Welcome To The Velodrome

After reaching a certain speed, using words to describe the feeling is just absurd.
Even Danielle Mullis, a pretty articulate 12-year-old, just glazes over when asked to explain her several-times-a-week rides at the award-winning Velodrome at Bloomer Park in Rochester Hills.

"It's just really fun to do," she says after a deep breath, her eyes fixed on the large bowl of a track above her. "I just love it."

Maybe it's being able to hear the wind in your head, to swim in the air, to cut through it with enough speed that your mind falls back and your body becomes its own energy field. Maybe it's the thrill of finding other riders who feel similarly inclined to race around the track fast enough, all melting together, turning the track into a great big whirling dervish sputtering bits of electricity and life.

Or maybe it's just a blast. Whatever. The fact is, in its seven years of existence, the Velodrome has emerged as one of the great little American stories, one built on volunteer effort, passion, and the ineluctably human quest to have loads of fun for little money.  

The Velodrome opened officially in May 2002, one of only 20 Olympic-grade tracks in the world. It was designed by Dale Hughes, a Rochester resident and one of only a few people in the world who are paid to design and build Velodromes.

He built the Velodrome for the 1996 Olympic Summer Games in Atlanta, and several others scattered around the world. In other words, this track is for real – a tried and true champion maker. Most Friday nights, Hughes can be found perched on the spectator hill above the track, shouting out encouragement and advice to that evening's racers, who range from teenage to middle age.

One of them is Danielle Mullis, the Rochester eighth-grader who, over the July 4th weekend, took the gold medal in the USA Cycling Junior Track National Championships in Carson City, Calif. It was a little over a year ago that she and her younger brother Luke, curious about the Velodrome, first visited with their father, Nigel Mullis.

"Once my kids came, they really got the bug," says Nigel, who also rides in the Velodrome's weekly races. "It's a lot safer than riding on the road."

That statement may be hard to believe when you first see the Velodrome. With sides that come up to a near vertical, the fixed bike track built amidst a tree-filled stretch of the park is reminiscent of the Roman Coliseum, a place you'd expect to see lions released upon a bunch of Christians, not a collection of cyclists orbiting a track.

But Leonardo Gianola, a volunteer and cyclist who spearheaded the Velodrome construction effort, says the track is much safer than riding on the road because it's enclosed and controlled. "You can take your kid there and teach them how to ride really safely."

The Mullis family is precisely the type of clientele that Hughes wants to see more of, the ones he hopes will grow in numbers as word continues to trickle out about the track. Volunteers say that with no money for marketing, the track, despite a rash of publicity when it opened eight years ago, remains the area's best-kept secret.

It wasn't always this way. There was a time in the early part of the 20th century that bike racing on a fixed track Velodrome was one of the most popular sports in the United States.

"In Babe Ruth's time, cycling was more popular than baseball," says Gianola. "With bike riding, it's your skill, not necessarily how strong you are."

The buildings that were home to the Original Six hockey teams, including Olympia Stadium in Detroit, were all built with steep grades to accommodate bike racing. But then, as is the case with a good thing, a newer good thing came along in the form of the automobile, and bike racing started to fade.

"Nobody cared about a bike," says Hughes. "A bike became a toy for kids." Which is a shame, he adds, since bike racing is certainly as exciting, if not more so, than NASCAR.

"It's like NASCAR," he says of the Velodrome racing, "except these guys are powering it themselves."

So in Hughes' mind, the most important challenge facing the Velodrome volunteers is how to spread the cycling magic to the auto-dependent denizens of Metro Detroit.

With the irony-free enthusiasm of a true believer, he says the media needs to get the word out that this "hidden gem" is sitting right there waiting to be used. Then all the parents and kids who are spending ungodly amounts of money on hockey and soccer can drop their shin and mouth guards and cycle at the Velodrome instead.

"They can come here, and it's totally free," says Hughes. "We can turn them into champions and give them Olympic dreams."

A tall order to be sure, but if the Velodrome at Bloomer Park is a testament to anything, it's that sometimes tall orders are just what you need to get anything done.

The Bloomer Park Velodrome story started improbably around 1997, when Leonardo Gianola, a cyclist and member of the Wolverine Sports Club, who, like hundreds of other athletes, counted as his mentor Mike Walden, head coach of the Wolverine Sports Club. Walden had helped construct the Dorais Velodrome in Detroit, by the late 1990s, had fallen into considerable disrepair. So Gianola asked Hughes (who, incidentally, is married to the Walden's daughter, Christine) what it would take to build a new Velodrome.

Hughes, by that time a well-known expert in such matters, told him to raise $100,000 and then they'd talk about it seriously.

Here comes the most improbable part: It turns out that raising $100,000 wasn't all that difficult. Gianola rallied members of the Wolverine Sports Club and other sports clubs to each commit to donating $1,000. Less than six months later, Gianola had secured $104,000 for the project.

The city of Rochester Hills approved the construction site, and the rest – design, construction, and ongoing operation – was left up to volunteers. Hughes designed and led construction, opening the world-class track in May 2002 and dedicating it to the late Mike Walden.

Today, first-time adult riders get free track time with free bike equipment and lessons; kids under 18 are always free. 

"It's a great story," says Gianola, who these days is more content playing in the Velodrome's house band that performs during the Friday night races. That Gianola can focus on playing his music shows how well the current crop of volunteers is maintaining the track eight years later, he says. "For me, a sign of success is that I can go out there and nobody knows who I am. I can just go out and play in the band."

On a recent Friday night, the heat of the day burning off into the summer twilight, Gene Diggs of Rochester stood counting laps for the dozen or so racers zipping by. In the spectator hill above Diggs, people set up camp with lawn chairs, blankets, and picnics.

Diggs glances at the arriving crowd. "We get some fans," he says, "folks who live around here."

Hughes and others hope the crowd will grow in coming years, as the buzz about the track and the joy of cycling gets out to a more eco-conscious, post-NASCAR audience.

Like Danielle Mullis, Gianola is at a loss when it comes to describing the lure of Velodrome cycling. He pauses and starts to say something else before he has it: "It's a road that never ends."

The Velodrome is located inside Bloomer Park, located on the east side of John R Road, north of Avon Road, in Rochester Hills. For more information on the Velodrome at Bloomer Park, visit www.velodromeatbloomerpark.com or e-mail Dale Hughes at dale@nas-track.com.

Megan Pennefather is a Royal Oak-based freelance writer. Her previous article for Metromode was


photos of cyclists on the velodrome were taken at Bloomer Park in Rochester Hills.

Photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D Contact Marvin here

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