Fast Tracked

Claire Hungerford

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The old U.S. Steel Mills have been abandoned for almost 30 years. Prairie has fought through the vast fields of concrete, asphalt, and steel; most of the permanent structures have been torn down or have disintegrated over time. This industrial district, which stretches along two and a half miles of Lake Michigan, is well worn, almost beyond recognition. Tucked in a corner of the sprawling 576-acre lot, an oversized bowl rises above the wasteland.

The bowl is a temporary 166-meter velodrome, the first instantiation of the Chicago Velo Campus. It is ovular, with straight-aways that rise slowly off the ground and banked turns that soar roughly 25 feet in the air. The project is both a realization of a dream, and the beginning of another.

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There are two other outdoor velodromes in Chicagoland, one in Northbrook, Illinois and a second in Kenosha, Wisconsin. However, there is only one 250-meter indoor track (the standard for international competition) in the United States–located in a sunny suburb of Los Angeles. For comparison, the 23-million-person nation of Australia has eight.

“They’re not cheap to build, and not cheap to operate,” explains Carl Wilkins. Wilkins has been making the 75-mile drive from Kenosha to the steel mill site regularly to help with construction and officiating races. He has been involved with the Midwest’s track racing community for 40 years. By his estimate, “There’s been talk for 20 years about getting an indoor velodrome in the Chicagoland area.”

These rumblings can be traced back to just before the time of 1994’s Taste of Chicago, when the Vandedrome was one of the event’s main attraction. A portable velodrome which traveled the country for exhibition and professional races, the Vandedrome was built by two-time U.S. Olympian John Vande Velde in Joliet. He is now involved with the Chicago Velo Campus as a “racing consultant.”

The Vandedrome represented a high-water mark for the Chicago track racing community. But Chicago had been a bike-racing city long before Vande Velde’s time.

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One of the country’s first superstars in cycling–or for that matter, any sport–was Major Taylor. Spending his early youth in Indiana, Taylor and his family moved to Chicago when he was twelve.

Shortly before coming to Chicago, he got his first bicycle, and soon, the local bike shop was paying him to do tricks while riding. But he was also fast. In 1893, at the age of 15, he set the mile amateur world record.

But shortly thereafter, he was barred from the very track where he set the record–blacks were no longer allowed. Throughout his career–when he could race–other riders would cut Taylor off or physically block him during competition.

But it didn’t matter. After he turned pro in 1896, he started winning. He started winning in a way that couldn’t be ignored. In 1899, he set seven different world records over a span of six weeks. That same year, he would become the world champion in the one-mile.

He was undeniably the best sprinter in the world through 1904, and would continue to race until 1910. While Taylor was making his mark around the world, cycling’s popularity surged in Chicago. In addition to sprint and shorter endurance events, six-day races became increasingly common. Race promoters were pushing cyclists so hard and for so long, that in 1898 the state of Illinois had to pass a law prohibiting any rider from being on a track for more than twelve hours.

By the 1920s, track racing had established itself as arguably the most popular sport in America, and racing in Chicago flourished–at one point, the city was home to eight velodromes. In 1928, the grounds at Humboldt Park were constructed, with capacity for more than 5,000 spectators. The track would serve as the center of Chicago’s bike scene until it burned down in 1946.

But even before flames engulfed the building, track racing had begun to burn out nationwide. There was no real attempt to raise the velodrome from the ashes, and the sport’s glory faded.

A series of small resurgences in the 1960s and ’70s–bolstered by the interest generated by the Vandedrome in the ’90s–kept a small core of devotees to track racing in Chicago. Yet they couldn’t gather enough funding or community support to build an additional velodrome for the city, let alone an indoor one.

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“There are not many places in Chicago where you see through the pattern of everyday life; there’s not much Olympic dreaming,” Emanuele Bianchi explains in his clipped yet forceful Italian accent. “I thought, a velodrome, it is one of the symbols.”

A short man with a wide smile and determined eyes, Bianchi stands at the center of the recent whirlwind of development surrounding the Chicago Velo Campus, though his path to the velodrome has not exactly been straight.

Bianchi moved from Italy to Chicago in 2006. He knew a little bit of English, but his children only spoke Italian. He had always biked casually, but never considered it a serious pastime and never considered racing in any capacity before moving to Chicago.

Once in the States, he began riding around a bit more seriously with his then-ten-year-old son. They hopped in some races, had fun, and joined an organized team, called XXX Racing. His son’s interest in cycling deepened, and Bianchi decided to take on directing his son’s junior development program. But his vision for the program clashed with the racing team’s plans.

“Rather than have 10 juniors and 190 adults, I said we should have 190 juniors and 50 adults” he says. “Pump up the future. Not today, not the moment. We want to make the best cyclists–we want to find all the champions and help them to achieve results.”

Bianchi has Olympian dreams. About a year and a half ago, when he realized that XXX Racing couldn’t build the velodrome, he forged out on his own. Left to his own imagination, the concept behind the velodrome swelled to a staggering scope.

Currently, Bianchi envisions building a complex located at 82nd and Lake Shore Drive roughly the size of the United Center. The site will host an Olympic-certified 250-meter indoor velodrome. But the plans also call for a BMX and a cyclocross course, a fitness center, a wind tunnel facility, an indoor 400-meter running track, and an Olympic-length swimming pool. In addition, the complex will have classrooms, a cycling museum, and a restaurant. For all this, Bianchi needed 45 million dollars.

