A steady stream of cars file into Blaine’s National Sports Center parking lot on an idyllic summer evening, shuttling soccer and hockey players to workouts and practices. It’s Thursday, however, and more than a few of those cars stop and park on the western edge of the massive lot, a decent hike from the fields and rinks.
Thursday is race night at the National Sports Center Cycling Velodrome. The embattled gem of a bicycle racing facility has survived a quarter-century of harsh winters, a lack of public interest, strong competition from the summer road-racing circuit and even its own demise to remain a vital part of Minnesota’s small-but-tight knit fixed-gear racing scene.
“There are not many tracks in the world like this,” said Tim Mulrooney, a nationally prominent local racer and employee at well-known Hed Cycling, a manufacturer of racing-quality wheels. “This is a pretty unique place.”
Built in 1990 as part of then-Gov. Rudy Perpich’s push for amateur sports training, the velodrome was considered a significant piece to the long-term goal of making Minnesota an Olympic training destination.
The 250-meter oval, constructed of extremely durable African Afzelia wood with banked turns at a steep 43-degree pitch, routinely has been lauded and is one of just three outdoor wooden tracks in the country. It was built as a twin to the track in Barcelona, Spain, which housed bicycle racing in the 1992 Summer Olympics.
The exterior’s wooden support scaffolding is all that is visible to passersby, not hinting at the impressive track that it holds.
“It was across from a swamp for the first 10 years, before they developed that area,” said track director Bob Williams, nodding toward a nearby center of big-box stores. “It never really drew that much support.”
In its 25 years of existence, the track has played host to internationally ranked racers and, until last year, was the home of a signature event, the Fixed Gear Classic. It also sits idle much of the year, unusable during Minnesota’s lengthy winters. In the summer it competes with the summer road-racing season, which has much greater participation numbers due to high-profile races such as the Tour de France.
The track was on the verge of closing last year when the NSC Foundation rejected a funding proposal to make needed repairs to the infrastructure. Track supporters rallied and raised the money necessary to extend the track’s life.
“We did a little bit of everything,” said Amy Moore, whose husband and son ride at the track. “Crowdfunding, finding sponsorships, fundraisers. This was very important to us.”
Doom, gloom disappear
The doom-and-gloom of last winter is nowhere to be found on this night. Fifty-eight riders of all ages and skill levels have shown up, and that’s one of the smallest gatherings the track has had this spring, owing to a regional road-racing qualifier keeping the number down. Twice that many spectators watch from a small set of bleachers or prop themselves up against the railing, hoping for a close-up view of the action.
The infield is swarming with racers, track personnel and well-wishers, preparing for a schedule of 16 races. There’s Mulrooney, Matt Montesano and Daniel Casper — three of the most successful fixed-gear riders in the state — all sporting resumes dotted with national and international victories.
There’s Pat Whelan, who owns an automobile repair shop near Mounds View and is a dedicated racer and ardent supporter of the track.
There’s a strong contingent of less-established racers on hand as well, including 14-year-old Peter Moore, a graduate of the track’s introductory classes in just his second year of racing. He is considered one of the track’s most promising young riders.
But what has added vibrancy to the velodrome’s racing scene has been the influx of female riders who have discovered the thrill of riding the steep-banked oval. Two years ago, there were just three female riders who raced regularly. That number is up to 30 this year, nearly one-quarter of the 130 riders who have shown up to ride this season.
After completing her career as a gymnast, Linsey Hamilton was looking for a post-college athletic pursuit. One ride on the velodrome track about 10 years ago and she was hooked.
“It’s like a roller coaster,” she said. “You really feel the forces of it when you get up on the track. It’s so cool.”
Hamilton, who is recovering from shoulder surgery and has yet to compete this year, is now a four-time world masters champion who has traveled the world through cycling. Yet she considers the NSC velodrome special.
“I think it’s the best track in the country,” she said. “It’s my home away from home.”
Time is running out on the velodrome, however. The repairs to the support structure have extended its life span, but the track itself will be in need of a major overhaul soon. The cost for that, estimated to be at least $1 million, is not in the NSC budget.
The track is scheduled to close for good in 2019. Williams believes that is enough time to save fixed-gear racing in the Twin Cities. If not at the velodrome, then with the hoped-for development of a new indoor facility in northeast Minneapolis.
“All we need is exposure,” he said. “Minneapolis is a hotbed for cycling. If people just come and take a look and maybe give it a try, they’ll be hooked.”