Team Velodrome: Detroit-area kids to compete at track-cycling nationals
By James David Dickson
DETROIT — The immediate goal of the Lexus Velodrome, at 601 Mack, prominent off Interstate 75 on Detroit's east side, is to provide fitness opportunities for local youth and seniors.
But its end game, which will be advanced early next month when a team of teens heads to Carson, California, to compete against their counterparts from across the country, is to prepare and inspire the next Olympian from Metro Detroit.
That goal makes the velodrome’s setting, at Detroit’s Eddie Tolan Playfield — named in 1968 in honor of the University of Michigan alum who won two gold medals in track at the 1932 Olympics — appropriate, even if the uphill battle its young track cyclists face is steep.
Dale Hughes, 69, creator of the Lexus Velodrome, and builder of at least 25 others, including one at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, opened the 64,000-square foot facility in January 2018.
The build, which came out to “$5 to $6 million,” Hughes said, was funded by an anonymous local donor who shared his vision of creating a safe place where children of the region could develop not only an appreciation for cycling, but have the opportunity to compete in it. First, regionally. Then, nationally. And, someday, Hughes hopes, internationally.
Lexus paid for naming rights for four years, with the option of another four. Diversified Members Credit Union and the Detroit Medical Center are also sponsors.
Hughes came of age after cycling’s golden era, which came to an end about 90 years ago, but has studied the sport and speaks of the time fondly.
Time was, he says, cycling ran neck-and-neck with baseball in popularity. Time was, the arenas that housed the Original Six NHL hockey teams, including the Red Wings’ first home, Olympia Stadium in Detroit, were designed for cycling as well as hockey.
“When Olympia was built in 1927, the third event they had was a six-day bike race,” said Hughes. “They put a track inside for six days. Over 40,000 Detroiters went to the bike race.”
As The Detroit News reported at the time, 15 teams, and 30 riders overall, competed in the first six-day race Detroit had ever seen.
“Since there have been no six-day races in Detroit there are no six-day fans here, but enthusiasts of the sport are rapidly developed,” The News wrote. “The six-day race attracts more than 150,000, and one-half that number watched the pedal-pushers in the recent six-day grind in Chicago.”
A crowd about half the size of the Chicago audience came out for Detroit's race. But this was before Detroit became the "City of Champions" in the 1930s, before men like Hammerin' Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers and Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings crowded out not only the sports page, but also its front page.
Attendance at Velodrome-hosted bike races these days doesn’t come close, and can’t, given the size of the space. The rebirth Hughes envisions is less about drawing an audience — though that is a factor, and a Saturday Night Rumble, named for the noise the track makes when riders race, is coming up on June 22 — and more about opening doors area teens may never have known existed, but for the facility.
"Tour de France is an endurance event," Hughes said, comparing track cycling to its better-known counterpart, which experienced a major surge in visibility during the Lance Armstrong era in the 2000s. "It’s like reading a novel. In track racing, everything is short and sweet, like a video game. It’s more exciting for the spectator. Our spectators are literally within a pack of 15-20 riders going 35-40 miles per hour. Our fans love it."
About 15 kids from the Lexus Velodrome are in the final stages of preparing for the 2019 USA Cycling Junior & Elite Track National Championships. Those start on July 2 in Carson, California, and run through the 7th. The team is about half city kids, half suburban kids.
One of those teens, Autumn Caya, 15, of Shelby Township, will be part of the group. It will be her first time in California.
Last year, when nationals were in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania, the team was about half as large, and was only just months into learning the sport, Caya says she didn't fare so well.
This year, with more youth taking part, another year of seasoning, and a full understanding of what competitive track cycling entails, she's hoping for a better showing.
"Last year, I didn't really know what it was about," Caya said. "But now I've got the experience and know what to expect. It's been a year of learning. The level of competition is higher. But we've got this."
A former swimmer, Caya said she's found in cycling an activity she excels at, and a community welcoming to newcomers.
"It's just so different," Caya said of cycling. "It's not super popular, and not many people do it. But those who do are great, welcoming people."
The club has raised money using a GoFundMe account, and all told donors have given about $15,000 of the $20,000 sought, Hughes said. But the trip is not dependent on hitting that target, he said. The kids will be alright either way. In addition to the cycling, Hughes plans to take the group on side trips to the Pacific Ocean and Disneyland.
Hughes' Olympic dreams are known to the cyclists, and Caya mentioned it herself. But they're not the primary focus, just a year-and-a-half into the Lexus Velodrome's existence.
Competition and exposure are.
"For many kids, this will be their first time on an airplane, or out of Michigan," Hughes said. "We hope they continue on in their cycling careers. But no matter what they’ll be more active, they have some life experience."
Hughes noted that most kids start riding bikes very young, when the bikes themselves are affordable, and the distance covered by the kids riding them is short. That changes as children get older. Not only do bikes cost more, but safety becomes a concern.
"A lot of our kids have the challenge, when they get into the (ages of) 10 to 12, or young teenager years, is that not only are the bikes more expensive, but it’s a challenge finding safe places to ride," Hughes said.
The Lexus Velodrome operates year-round, shielding riders from the elements in a city where six months of the year have high or low average temperatures below 40 degrees.
"We think we have a safe haven for people to come in and learn how to ride, and race, and maybe enjoy it and want to train hard and maybe find our next Olympian," Hughes said.