Queens Velodrome a Secret Oasis for Cyclists
FLUSHING — As the hot late-afternoon sun beat down on Kissena Park in Flushing, 19-year-old Stephanie Torres sat in the center of a large track while her students rode around in circles.
Torres shouted instructions or encouragement to the players as they passed, reminding them to "stay in the drops" and correcting their posture.
"How many laps do we have left?" one student asked.
"A hundred," Torres jokingly replied.
Velodromes were once common during track cycling's peak in early 20th century, when crowds would cram in to watch competitors on race bikes around the track.
But they are rare today. According to the American Track Racing Association, there are only 26 left in the United States. New York has lost two velodromes — one in the Bronx was destroyed by fire in 1930 and one in Coney Island was torn down in the 1950s.
As a result, the nearest velodrome after Kissena Park is 71 miles away in Wall, NJ.
Interest in the bike tracks has increased in the wake of a report that a velodrome is scheduled to be built in Brooklyn. Philantrophist Joshua P. Rechnitz donated $40 million to the city in April for the construction of a new, 200-meter indoor track in Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Until it opens, cyclists will continue to travel for miles for the chance to ride and race around the Kissena track.
Michael Dunstin, 20 and Jovan Crandle, 22, who sat in the stands while the Star Track students raced laps, had biked all the way from Midwood, Brooklyn, riding 45 minutes just to get to the track.
Another, Andrew Da Silva, 23, also biked from Brooklyn, but he has made even longer rides. He used to drive to the New Jersey track to ride with the Pink Rhino racing team.
Cyclists say that the track offers them a chance to ride without having to worry about cars, traffic lights or pedestrians.
"You can go as fast as you want," Dunstin said. "You come here to time yourself, and to train."
Dunstin said that he has hit speeds of 40 mph, but higher speeds are possible on courses with steeper banks and better surfaces, such as wood, which is proposed for the Brooklyn Bridge course.
Teams practice at the track, which is open every day until dusk, and once a week there are races.
When asked what made riding on a velodrome better than riding on the sidewalk, Da Silva said, "It would be like playing football without a football field, or baseball without a baseball field."
There are rules to rinding on the velodrome. Only fixed-speed racing bikes without brakes are allowed. Helmets are required at most velodromes, although the rule isn't strictly enforced at Kissena.
The velodrome isn't usually crowded, which cyclists say makes it the ideal place for a youngster to learn to ride.
"It's way better to have them on a bike on a velodrome than have them on the streets," said Torres, who herself learned to ride on the velodrome.
That is not to say that the track, built for the 1964 Olympic trials, is without its problems. It has a water drainage system at its center, which caused a sink hole earlier in the month. According to Torres, the Parks Department has promised to fix the hole but for now it is marked off with two trash cans.
The velodrome lacks lights, meaning that the track's weekly 'twilight series' races must end before nightfall. Additionally, cyclists said that the velodrome's asphalt track slows down their speed and causes pot holes.
"I love this track," said Da Silva, "but it's 'Old Lumpy.'"
According to Torres, indoor professional velodromes have wood tracks. Concrete tracks are also preferable, but more costly.
The velodrome at Kissena Park also cannot host professional events. At 400 meters, it's too long for competitions, which are usually run on 200 meter tracks. Because of this, Torres said that many competitive cyclists end up leaving New York.
"When you're young and in your prime, you leave New York," said Torres, who races nationally for Marian University.
Da Silva hopes the Brooklyn velodrome will stop the talent drain. "I think it will attract world class talent," he said.
But while the Brooklyn velodrome seems destined to get all of the competitive racing, the Kissena track will continue being a meeting ground for hobbyists.
Leona Wong, 52, said that its not uncommon for older cyclists to come through and give tips to the children on the track.
"These are big, bike messenger guys with tattoos," said Wong, whose duaghter, Peye, 13, rides in the Star Track program. "And they're so great to the kids."
Users say the velodrome is a hidden treasure. Da Silva, who has been coming to the track for three years, said that he got lost the first time he tried to find it.
"I passed by this kid who lived nearby and I asked him where the velodrome was." Da Silva said. "And he said 'what are you talking about?'"
"If I ever move," Da Silva said, "one of the first things I'm going to look for is where's the closest velodrome?"