Happy wheels: Chicago Velo Campus project revives track bicycle racing in Chicago

By Lindsey Woods

by Chris Loeber

Contributing Writer

In a gravel lot on Chicago’s South Side, an oval structure made chiefly of wood stands out like a sore thumb among the residential buildings and crumbling streets. Called a velodrome, it is a bicycle racing track with steeply banked turns and is the first step in a project called the “Chicago Velo Campus.”

The project, an initiative to build a world-class athletic arena on the South Side, is scheduled for completion in 2014 and will cost an estimated $45 million. The Chicago Velo Campus will be slightly smaller than the 960,000-square-foot United Center and is projected to include a wide range of state-of-the-art athletic facilities, including a wind tunnel and an Olympic development training center.

The existing velodrome, located at 8615 S. Burley Ave., is temporary and will be torn down when construction is completed.

The Chicago Velo Campus is a part of Chicago Lakeside Development, which is a $4 billion redevelopment plan sponsored by real estate developer McCaffery Interests and steel manufacturer U.S. Steel Corp.

The development will create an entirely new lakefront neighborhood between 87th and 79th Streets, the site of the now-defunt U.S. Steel South Works, as reported by The Chronicle on March 26, 2010.

Emanuele Bianchi, president of the Chicago Velo Campus, came to the U.S. from Italy in 2004 with his family, his line of boutique pet products and his love for bicycle-track racing. He said he was upset to discover that velodromes, which are common in Europe, are rare in the U.S.

“I was told there is only one [indoor] velodrome,” Bianchi said. “I said, ‘You must be kidding me.’”

Chicago has been the site of many track cycling racing events, including the first internationally recognized world championship in 1893, Bianchi said. Competitive cyclists, known as “wheelmen,” were encouraged to come to Chicago to race in the 1890s, according to Tim Samuelson, Chicago’s official cultural historian.

From the late 1800s and into the 20th century, arenas like the Chicago Stadium featured an indoor velodrome as their main attraction. Bicycle-track races drew thousands of spectators. In the 1920s, baseball players actually made a fraction of what professional cyclists earned, according to Bianchi. The city’s last velodrome, which was located in Humboldt Park, burned down in 1946.

“Chicago had an extremely aggressive cycling culture,” he said. “There were up to eight velodromes active in the city at one time.”

Despite Chicago’s rich cycling history, Bianchi’s initial efforts to build a velodrome were met with skepticism. Prior to his current initiative, he tried to work with others who wanted to build a velodrome, but quickly found that support would be difficult to find, he said.

“Everybody thought I was kind of crazy,” Bianchi said. “A lot of people thought this project would fail.”

He found the help he needed in the local community; its participation is key to raising awareness for the project and interest in competitive cycling, Bianchi said. The actual construction of the velodrome has been handled entirely by volunteers who received Velo Campus memberships as compensation.

However, several of the volunteers came from out of state to help build the velodrome, at least one of whom is still involved with the project. Carl Wilkins, a retired state employee who officiates bicycle races, travels each week from Kenosha, Wis., to stay on a friend’s couch and act as interim director of the Chicago Velo Campus.

“I heard that they were going to build a velodrome in this area,” Wilkins said. “I just came down one day and fell in love with it.”

Bianchi worked with Chicago-based XXX Racing as director of its junior development program in 2010—an experience that inspired him to implement youth programs into the project as a way to attract young cyclists to track racing, he said. One of these initiatives, called the “Fix to Own” recycling program, is designed to teach kids how to maintain their bicycles.

His long-term goal is to bring competitive cycling back to the city, according to Bianchi, but his immediate intention is to raise $500,000 to build a cover for the temporary outdoor velodrome by spring 2012 so it can be used year-round until the permanent facility is built.

The Chicago Velo Campus has launched the “Cycle 4 Seasons” campaign, which offers velodrome memberships in exchange for donations.

For more information on the Chicago Velo Campus, visit ChicagoVeloCampus.com.