It didn’t look this steep from the ground. But once you climb the steps and look down...it gives me a new level of respect for NASCAR drivers. Not to mention the racers here tonight, their wakes whistling past me as they fight for first place, lap after lap. They share the same primal drive to win, the need to keep chasing every last fraction of a second and sharpen their skills to a razor’s edge, with their counterparts in NASCAR, WRC, Pirelli World Challenge, F1, and every other automotive racing series.
But this track isn’t carved in asphalt on some raceway. It’s made of wood, for a start. It’s indoors, in downtown Detroit, next to an elementary school and the Children’s Hospital of Michigan. The speeds are lower: the minimum speed to go horizontal is about 22 mph, though they race at speeds over 40, usually. But if you think that isn’t impressive, there’s one more thing you need to know. They don’t race cars at this Motor City racetrack, or karts: they race bikes.
Welcome to the newly opened Lexus Velodrome, at 601 Mack Avenue. Here, deep in the heart of The Big Three’s stomping grounds, Detroit is beginning to embrace a passion for cycle racing. Or, rather, re-discover it.
Baseball may be billed as America’s pastime now, but that wasn’t the case in the early 20th century. Your grandpa may have wanted to get Babe Ruth’s autograph, or Ty Cobb’s. But those two greats would’ve killed to get their merch signed by the cycling greats.
Admittedly, the fact that I don’t know any famous velodrome racers’ names, but I know Babe Ruth’s, kind of says it all on its own.
But the truth is that when track cycling disappeared, it left a sizeable hole in the American sports culture. As Atlas Obscura puts it, imagine if every single basketball arena and team in the US were to disappear. No more Kobe Bryant, no more NBA 2K or NBA Live games, no more March Madness. That’s what happened when indoor cycle races faded from public consciousness in the States.
And that Babe Ruth comparison? These racers were paid on that level, too. In the 1920s, one Jimmy Walthour of Park City, Illinois, had a $100,000 contract. That’s roughly $1.4 million in today’s money. That might not be close to the NBA average salary of $6.6 million, but it’s roughly 2/3rds that of the average NFL contract. Australian cycling website Bike Chaser News reported that the highest paid professional cyclist is Chris Froome, with a contract earning him roughly 4 million pounds sterling, or about $5.7 million. Ol’ Jimmy was only earning a quarter of that, but he was competing in one kind of event.
Atlas Obscura also revealed a little tidbit I never knew: bike racing was Al Capone’s favorite sport. You know a sport’s bad-ass when it has the OG gangster’s stamp of approval.
If this still doesn’t convince you, one of the helpful posters hung at the track spells it right out. The six original NHL arenas—including the original Madison Square Garden, and Detroit’s Olympia Stadium—weren’t just built for hockey; they had to accommodate two more sports: boxing and bike racing. In fact, Madison Square Garden inspired an entire category of bike racing, Madison racing, that is featured at the Lexus Velodrome. But that wasn’t what drew in the crowds a century ago.
No, what drew the people in the thousands to the banked ovals was six-day racing. Staying awake to race at Le Mans is an almost Herculean task. Now picture doing it for six days straight, while riding a bike at speeds up to 40 mph. To put that into perspective, the average speed at Le Mans in 1928 was just over 69 mph. The velodrome racers’ engines were their legs, and their brakes were their bare hands. Helmet? Pfft, what helmet? Thank God we had the likes of Bing Crosby going to the races to pay for riders’ hospital bills.
Yup. I once had to stay awake for three days in a row in college, and I started to hear colors. And that was just me sitting in front of a bunch of books and a computer. No wonder the racers started acting like feral animals by the end. I simply cannot imagine the physical effort and mental discipline it would take to stay riding on those early bikes for six whole days, even with pacers.
The extreme lengths the riders went through in order to stay awake that long, and the sheer physical and mental anguish that resulted, all led to the six-day race dying away. First by limiting a rider to ‘just’ 12 hours a day—which is what led to the two-person Madison racing’s development (two riders = two 12-hour shifts)—and then by outright bans.
The Great Depression and WWII didn’t help either, nor did the sport’s association with gangsters. As the automobile rose to prominence, and after more and more Europeans began to dominate the American scene, the sport of track cycling, at least in the States, simply faded away.
In Europe, the six-day race still goes on from time to time. Not only is cycling better integrated into daily life there, track cycling as a whole is amazingly popular. With 1912 being the only exception, it has been featured in every single modern Olympic Games. The sport has even had influence on automotive engineering and aerodynamics, with the astounding Lotus 108 track bike.
All this is to say, despite the often turbulent relationship American drivers have with cyclists today, once upon a time, track cyclists were some of the biggest names in sports and society.
If there’s room on Mackinac Island for a Quidditch pitch, there’s enough room for almost any sport to exist. No, track cycling hasn’t died completely in the US, but it suffers from a more extreme version of American soccer’s illness. Cycling competitions are rarely covered in American mainstream media, the Tour de France and Olympics notwithstanding. Track racing is covered even less.
Part of that comes from the relative dearth of cycling tracks on this side of the Atlantic. USA Cycling, the governing body of bike racing in the US, listed only 26 active velodromes as of May 2017. With the new Lexus Velodrome, that means there are only 27 cycling tracks open in all of the United States. These are sprinkled rather sparsely among the states: California has four; Michigan, Colorado, and Texas have two each; and the other 16 states on the list each have just one.
Oh, and just to make it that little bit more problematic, only two of these tracks have a roof. One of them is the Lexus Velodrome. The other is LA’s VELO Sports Center, which will be hosting the 2028 Olympic Games.
It is special, but not just because of the roof. The Lexus Velodrome isn’t just somewhere that cyclists can come to race away from the cracked roads and insane drivers. It’s one of the most vivid symbols of Detroit’s renaissance. It stands as a monument to the devotion of a community, of what can be accomplished when people with a passion and a vision come together.
