ON THE FAST TRACK: Cleveland Velodrome to open in June
Velodrome racing in early twentieth-century Cleveland. Photo courtesy of the Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University.
March 8, 2012 was one of those days when something potentially big happened in Cleveland with no fanfare and little public attention. Before a crowd of fewer than fifty people in the basement of the Czech Cultural Center in Slavic Village, Fast Track Cycling board president Brett Davis quietly announced that the group had decided to go forward with their plan to build a velodrome on the graded rubble where St. Michael's Hospital once stood on Broadway at Pershing Avenue. They signed a contract, committing to the purchase. The track will be delivered in early May on three flat-bed semis.
As soon as June, 2012, Slavic Village is going to have something that exists in just 25 other US locations, and nowhere else in Ohio—an exotic athletic facility that has the potential to draw new people and new money into the neighborhood, and build a new kind of cycling culture in Cleveland.
A velodrome –just in case someone has read this far without knowing --is a steeply banked oval track for bicycle racing. Slavic Village, as most Clevelanders are keenly aware, is one of the most foreclosure- and poverty-battered neighborhoods in the United States.
“We ordered the track,” Davis said, as simply as that. “We signed the contract.” There was no drum roll to cue the crowd, but the people let out a cheer, and beer glasses were raised. The Great Lakes Courier was the only media outlet in attendance. The official press release, Davis said, would go out sometime this week.
As of the announcement, Fast Track had raised $241,000. By the time the group brought the news to the City of Cleveland planning commission Friday, March 16, the total had climbed to $273,000—still not quite up to the Phase 1, $300,000 goal, but enough to give Davis and the rest of the board the confidence to proceed.
With the signing of the contract, Michigan-based V-Worldwide could begin to manufacture the166 meter (1/10 mile), steel and plywood oval. V-Worldwide has built velodromes for the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996 and the 2006 Asia Games in Qatar, among many other projects. When the pieces of the Cleveland velodrome are delivered in May, a volunteer construction force will begin to put it together. Davis compared the structure to “an erector set that takes up three quarters of an acre.” They anticipate opening in June, though no official opening date has been set.
The project has had to clear several hurdles with the City of Cleveland including approvals of the structure and site plan, as well as a zoning variance for the recreational use of land close to residential property. But the neighborhood and City have been supportive. The structure, site plan, and zoning approvals all have been granted.
The group has a $1 per year lease on the former hospital site, for two years. When the length of the lease came up in discussion of the site plan, Planning Director Bob Brown assured the group that “a longer arrangement is likely to follow now that the track has been purchased.” The group once had an option to buy the property, which may be offered again when the velodrome proves economically viable.
Planning Commission member Lilian Kuri called the project “super cool,” and suggested that the planning commission and city council should have races on the track when it's complete.
Ordering the track is the realization of a dream that has been kicked around by a few Cleveland bicycle racers for decades. The last time velodrome races were held in Cleveland, it was on a portable track at Public Hall, during the BikeAmerica convention in the early '80s. Fast Track's effort began in 2007. The group got an early boost from a Civic Innovation Lab grant, and for one year had a paid executive director, but for the last several years, it's been an all volunteer effort.
And it's been a challenge to raise money for something most people have never heard of. How do you tell someone what it's like to roll around turns at 30 miles per hour, leaning almost horizontal into the 50 degree bank? Still, Fast Track counts no fewer than 92 donors who have joined the group's Founder's Club by donating $1,000. Other contributions have ranged from tens to tens of thousands of dollars.
Davis says after the track is built, the organization will continue to operate on a volunteer basis—as a velodrome in Detroit does. That will enable it to have an operating budget of just $10,000 per year. He says starting this summer, the track will host weekly races on Thursday nights, with live bands performing on the infield.
The other six nights a week, people who buy annual passes or day passes can ride the track similarly to the way skaters do at roller rinks and ice rinks: there will be open riding hours, training time, and youth programs. A fleet of 30 track bikes—ultra light, fixed gear racing bikes with no brakes—will be available for rent. You can also bring your own.
It seems perfectly reasonable to expect that Cleveland area bike shops will see a surge in track bike sales this year.
As far as the neighborhood economic impact goes, it's hard to estimate what will happen, simply because Ohio has no precedent, and almost no one in Cleveland is familiar with the sport.
Slavic Village Development Corps director Marie Kittredge is looking forward to having another regional draw that will solidify the neighborhood's reputation as a place for affordable outdoor recreation. The velodrome will complement a golf course, bike trail, and athletic field, as well as a planned, 15,000 square foot skate park. She says businesses in the neighborhood are eagerly anticipating the construction. She says the outdoor velodrome could be better, at least as an introduction, than a covered, indoor track.
“Actually, we think that an open air Velodrome to start will be even more engaging, as it will be more connected to the neighborhood than a dome would, and I think there is more potential to ‘share the excitement' with cheers echoing across the neighborhood on a summer night,” Kittredge says.
She adds that the track will also be a big plus for the neighborhood's low-income kids. “We see this as a huge benefit, a chance to start a Major Taylor chapter here, and to engage our kids in a youth cycling racing program.”
Major Taylor was a turn-of-the-twentieth-century cyclist, and the first African American to win a world championship in any sport.
"Not to overstate,” says Slavic Village councilman Tony Brancatelli, “but having the facility makes the neighborhood a destination. And we've certainly seen similar possibilities in early rock gyms, or in skateparks.”
Already--thanks to being the only velodrome in the State of Ohio,-- the Cleveland Velodrome will host a state track cycling championship in Summer, 2012. Ohio has occasionally held state track cycling championships in the past, but it's done so in Indianapolis and other locations that have tracks. In the future, especially if Fast Track achieves its ultimate goal of covering the track with an air dome, it could not only help build the sport in Ohio, but could compete to host national and even international events.