. race commences. (Jack Warren/Cascadia Daily News)  

Cascade Cross (known originally as Cyclocrazed) was founded by local racer Ryan Rickerts in 2006. Rickerts directed the series for 10 years before passing the reins on to Zwolenski, whom he started introducing as his “heir apparent.” 


“When I heard that, I said, ‘We need to have a conversation,’” said Zwolenski, who had only participated in two Cascade Cross races before joining the leadership team. “But I like organizing things and giving back to the community.” 

After helping Rickerts for a season, Zwolenski became the sole race director in October 2017. Earlier in the same year, he had founded Incite! Cycles as an umbrella support organization for some of the grassroots cycling events in the area, and eventually registered Incite! as a 501(c)(3) in order to offer grants and education in fundraising, permitting, insurance and event planning.

He also coordinated Bellingham Grind Corps, a series of casual gravel rides that came to an end during the pandemic, and he helped Bellingham Bike Polo get off the ground and start hosting national tournaments in 2019. 

“I joke that we’re the most illegitimate legitimate crew in town,” he said about Incite! Cycles. 

While he is diligent about jumping through the necessary hoops to host events, the races still feel a bit underground, with rambunctious spectators handing out shots of Fireball to costumed riders and Zwolenski’s parents occasionally stepping in to grill hot dogs if a food vendor falls through.

Number of women riders grows

photo  Outdoors columnist Julia Tellman rides in the Cornwall Park cyclocross race. (Jack Warren/Cascadia Daily News)  

In 2017, Zwolenski told the Mount Baker Experience that one of his goals was to encourage more female riders to give cyclocross a try. Corina Cheever, a board member of the Queens of Dirt women’s bike team and a zealous cross racer, said that in the intervening years, he’s done exactly that. 

“Kip created the space for women to show interest and show up,” Cheever said. “Showing up is the hardest part, and Kip was a huge part of making Cascade Cross more welcoming.” 

The women’s races used to start early in the morning, which dissuaded participants, and usually only four or six women would toe the line, Cheever said. Zwolenski rearranged the schedule so that women raced at 12:45 p.m., and he carved out space midday for a free cyclocross clinic and course pre-ride for any woman interested in trying out the sport in a non-intimidating atmosphere. 

“It’s so nice to have that time and camaraderie, instead of just showing up to race,” Cheever said. “I’m such an extrovert, I love getting to meet everyone and make sure they’re having fun.” 

Incite! Cycles, as well as donating to the Queens of Dirt team, offered scholarships for racers who couldn’t afford registration costs. 

“Incite! and Queens of Dirt isn’t just a sponsorship, it’s a partnership,” Cheever said. “It’s just like the Cascade Cross tagline: small town cyclocross with a big heart.” 

photo  Matt Curtis jokingly wraps Kip Zwolenski in caution tape during clean-up after Saturday’s race. (Jack Warren/Cascadia Daily News)  

This season’s four-race series attracted around 400 participants and more than a third of registrants were women, a big increase from a decade ago. 

“I think the aspect of inclusivity is growing,” Zwolenski said. “Providing space for women to try cyclocross and invite their friends was key. Our trans/nonbinary category has also really been getting off the ground in the last few years. Cascade Cross is about putting out the ethos that everyone is welcome, and you can use whatever equipment you have, whether you have the racer mentality or you’re in jeans on a mountain bike from the ’80s.”

Director is an educator, not just rider

Directing races and running a nonprofit are major endeavors, but Zwolenski also has a full-time job; he teaches early childhood education at Skagit Valley College and is the faculty union president for the college’s federation of teachers. The day after the Cascade Cross series wrapped up, he headed down to Olympia to advocate for educators at the state capitol. 

“This is where you can see my pathology for organizing,” he said with a laugh. “I juggle things and compromise things. That’s part of the reason for moving on — needing to focus on projects in my own life. The structural pieces of setting up an organization are exciting and come a bit easier for me, so I think I’ve laid a framework that people can plug into.”

Zwolenski was confident that the series wouldn’t disappear without him, but thought it might ebb and flow before getting back up to speed. When he announced in November that he’d be stepping down as director at the end of the season, however, he was pleasantly surprised at the number of people who immediately expressed their interest in taking over.

photo  Jesse Nussbaum of Cascade Cross curls up by a fire to stay warm near the Cornwall Park finish line. (Jack Warren/Cascadia Daily News)  

He intends to keep running Incite! as the umbrella nonprofit, and in the next month or so, a new Cascade Cross organizing team will be formalized. When he’s no longer responsible for the innumerable tasks of running the series, Zwolenski plans to get back on his bike and actually do a few races next season, for the first time in over seven years.

The best part of race directing, the thing Zwolenski will miss the most, is the moment when all the pieces click.

“Not to be hyperbolic, but you’re creating a canvas for all these different things to come together,” he said. “I love to see that. It’s not about me, it’s about this awesome scene.”

Julia Tellman recently moved to Bellingham to spend as much time as possible on two wheels or two planks in a recreational wonderland. Reach her at jtellman.7@gmail.com.

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