There are bars in the Twin Cities where you can amuse yourself by shooting pool, playing table tennis or throwing a bocce ball or even an ax.
Now you work up a thirst by doing something that resembles short-track speedskating on two wheels.
It’s called cycle speedway, a rough-and-tumble form of bike racing on a short, oval dirt track using single-speed bikes with no brakes.
Royal Foundry Craft Spirits, a Minneapolis distillery and cocktail bar, has built what its founders says is the only operating cycle speedway track in the country.
Cycle speedway is a British sport that emerged after World War II, started by kids who raced their bikes around bomb craters, according to one story. It’s the pedal-driven cousin to motorcycle speedway, a form of motorbike racing on a flat dirt track.
Both sports feature a distinctive riding technique: Without brakes, racers drag one foot on the ground to manage speed and control their bikes when leaning into the turns.
Andy McLain, Royal Foundry’s chief distiller and co-founder, was born in Minnesota, but his parents are from the U.K., and he spent part of his childhood there.
So the booze he makes is British-themed — gin, single malt whiskey and navy style rum — as is the decor and bar games — darts, badminton and ninepin skittles.
To cater to the Twin Cities’ thriving bike community, McLain decided that cycle speedway, which he’d experienced at a kids’ camp in Britain, should be part of the Royal Foundry’s Anglophilic attractions.
He’s also keeping up with the neighbors in outdoor recreation: The Latin-style brewery next door, La Doña Cervecería, has a miniature soccer field used for three-on-three league play.
This summer McLain built the clay-based, 70-meter oval track with a grass infield and concrete curbs for about $50,000, using a local landscaping company, Blue Earth Gardening. It’s next to the patio outside his 15,000-square-foot distillery and cocktail room just west of downtown Minneapolis in the Harrison neighborhood, at 241 Fremont Av. N.
“It was really fun to do something unusual,” said Blue Earth owner Barbara Busick. McLain also got four Surly Pack Rat commuting bikes set up for racing, with upright handlebars, a single gear and no brakes, for use by patrons.
Cycle speedway typically involves heats of up to four riders at a time racing counterclockwise for four laps. But McLain is introducing Minnesota to a slightly less intense version, with two racers at a time racing three laps per heat for best out of five heats.
“It can be a little nervy when you get out there,” McLain said.
But while “physical contact is legal and often necessary,” according to a Wikipedia entry about the sport, the entry reassuringly adds, “There has never been an accident in cycle speedway resulting in serious injury or death.”
About a dozen guys, including some former BMX riders, mountain bikers and road racers, signed up this fall for the initial season of league racing with the Foundry Cycle Speedway Club.
“We are the first proper club track in the U.S.,” McLain said.
And with the recent closing of the National Sports Center’s velodrome in Blaine, McLain said his little track is now the only dedicated cycling oval in the state.
“It’s going to grow. It’s going to be huge,” said Rik Horton, a 49-year-old Minneapolis resident who used to race BMX bikes as a kid and now is taking up cycle speedway. “It’s a unique sport for this country. It’s neat to get in on the ground floor.”
A kid on a bike
Nick Milton, manager at the Tonka Cycle & Ski shop in Hopkins, said cycle speedway competitions remind him of a kids’ bike race to see who can tear around the block the fastest. And the clay track resembles the dirt baseball diamonds he used to skid his bike on as a kid, he said.
“This just brings so much more joy per minute,” he said.
With the racers using the bikes provided by the distillery, the competition hasn’t turned into an equipment arms race, Milton added.
“All the bikes are the same,” he said.
The challenge of the sport is racing elbow-to-elbow with your competitors and learning how much traction you have on a bike that’s making a tight turn on a clay track.
“It’s pretty fun to go just past the limit,” he said.
“Some kid went into the fence last week,” said Josiah Mederich, a competitor from Minneapolis.
The track club’s final competition of the season is scheduled for Friday at 6:30 p.m.
But McLain plans to keep the track open during the winter, with possible racing with fat tire bikes on snow. He might even ice the track for ice skating or bike riding with studded tires.
He eventually hopes to have team competitions on the track and he’s heard that cycle speedway groups overseas might be interested in coming across the pond to ride the new American track.
You can give it a try yourself during the hours the track is open to the public from 4 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and from noon to 7 p.m. on Saturdays. You can use the distillery bikes, but you have to sign a waiver and bring a helmet.
If you’re not too aggressive on the turns, it’s not that hard to do. But you can’t buy a pre-ride cocktail to work up the nerve to try it. Track riders are asked not to drink and bike.
“The idea is bike first and then drink after,” McLain said.