The 0.1-mi (160 m) wooden track is the dream project of Ferndale, Michigan’s Jon Hughes, the owner of my local bike shop, Downtown Ferndale Bike Shop. Hughes has cycling in his blood: his dad, Dale Hughes (who is also the track’s executive director), designed and built over 20 velodromes all over the world, including the track used in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and even coached several world championship racers. The Lexus track is the passion project of both father and son.
While the track is slightly too short to be featured in the Olympics, that wasn’t the goal either Hughes wanted. Dale Hughes’ mission for this track was clear: “’efficient and affordable.’” The track is run by the Detroit Fitness Foundation, a non-profit, and the majority of the running costs come from Lexus (as sponsor) and food/merchandise sales.
The folks at the Downtown Ferndale Bike Shop also helped raise and hammer the track together—the sport of cycling may feature high-tech materials and engineering, but the track is basically steel beams and tough plywood. This isn’t some gilded palace; it’s a place to get on that grind.
Jon wants the Lexus Velodrome to be a place to train future racers, and improve rider skills. That’s why entry is free for kids under 18, and the training (and mandatory safety) classes are open to people of all ages. The track also features a running track around its perimeter, along with a weight-training area.
And if you don’t have the gear, no worries: you can rent it all, from shoes to bike, at the track.
Hell, you don’t even need to have a track-specific bike to race or train. For all the engineering work that goes into making track bikes as slippery, stiff, and light as possible, at their heart they’re just really fancy fixies.
Jon Hughes, when he served as pace-setter during the 100-lap Madison race, may have rode on an electric mountain bike, but most of the rides I saw in storage below the track wouldn’t have looked out of place in a daily commute. At the end of the day, all that matters is that you want to show up and ride.
Even if that was it, that the Lexus Velodrome was only somewhere that cycling enthusiasts could train and race without worrying about getting hit by someone in a fit of road-rage or inattentiveness, I would still highly recommend it.
But it isn’t just that. What makes this facility, the only one like it this side of the Mississippi, such an amazingly welcome and downright vital addition to Detroit’s cycling and sporting communities, is its celebration of riders and athletes that are long overdue for the spotlight.
Athletes of color, like Thomas Edward Tolan, the first African-American sprinter to win two gold medals at the Olympics. He set the Olympic record in 1932 for the 100 Meter and 200 Meter.
Cyclists of color, like Nelson Beasley Vails, the first and only African-American to ever win an Olympic medal in track cycling, earning silver at the ‘84 Games. He would later appear in the bicycle messenger movie Quicksilver, was inducted into the US Bicycling Hall of Fame in 2009.
And Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor, the first African-American to win a World Championship in any sport (boxer George Dixon was the first black man to win a World Championship, but he was from Canada, not America). Born in November 1878, he would receive a bike as a gift in 1891, winning his first race just one year later. Over the course of his life, he would set multiple world records, many of them in the mile sprint. His World Championship win in 1899 came with a new 1-Mile World Record time of 1 minute 19 seconds, which is still blisteringly quick by today’s standards. The “Black Cyclone” was recently at the center of a Hennessey ad, portrayed by London-based track racer Melvyn Akins, celebrating Taylor’s amazing resilience in the face of racial discrimination.
Hennessey is also the driving force behind an upcoming ESPN documentary on Major Taylor, which will also feature commentary by BMXer Nigel Sylvester and road cyclist Ayesha McGowan. Nigel is the guy behind the GO series of BMX videos, and was the first BMX athlete ever featured in ESPN’s Body Issue. And Ayesha is on her way to becoming the first African-American female cyclist to go pro.
But it isn’t just athletes of color that are being celebrated. Female athletes, cyclists and non-cyclists, are celebrated just as fervently. Amazing riders like Sue Novara-Reber, who medaled seven times in as many World Sprint Championships. She later prepared the US Women’s Team for the World Championships; they won four medals in 1987.
There is also a place of respect for Sheila Grace Young-Ochowicz, who was a World Champion in both speed skating and bike racing. Having started both sports in the 50s at Detroit’s Wolverine Sports Club, she would win dual World Championships in both 1973 and 1976. Retiring after winning the latter, her return in 1981 saw her win another World Sprint Championship, followed by a silver medal at the 1983 World Sprint Championships.
It’s respect and admiration for these pioneers like this, celebrating their passion and dedication in the face of the adversity they faced—quite literally, the moment you walk through the doors—that are going to have the biggest impact on cycling.
In a recent interview with Bicycling, NBA Hall of Famer Reggie Miller talked about how seeing him at age 52 shredding trails on a mountain bike might inspire others to take up the sport as well. In an open letter published by Bicycling, Ayesha laid out how cycling brands could make a stand for diversity in cycling. She spells it out quite clearly: “If people see themselves in your products, they will be more likely to give you their money.”
That’s what this facility offers. A chance for a little girl to look out at the track, and imagine herself as Sue Novara-Reber, blazing around the track in a whirr of gears.
An opportunity for a black teen to be like Reggie Miller, or Major Taylor—no, to go beyond them, and become their own person, and set a course and time for others to try and beat.
Cycling needs to become more open and inviting to everyone, at every level. And it begins with places like the Lexus Velodrome. A place where a total noob or a seasoned pro can practice and exchange skills and insights without having to worry about being run over or assaulted. Somewhere a community can be built.
This track, tucked away in Tolan Playfield Park, is a chance for people to share the sport they love with a wider audience. More than that, it’s Detroit’s rebirth, distilled for all to come and see.
A place where people young and old, white and black, of every gender and creed, can settle back in their saddle, grit their teeth, and ride the banking.