Experience the Thrills at Minnesota’s Very Own Velodrome

The National Sports Center Velodrome is the only outdoor stripwood velodrome in North America.
The National Sports Center Velodrome is the only outdoor stripwood velodrome in North America. Ryan Ferrian
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From roadies to fat bikers, the Twin Cities has quickly become known as a mecca for cyclists of every stripe. While it’s the singletrack trails and protected bike lanes that everyone talks about, many don’t realize the Twin Cities is also home to a world-class track cycling venue: The National Sports Center Cycling Velodrome in Blaine.

Track racing is one of cycling’s oldest disciplines, and the exciting nature of whirring around a banked track at top speeds still attracts devoted followers. Just last year, when the NSC Velodrome was under threat of closing due to some badly needed repairs, a large community of track cycling enthusiasts raised $100,000 to keep it up and running. With that overwhelming response, there is now talk of building an indoor facility in Minneapolis.

If you’re interested in checking out what track cycling is all about, be sure to attend one of the velodrome’s Thursday Night Lights races as a spectator or sign yourself up for one of their newbie clinics to try it out.

To learn a bit more about what track cycling is all about, we connected with velodrome director Bob Williams.

The velodrome in Blaine   was the first 250-meter track in the U.S. to be built to Olympic and world championship standards.
The velodrome in Blaine was the first 250-meter track in the U.S. to be built to Olympic and world championship standards. Ryan Ferrian

What makes the NSC Velodrome so unique?

It is the only outdoor stripwood velodrome in the U.S. or Canada for that matter. Stripwood tracks provide a smooth, fast surface for cycling. The track was the first 250-meter track in the U.S. to be built to Olympic and world championship standards.

It was built in 1990. The turns are banked at 43 degrees providing adequate banking to hold riders at speed, and most riders find it is somewhat thrilling to ride. Spectators like the intimate feel of the relatively short (by U.S. standards) track. It makes the racing more exciting than a larger track. There have been a few tracks built in the U.S. since this one in 1990, some even shorter. However most, with the exception of Los Angeles, have been made out of plywood and their design, in my opinion, is lacking a bit.

This track was designed and built by Ralph Schurman of Munster Germany. The Shurman’s have built most of the world championship and Olympic velodromes around the world. We have had many racers from across the country rave about how much they enjoy racing on this track. We have had world champions and Tour de France racers on the track, and all have given it their approval. I put that down to the design of Mr. Schurman. He really knows how to design and build velodromes.

Explain how racing in the oval works?

The majority of our races are “massed start” races of up to 24 riders at a time. The riders are given a neutral lap to bunch together, then the gun is fired and the race laps are counted down to the finish. For some races—just to keep it interesting and to prevent the riders from slowing to a steady crawl—we interject sprints. Usually these are about every 10 laps. Points are won for the first 4 riders in the sprints and the race is won by the rider with the most points (20 points for lapping the field).

There are many different types of races run on the track. Some are points races, some are not. Our race program outlines most of them. Generally, the formulas are not very complicated and after watching a few races it’s easy to follow. Plus, we have a play-by-play announcer who explains the action so everyone can understand it all.

What makes a good track cyclist?

Track cycling is similar to road cycling but tends to be for the faster, more powerful riders. The track bike has one gear so the rider must select a chainwheel and rear cog combination that gives him or her the best gear to accomplish the task of winning a particular race. The gears are different for different rider’s strengths and weaknesses and the length and speed of the race. Since there is only one gear, the rider must have plenty of power to accelerate the gear to overcome inertia and match his opponents efforts. Then he must be able to pedal that same large gear at a fast rate of speed to keep up with it and attain a high speed. The rider has to have more power over a larger range of pedaling speeds. This takes not only muscle power but also anaerobic and aerobic endurance, depending on the length of the event.

Agility is also important. Riders must be able to move their bike around others and in packs on the high banks and in close proximity to others. Split-second decisions are also necessary since races are fast and short and the difference between winning and losing is often down to centimeters. Rarely is the speed steady and constant. Accelerations and aggressiveness are the norm in track cycling.

Do you think track cycling has the potential to grow in Minnesota?

Of course. I wouldn’t have spent my entire adult life on it if I didn’t think it had a great future. I’ve seen the sport at the highest level in countries where it is extremely popular and has been for decades. I can’t understand why it hasn’t been bigger here in the U.S. I am not alone here—there are lots of people across the country with the exact same feeling. It takes exposure to the sport for people to get excited about it. We’ve proven that here at the NSC. Once people see it, most people like it.

With the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL controlling the sporting message, it is hard to get people aware of the sport and its potential. It is my goal to change that. The sport was huge in the early part of the 20th Century and it stayed huge in other countries. There is no reason it can’t return to a higher level here in the U.S. It takes exposure and that takes money—doesn’t everything?

We are in the process of trying to build another facility for track cycling in Minneapolis. That will make it easier to promote the sport and at the same time make it even more exciting than it already is here at the NSC. It will take some money and some investors, but I feel strongly that it can and will be successful. What better place than in Minnesota, one of the best most cycling-centric states in the U.S.

Velodrome races can feature up to 24 cyclists on the track at once.
Velodrome races can feature up to 24 cyclists on the track at once. Ryan Ferrian

Who generally comes to race at Thursday Night Lights?

The majority are from local cycling clubs. They are amateurs, however the upper divisions (we group them by ability and experience) are quite professional in their approach. We have several National Champions and even a few World Champions in the “Masters” divisions. Our rider attendance varies, but we have been averaging 60-plus riders this season. We had a high of 100 riders a couple of weeks ago. We have both men and women. In fact we have probably the most women riders of any track in the U.S. Many of them are new to the sport but are very dedicated to it.

How much money had to be raised to make the recent repairs? Do you think that successful fundraising effort signaled increase interest in the sport?

We needed to raise about $100,000 to do the repair last spring. We did that, and it did amaze me. It shows the support of and the number of fans we have generated over the years. A lot of people didn’t want to see the sport disappear, which is inspiring. Of course the actual closing of the track and threat of losing it made people take action. I hope that  action hasn’t been lost on people and that they are ready and willing to support more efforts to bring track cycling up to the level that we all want it to be and that it deserves.

I understand the repairs have made the velodrome viable for another five years. What happens to track cycling in the state after that?

I and others are currently working on a project to build an indoor velodrome in the city of Minneapolis. Our hope is that we can raise enough money from investors to make the facility the first really quality indoor velodrome in the U.S. If we have the proper facility, we feel that we can promote the sport in a way that will garner much more fan interest and with it, more corporate involvement through sponsorships that will allow us to take the sport to a national level.

Again, this sort of plan is not new. There are several people with similar plans around the country and there is plenty of room for many tracks like this. Europe has proven this over the decades. No reason it can’t happen here.

It will take some important people with vision to make it a reality. I and others hope it happens and happens here in Minneapolis. If something like this does not come to fruition in the next few years, then of course the NSC track will be torn down and track cycling will be only a memory that grandparents tell their grandkids about.  That is what the state of the sport was when I started in it in the mid ’60s. That would be very sad indeed.

How can someone get into track cycling?

We run Introductory Classes 4-5 times per summer to teach riders the basic skills and etiquette of riding and racing on the velodrome. We provide track bikes for those without their own for these classes. A track bike with one “fixed gear” (direct drive, no coasting) is required to race. They can be purchased from a good quality bike shop and are not overly expensive as racing bikes go. Starter track bikes go for around $700 and elite level bikes start around $1200. One can spend thousands of dollars on a really top level bike, however, unless one is capable of riding at a world class level, it is not at all necessary.

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