In 2005 the Celanese Corporation shut down its 2.5-million square foot cellulose acetate manufacturing facility off Highway 21. The sprawling thousand-acre site, located 20 minutes south of Charlotte on the western bank of the Catawba River, was left with the aging remnants of the once thriving production plant.
In the nine years since Celanese turned off the last light at the facility, the town of Rock Hill, S.C., in a public/private partnership with the Assure Group, has pulled off one of the greatest extreme development makeovers in recent history. Where once a network of rusting pipework connected the buildings of a fading industrial complex, now a network of freshly minted roads connect a modern housing development with the Rock Hill Outdoor Center—a surprising collection of world-class outdoor sports and recreation facilities.
The Giordana Velodrome
The Giordana Velodrome was the first large scale project to be completed on the 250 acres provided to the City by Assure. The 250-meter Olympic standard cycling track hosts some of the sport’s most prestigious national races. The facility houses 850 permanent, spectator-friendly seats and doesn’t charge admission to most races.
But big name races aren’t the only purpose for the velodrome. The facility, like everything at the Center, is open to the public. And yes, the bowl shaped race track can be a bit intimidating with its 42.5 degree banked turns. But not to worry, the center offers certification classes and lessons as well as loaner bikes to help in the transition from road to track cycling.
Novant Health BMX Supercross Track
BMX racing is one of the most exciting cycling competitions to watch. Riders start from a raised platform, launching quickly onto the undulating dirt track and into steep, high-banked turns. Wheels seem to be off the ground as much as on during the typically 35 to 45 second mad dash. The sport upped its international prestige when it became an Olympic event in 2008.
The RHOC brings a truly world class BMX facility to the Carolinas. The track, the only one of its kind in eastern North America, is designed to host the highest level of national and international competitions. In 2017, thousands or riders from more than 40 countries will compete at the track in the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) BMX world cup. This will mark the first time the race has been staged in the U.S. in 16 years.
If you want to get a feel for what a top level BMX race is about a little sooner, the track plays host to the Carolina Nations on March 20-22. While there’s good racing throughout the weekend, Thad Fischer, cycling coordinator for the city of Rock Hills says it’s worth the trip to see the track at night, under the lights.
Teams from all over North America will practice at the new track, but so can locals. Like the velodrome, the BMX facility has open track time throughout the week and also offers equipment use and lessons. And after seeing the 8 meter drop (that’s a little over 26 feet) onto the track, you’ll want some lessons. There is also a 5 meter drop-in and beginners can start at track level.
Not everything at the Rock Hill Outdoor Center is a heart-pumping, adrenaline-inducing sport however. A boat launch offers easy access to flat water paddling on the Catawba River. Leading from the launch and part of the Carolina Thread Trail, 2.5-miles of paved greenway lies adjacent to the river for jogging and walking. And a five mile green space provides plenty of room for an afternoon of football or Frisbee.
For the mountain biker, some seven miles of singletrack and service roads wind their way over and around the steep riverbank. Trails take advantage of the near constant elevation change offered by the natural terrain giving a fun ride with plenty of switchbacks and a few open runs.
Perhaps the best thing about the Rock Hill Outdoor Center is that it’s not complete. Not even close. According to Fischer, the next year or so will see the addition of a criterion style, 1.5-mile road cycling course, a dedicated cyclocross track, and a connection to the greenway extending the contiguous paved path to around seven miles.
The stunning transformation from unused industrial site to world-class sporting destination is a huge economic and environmental win for the 60,000-resident town of Rock Hill. But for Thad Fischer, a longtime cycling advocate and race director around Charlotte, the greatest benefit hits a little closer to home. “It’s just nice for people to have a safe place to get out and ride with their kids.”
Originally written for OrthoCarolina.