Thursday, October 2, 2008

Racing and Renaissance - the Kissena Velodrome

The Kissena Velodrome was built in 1962, a project of the infamous Robert Moses - he also gave us some pretty terrific public pools, some pretty terrible public housing, some pretty terrific public parks, and highways that block generations of New Yorkers from accessing New York City's significant and beautiful waterfront. Thanks, Mr. Moses.

Kissena was built out in Flushing, Queens. In order to unite cyclists from around the tri-state region, it's close to the Long Island Expressway and the Whitestone and Throg's Neck Bridges, making it pretty accessible by car from New Jersey, Connecticut, and Long Island; of course, it's also only a half-hour bike ride from Midtown Manhattan or North Brooklyn, where many of today's Kissena riders live.

The 1964 Olympic Trials were held at the Kissena Velodrome, and for a while, it occupied a very special place in this country's track racing world - five of eight riders on the '64 Olympic team were from the Kissena Velodrome. Over the years, though, it fell into disrepair, until in 2002 Bicycle Magazine called it the worst track in the country. Unfenced, bumpy and ridden with weeds and cracks, it was occasionally refered to as the Paris-Roubaix of velodromes (after a famous grueling French cycling race that partially takes place along thin, muddy, wretched cobblestone roads).

In 2004, however, much-needed renovations were completed and a renaissance of sorts began. Figureheads in the messenger community organized and promoted races to messengers; track director John Campo recruited racers, youths, and other athletes with his trademark big grin and contagiously friendly nature. Attendance grew; in the 2008 season, anticipated ridership was so great that track officials decided to split the weeknight Twilight Series into two nights - Juniors, Women, and Masters on Monday nights and open fields (Categories 1/2/3, 4, and 5) on Wednesday nights. Highlights include 60 people for Super Sprint Sunday, and 99 people for the State Championships.

The renovations and rider renaissance have not made a perfect velodrome, however. There are still bumps in the surface low in turns 2 and 4 that can leave you a bit wide-eyed as you pull your rear wheel back underneath you and back off of your sprint; other park users occasionally hop the fence, unaware that there is a bike race being conducted at over 30mph; the only facility is a port-a-potty and there's precious little shade. During weekend track meets in the summer, everybody fights for shade, huddling under rickety canopies erected in the infield. Wind gusts from the west can blow you almost to a standstill when you're coming around turn 2 and heading on to the back stretch.

My July trip to the Trexlertown Velodrome in Pennsylvania showed me how beautiful an outdoor velodrome could be - big bleachers, bathrooms and changing rooms with lockers and showers; an overhead pass so nobody has to scramble across the track. Smooth, steep banking so that you can tear around the track at higher and higher speeds; lights so that the races never have to end earlier and earlier as the summer's evenings grow shorter.

But Kissena's imperfections inspire love and devotion, and camaraderie amongst racers. It's low-key, down-home environment doesn't take away from the competition. Rather, it welcomes burgeoning racers, inspires them to work their way up the ranks of the amateur categories, and sends them off into the wider world of cycling. Kissena's racers have won National Championships. Among those who cut their teeth at Kissena is Nelson Vails, a NYC messenger turned world-class racer. More recently, one of Kissena's current top riders, Ken Harris, set the World Hour Record for age group 40-44, riding 28.5 miles in one hour.

Kissena is a track where there's frequently barbecuing during events, where riders greet each others with high-fives while they unsling messenger bags containing their work clothes and water for the evening's races. The older men from Long Island roll out their track bikes from their cars while the younger racers, riders in their twenties who've ridden here on a Wednesday evening from day jobs in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx pull 15mm wrenches, lockring wrenches, and chainwhips out of their bags to transition from their street-riding gearing to their track-racing gearing. Alan Atwood, the friendly and boisterous official, greets almost everybody by name, and to run the races he needs nothing more complicated or expensive than a whistle, a pencil and clipboard, and his sturdy lungs. "Two thirty-three, you're out!" he booms across the track during a Miss-and-Out, where the last rider across the line each lap is pulled from the race. "Two thirty-three!" On Thursday, pictures of the races will be posted on Kissena Track Racing blog, maintained by Mike Mahesh. Occasionally, he also posts pictures from Kissena in the 1980s - when Mahesh himself started racing there.

The Kissena Cycling Club takes its name from the tri-state area's only velodrome. As I look toward a busy 2009 racing season, I'll be excited to don the Kissena kit as a member of the club.

On her blog with Bicycling Magazine, Olympic hopeful Liz Reap-Carlson wrote fondly of her trip to Kissena, relaying the view of a friend of hers that "it would be great if someone took the money it takes to build one ADT Center and made 10 Kissenas here in the US."

I couldn't agree more. Three cheers for down-home velodromes.

1 comment:

  1. This is a wonderful post.... It actually made me want a track frame. More classic velodromes!