It’s race night at the velodrome and Delana and Mike Brinkman sit tense in the bleachers as their son, Ben, steers his bicycle into a steep corner at high speed.
“Here we go! Here we go!” shouts Mike as his son and a cluster of other riders dart past, their jerseys a blur of color and motion.
The race lasts just a few minutes, for a handful of laps, and as the announcer calls out the names of those charging in and out of the lead, the racers approach speeds of 40 miles an hour, jockeying within inches of each other’s wheels.
“Go Ben!” screams Delana, who’s now on her feet as the cyclists pass one last time. And then it’s over. The racers drop their heads, pedal to the infield, and prepare for the next race, one of dozens held on Thursday nights in the summer at the National Sports Center’s (NSC) velodrome in Blaine.
One of the only outdoor wooden tracks in the nation and a source of pride for the local bicycling scene, the 250-meter velodrome will close for good and be torn down after this race season. The local school district wants the land beneath the track, and the 42 miles of African Afzelia wood strips that make up the track’s surface have disintegrated to the point that frequent repairs are necessary.
Thursday’s final “Thursday Night Lights” race series will be the last time the public can watch track racing there. Demolition is expected in the coming months.
“It’s a track that’s lived its useful life span,” said Barclay Kruse, a spokesman for the NSC. It would cost more than $1 million to replace it, Kruse said, and the NSC can’t afford it.
The track was part of the NSC’s original campus built in 1990, when the Legislature created the sports center with a $15 million appropriation to support amateur sports. Still standing are the soccer fields and one of the world’s largest ice sheets, along with a golf course, a convention facility and a soccer stadium that was the former home of Minnesota United FC. When the velodrome closes, track cycling will join track and field, weightlifting and wrestling as a legacy NSC sport that’s no longer offered.
This year’s budget of $110,000 in expenses and $86,000 in revenue left the self-supporting NSC with the cost of subsidizing the sport, said Kruse.
Financial realities aside, the track’s closure will cast adrift a tight-knit community of racers and fans who have made the velodrome their home.
“It’s a big loss,” said Amy Moore, who was among a core group of volunteers who helped save the track when the NSC first considered tearing it down in 2014. “The track itself is just this beautiful piece of art. It’s got these gorgeous curves. When you see how high it is, it’s humbling.”
Top training facility
It was a stroke of luck that it was built in the first place, said track director Bob Williams. He was among the group of track cycling fans who first suggested to state officials that they build a state-of-the-art facility when the NSC was in the planning stages. To Williams’ surprise, the suggestions were heard and the state hired renowned velodrome builder Herbert Schürmann to design the Blaine track. His son, Ralph Schürmann, oversaw construction.
The velodrome stood out among other U.S. tracks both for its wooden construction and for its steep, 43 degree banked curves. “That’s the ‘wow factor,” said Williams. “People walk up to the edge and look over and they go, ‘Wow!’ ”
The track hosted the Olympic trials the year after it opened and was considered a top training facility for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, which has a similar track. Local riders took advantage of the facility, too, with older, experienced riders showing kids and track newcomers how to ride without falling off the turns.
Peter Moore took his first class at the track when he was 8. His father raced there, and thought his son might enjoy it. By the time he was 11, he was racing against adults. Now about to enter his freshman year of college, Moore was chosen to represent the U.S. at the Junior World Championships held in Germany this summer.
“It’s been my home away from home for the last 11 years,” he said.
Minneapolis firefighter Daniel Casper started track cycling about a decade ago at age 43, eventually rising to the top levels of the sport to set world records for his age group. The loss for the cycling community will be hard, he said.
“We have really been blessed with a world-class structure,” he said. “And it’s unusual that it’s outside, especially in our climate.”
Cycling fan Anna Schwinn said she found herself riding through the steep corners at the velodrome a few years ago when “something just clicked” and she lost her fear of falling.
“You can’t help but get jitters doing something like that — riding on a wall,” she said. “What’s cool about it is when you defy gravity on a regular basis like that it really shows you what you can do in the world. All of these impossible things seem less impossible.”
Schwinn drew other women into the sport and for a time the Blaine velodrome had the largest women’s field in the country.
“There’s a lot to celebrate,” about the track, she said. Losing it will be difficult, she added, but “I’m all grieved out as far as that’s concerned.”
And it’s easier to accept the loss when considering local sports history, she said. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, when track cycling drew massive crowds and top riders were propelled to superstardom, the Twin Cities had three velodromes. Celebrity racers like Minneapolis’ Dottie Farnsworth could draw thousands of people to a race. Velodromes come and go, Schwinn said, and she’s optimistic that locals will help build another.
“It’s really sad that we’re losing our facility, but the community that has grown up around it has been really exciting,” she said.
The next track should be indoors, said Williams, who lost many race nights to rain and inclement weather. That’s the hope of the Minnesota Cycling Center, a nonprofit that exists as a website and fundraising entity for the purpose of building a new velodrome in Minnesota.
The group had hoped to build a track at the Shoreham Yards roundhouse site in northeast Minneapolis, but the Canadian Pacific railway recently tore down the shuttered roundhouse to make way for new railroad development. So far, no new site has been identified, said Jason Lardy, Minnesota Cycling Center president.
“It hasn’t been the most encouraging year for us, but we’re definitely going full steam ahead,” he said.
Over the past several years, the group has raised funds, hired a lobbyist to work at the Legislature, and sought private donors. The right corporate sponsor might help them build something like the Lexus Velodrome, a new track built under a dome in Detroit.
“The pitch has always been around developing a community for health and active lifestyles for people who don’t have access to that, and for kids in underserved communities,” he said. Pointing to the example of Peter Moore, Lardy said Minnesota kids could rise within the sport to compete on its highest levels if given a chance.
Lardy, who volunteers as the announcer at the Thursday night races, said he’s been gearing up for the final night. There’s talk of some special events, and someone planned to bring a velodrome-shaped cake.
And then the track will close.