In the early 20th century, if residents of America’s burgeoning cities didn’t feel like going dancing or to the theater, they had another option for live entertainment: bike racing. Now, thanks to some ambitious bike activists, the pastime has returned to some of the nation’s roughest neighborhoods via crowdfunded, volunteer-built velodromes.
What’s a velodrome, you ask? Picture a wooden Nascar track with high, banked turns. They offer riders dizzying, X-Games-style thrills, as seen in this bike-cam video -- and some pretty spectacular spills to boot. They used to be commonplace in the U.S. According to bicycle historian David Herlihy, America’s first velodrome was built in Brooklyn in 1869, and many hockey stadiums doubled as velodromes for epic, six-day endurance races.
But although track racing has remained popular in Europe -- it’s been an Olympic sport since 1896 -- stateside, velodromes went the way of the icebox after World War II. Recently, however, these tracks have begun to reappear. A 166-meter velodrome opened in Chicago in 2011. That was joined, in August 2012, by a similar one in Cleveland. Yet another velodrome will soon go up in Pittsburgh.
And here’s the kicker (or kickstand, if you prefer): These velodromes occupy previously vacant land in struggling parts of town. Think $3,000 bikes zipping through neighborhoods of $3,000 houses.
Why would anyone build an elite, European-style athletic facility in the rustiest precincts of the Rust Belt? The answer comes from the convergence of two renaissance movements -- one aimed at reinvigorating cycling, the other America’s inner cities.