In Wisconsin, there is a historic sports venue that has been home to world champion athletes for decades. It’s a public space, and generations of fans have had the chance to brush shoulders with their idols, in the dreams that one day, they too, may take center stage. But if you were thinking we were describing Lambeau Field, your guess is about 150 miles too far north. Lake Effect’s Mitch Teich travels south to bring us the story.
On Summer evenings in Kenosha, you can find people out getting fresh air just like people everywhere in Wisconsin – softball players rounding the bases, golfers squeezing in a few more holes before dark, and bicyclists, out for a leisurely ride. Or maybe a not-so-leisurely ride...
Welcome to the Washington Velodrome, a 333-meter banked oval track, the only velodrome in the state of Wisconsin, and the oldest operating velodrome in the country. And to its faithful supporters, like Kerry Wynn, anyone who’s not here is missing something:
"This is the best – they’re making a mistake, wherever they’re at, they should be here, watching this – this is a great sport."
It’s also a sport that has going on in this natural bowl in Washington Park since 1927 – just three years after the Kenosha Maroons played their one season in the NFL. Football had trouble drawing fans in Kenosha – maybe because thousands of people were turning out for bicycle races. Eighty-five years later, the crowds are much smaller but Wynn says it’s a devoted bunch:
"Most of the people who come up and watch on the hill are people who’ve been coming for ten, fifteen years. And they know as much about racing as some of our racers."
On this night, no more than a hundred people dot the hillside below Washington Road. One of them is Steven Glowacki, who - indeed - has been coming out to watch for years:
"I have a grandson, I have a son-in-law that are racing here currently. I belong to a racing team – RPM Racing – and we’ve got several riders here. After a while, it gets in your blood, and it’s as much a part of summertime as is sunshine to come here on Tuesday nights and watch racing – in fact, there's my little grandson… the one in the green off the back with the disk wheel – he’s twelve years old, but he’s racing with the big guys…"
There are actually three nights of racing at the Kenosha Velodrome each week – the Velodrome Association has a masters – or over age 30 - program on Wednesdays, and a development series on Mondays, when aspiring track cyclists can bring whatever bike they’d like and learn to ride on a track whose ends are banked at a 28-degree incline. But it’s the Tuesday night series to which the cyclists aspire.
On a typical Tuesday night, cyclists from ten years old through middle age compete in the same sort of races you’d see on an Olympic track – shorter scratch races that are essentially three-lap sprints; miss-and-outs where the last rider to finish a lap is eliminated until there’s just one rider left; and even keirin races, where the cyclists are paced by a motorbike for part of the race and then sprint to the finish.
More than a dozen races will play out over the course of the evening. Many – if not all – of the racers will compete in several of them. Racers like Kristoffer Puddicombe of Milwaukee. He’s a category 4 masters cyclist – that’s the second-lowest rating – and is in his third season of racing at the Kenosha Velodrome:
"If you want to do racing, it’s a great way to do racing without having to buy a car, or having to buy a super-expensive road bike. These bikes are fairly inexpensive and you can get down here and you can race, like, three, four times a night as opposed to once a day, which is pretty awesome."
Puddicombe says for most cyclists, a key part of the learning curve is mastering the fixed, single gear bikes – bikes that also have no brakes:
"People say, 'Oh, they don’t have brakes – they must be dangerous.' I think it’s actually a little bit safer, because the thing that causes accidents is people braking unexpectedly. So this way, you’re forced to learn to maneuver your bike, you’re forced to learn to ride with bikes right next to you, a lot of the time."
That is not to say that the riders don’t try to mix it up a little. At 55, Bob Garner is the oldest rider on the track this evening. The category 3 racer has been doing this for a quarter-century, but he knows most people – even his fellow riders don’t necessarily understand how he spends his Tuesday evenings:
"We are a fringe sport of a fringe sport. A lot of people road race and they don’t track race. A lot of people mountain bike race, and some people just track race, but track race is quite a niche in a niche sport."
It’s also a sport with a payday – albeit a modest one. Entry fees, money from the track’s sponsors, and a bucket passed around in the crowd allow the winners to take home a small paycheck – Garner says he can sometimes buy dinner on the way home with his prize money. So why does he do it?
"I mainly do it because I like the battle. I don’t like doing time trials, individual events – I like being in a pack, and fighting out the battle."
The battle is also what brought Diana Carolina Pinuela all the way to Kenosha from Colombia. Pinuela has Olympic aspirations in road cycling but not much local support in her home country. So her Milwaukee-based coach, Dave Schneider, brought her to Wisconsin to experience something more competitive than what she’s used to:
[in Spanish, then translated] "In her country, she doesn’t have the money to afford a track bike , so she trains on her road bike, and it’s behind a motor, just giving it everything she has."
Everything she has was pretty good on this night – she won the 20-lap scratch race, beating some competitive men’s cyclists. Her translator did pretty well, too – 13-year-old Skylar Schneider came in third. She hopes her nights on the asphalt in Kenosha might be a stepping stone – but it’s too soon to what the next step might be:
"I’m not sure yet. I’m having fun doing it, and I think that’s all I’m expecting for now. I always look forward to coming and seeing the people who come out to watch. It’s always fun to say, 'Okay, it’s Tuesday again.'"
But with this week’s last races of the season, for Schneider and her fellow racers, it’ll be another nine months before Tuesday nights feel quite the same. For Lake Effect, I’m Mitch Teich in Kenosha.