SOUTH CHICAGO — Cyclists are racing to save Chicago’s only velodrome, which lies unused locked behind a chain link fence topped with barbwire in South Chicago.
Racers who used the bowled 10th-of-a-mile-long wooden track at 8615 S. Burley Ave. are trying to raise $150,000 by the end of April after the original owner walked away and the company that built the track is threatening to come in and dismantle it.
“There’s not a velodrome if we lose this one — there won’t be a second chance,” said Marcus Moore, a bike mechanic who’s leading the efforts to save the track. “If we can’t keep this, we’ll be a laughing stock internationally and the Midwest for bike racing will take a huge step back.”
Emanuele Bianchi, the owner of a line of luxury Italian accessories for cats and dogs, originally commissioned the track in 2011 as the prelude for his grander vision of a $45 million sports complex centered around the niche sport of bike racing on the former U.S. Steel site.
Bianchi couldn’t be reached for comment, but those who helped build the track described a man whose exacting demands alienated him from many in the cycling community whose support he needed to keep the project alive.
In September, the Bianchi gave up on the dream, locked the gate and walked away, leaving cyclists scrambling to figure out a way to reopen the velodrome before the lease ran out with V-Worldwide and the company came back to dismantle the track.
“There’s no reason it can’t be more successful than it has been,” said Dale Hughes, president of V-Worldwide, who has given Moore an extension through the end of April to raise the money to buy the track. “Marcus Moore has some wonderful ideas.”
Moore said he’s raised about $30,000 so far and thinks he can make the track of fixture among high school students if he can just get it reopened.
“You can tell by going out on just about any street in the city that these kids are into fixed-gear bikes,” Moore said, who organized more than 50 high school kids from 17 schools into a racing league.
Fixed-gear bikes have become popular road bikes, but were originally developed in the early 20th century as track bikes when velodrome races packed Chicago Stadium, the original home of the Chicago Blackhawks and Bulls. The bikes are the simplest machines that can still be called a bicycle and have no brakes, a single gear and no flywheel, which makes coasting impossible.
Moore can’t even get kids interested in fixed-gear bikes out to the track to try it out.
McCaffery Interests, which has allows the velodrome on its property rent-free, won’t let anyone on the track until there is some liability insurance, which disappeared when Bianchi walked away.
A representative from McCaffery Interests wasn’t available to comment.
Hughes, who’s built tracks from Switzerland to China, said there is no other track like the one in South Chicago in the state and it doesn’t compare to the next closest velodrome in north suburban Northbrook, which does not have the steep embankments that allow racers to power through curves without slowing down.
“On these smaller tracks it’s a different game because the gravitational force is so much stronger and you’re able to lap riders really quickly,” Hughes said.
Hughes has offered Moore a huge markdown on the track, which cost $230,000 to build. He said the ongoing maintenance costs are low and comparable to a swimming pool.
Moore said the velodrome was easily making enough money to pay for the maintenance and said sponsors have shown interest but want there to be a clear owner of the track first.
“Really, we were just getting warmed up, so it’s too early to pull the plug on this,” Moore said.
The South Chicago Velodrome Association is running a fundraising campaign online at gofundme.com/SoChgoVelodrome.
The South Chicago Velodrome is the only cycle racing track in Chicago. Photo, South Chicago Velodrome Association.
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