When not working on the velodrome, Bianchi is the president of PetEgo, a pet accessory company. Through a PetEgo board member, he was able to get the attention of U.S. Steel, and presented his plan to develop the company’s land into the proposed cycling center.

U.S. Steel and McCaffrey Interests (the group in charge of the development of the old steel mill site) liked the idea. They liked it a lot. But not enough to cut Bianchi a 45 million dollar check.

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Reid Schwartz is stout, his quadriceps are etched with a distinct tan line from spandex rider’s shorts. His gray, wafting hair flows back from a receding hairline, and his square face is accentuated by a strong chin. Last year, he won the masters world championships for his age category in the 500-meter sprint, and earlier this summer he won the U.S. Championships in the same event by almost a second. He is the first person to win a championship in a Chicago Velo Campus jersey. He is 63 years old.

Schwartz has rearranged his practice as a clinical psychologist to allow for the training regimen becoming of a world-class athlete–he sees patients from one in the afternoon until nine at night, so that he can spend his mornings in the weight room, along the lakefront path, and on the velodrome track. Schwartz has trained in cities across the country, from Detroit to Los Angeles.

At one point, he says, “I was driving from Chicago, sometimes on the weekends, to Trexlertown, Pennsylvania.” Trexlertown has one of the premier cycling programs in the U.S. and has produced multiple national and world champions. By car, it’s twelve hours and thirty minutes from Chicago.

Now, the drive is only fifteen minutes from Schwartz’s home in Woodlawn to the Chicago Velo Campus. While he would occasionally train at Kenosha and Northbrook before the new velodrome was built, neither have a steep enough banking to compare to the tracks that the U.S. and World Championships are on. The maximum banking at Northbrook is 18 degrees, and at Kenosha the banking tops out at 22 degrees, while a standard championship-caliber track is more than 40 degrees. The banking at the Chicago Velo Campus is 50 degrees. The hope is that more world-class athletes such as Schwartz will begin to take advantage of the new velodrome, and later, the expansive complex Bianchi has devised.

Schwartz rides with the Dutch-made Casco helmet, one of the best sprinting helmets on the market (usually running for around $300). Until last year, however, it wasn’t certified for use in the U.S. That is, until Emanuele stepped in. Schwartz throws up his hands and shakes his head with a smile. “I don’t know how he does it.”

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After meeting with U.S. Steel and McCaffery Interests, Bianchi got the go-ahead to try a test run, in the form of a temporary outdoor velodrome. This is the structure that stands at the site now on the corner of 87th and Burley.

Its track was designed by Dale Hughes, who is something of a legend in the U.S. racing community. He has built velodromes across the country, most notably the Olympic track for the 1996 Games in Atlanta.

Hughes, his assistant, Bianchi, and a team of volunteers constructed the track over thirty-five days this summer. As Bianchi puts it, “The velodrome was built in a fast and furious way.”

They worked from sun up to sun down, through the heat and the rain. The volunteers came from all over, both those who were entrenched in the competitive cycling community and those who had never raced. They brought their own tools; they brought their own expertise.

The structure now standing is functional, but far from complete. Almost every day, volunteers are out tweaking the site or adding parts. Now, a boat sail is propped up in the middle of the velodrome to provide shelter on the infield from the elements. Soon, the straight-aways will be lined with metal bleachers. Bianchi is still searching for funding to buy an inflatable bubble to cover the track for winter. There is still a lot of work to be done.

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H.C. Warfield has been unemployed for about a year, since his business readying houses for sale folded. Trained as a welder, Warfield has been in Chicago for about 30 years, and in the neighborhood for around a year. About a month ago, when he noticed construction in the old steel mill site, he came over to see if they were hiring. No, but they were taking volunteers. He went home, changed, and has been back almost every day since to help out.

He has never ridden on the velodrome. “I love to ride the bike, but this here’s a challenge,” he says in a languorous Southern drawl, leaning back. He first started riding bikes as a child in Mississippi, but never competitively, and never on a track. Recent knee problems have kept him off the saddle.

Yet he has been dedicated to the velodrome. When he started showing up regularly, he was the only black person at the track. Warfield reasoned, “If I came over, I figured other black people would come too.” Soon, black kids from the neighborhood began to wander in, drawn by the oddity of the velodrome. They began to ride, and now, kids as young as ten or twelve zip around the track. “I really enjoy that,” he says. The numbers aren’t huge, but they are growing.

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The work already done on the velodrome–bringing together such a varied assortment of people and resources–has been nothing short of a feat. But with the winter coming, the pace will slow.

There is not enough time to build up a strong program before rain and snow shut the track down. If Bianchi can find the money to temporarily cover the track, they might be able to continue some training through the winter. Yet inevitably, the summer’s accomplishments will slowly fade into deeper memory, and more work will come in the spring. The trick is to keep the momentum of all the different forces behind the velodrome moving in the same direction.

Starting in the early spring, Bianchi plans to go to schools across the city to recruit kids. This is all part of his vision: “We would like to give a chance to kids who want to learn cycling, even if they can’t learn it on the campagnolo super-eleven $4000 bike.” He wants them to “be strong on whatever bike you have.”

For a beginner, one of the most daunting prospects is keeping up the speed to stay on the track. Anything less than 18 miles-per-hour, and gravity will pull the rider right down off the turns. Yet for those who stay up, the thrill is exhilarating.

For this type of biking, Bianchi says, “You have to know how to ride the turns.” The same could be said for the project.

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