Bike racers will return to Major Taylor Velodrome this weekend, and track officials hope that ongoing changes to the historic cycling venue will not only keep them coming back year after year, but also draw new, younger riders.
Things are progressing so well, officials plan to put in a bid for a major, national-level race in 2014.
Marian University and Zipp Speed Weaponry will host the second of three cyclocross races Nov. 19 in the park surrounding the velodrome at 3649 Cold Spring Road. NUVO will co-sponsor the third race Dec. 3.
At the first race last month, Marian racers Josh Johnson and Katie Antonneau dominated in winning the men's and women's elite races, respectively. That wasn't a surprise to local cycling fans. Marian is considered an elite cycling school, winning more than a dozen national championships on the road and track over the last 20 years, and Johnson and Antonneau are two of the team's most accomplished riders. The win was Johnson's seventh straight off-road victory, while Antonneau is the under-23 national cyclocross champion.
Marian took over operation of the velodrome and surrounding Lake Sullivan Sports Complex in May, a month after reaching a 15-year agreement with the city of Indianapolis.
The velodrome was built in 1982, when the city played host to the National Sports Festival. Once viewed as one of the premier cycling tracks in the nation, the velodrome fell into disrepair over the years as the city didn't spend the money on proper upkeep. But Marian, the primary user of the complex, saw a diamond in the rough.
Per the agreement, Marian will make up to $2 million in improvements to the park over the next 10 years, keeping all the revenue generated. Improvements were slow at first, but the work kicked into high gear right before the Collegiate Track Cycling Championships in September.
"Before the takeover, the velodrome lacked a
lot," said amateur rider Michael Hart, who has raced at Major Taylor for the
last eight years. "It had a manager and a fairly decent amount of participation
on race night, but the place looked like a dump. Weeds and brush covered a lot
of the grounds, and a lot of facilities fell
into disrepair. There was also a lack of any programs to help encourage growth
(beyond) the aging riders that have ridden here since its inception.
"I was skeptical when Marian first took it over, as it seemed not much was being done to improve. ... But there now seems to be a lot in the planning books, and we're finally seeing signs of new programs being offered and a lot of the unwanted growth is finally being removed. I haven't seen so much change at once."
Student and community volunteers have spent more than 3,500 man-hours repairing and upgrading the facility, Marian cycling team coach Dean Peterson said. Metal rails were repainted, as were the lines on the track. New awnings and signage were installed, and the lights, which didn't always work before, were rewired. More than 200 volunteers from Lilly helped clear the non-native plants from the park around the velodrome.
"The bids to do all the work came in at $60,000, but we ended up spending only $40,000, because of all the volunteer work," Peterson said. "The community support has been huge for us; without them, we'd be stuck in the mud and collegiate track nationals wouldn't have been as successful."
Even visiting athletes noticed. Several of the collegiate cyclists had competed at the velodrome the year before at nationals and commented positively on the improvements.
Marian officials have big plans for the 41-acre Lake Sullivan facility, nicknamed the Indianapolis Cycloplex. In addition to the upgrades inside the velodrome, the long-neglected BMX park will be reconstructed, a criterium course laid out and a permanent 1.5-mile cyclocross course developed. Peterson hopes to raise $250,000 in grants and private donations to start work on most of the projects by next year.
Officials plan to sell naming rights to each of the new courses, but Peterson steadfastly denied the velodrome's name would be changed. It is named in honor of Major Taylor, who grew up in Indianapolis and was the most accomplished cyclist at the turn of the last century and the first African-American world champion in any sport.
"We have absolutely no desire to change that name," Peterson said. "It's got a tremendous history behind it. Not only does it help draw people to the velodrome, it highlights a greatly under-recognized athlete."
Peterson plans several spectator-friendly features for the planned permanent cyclocross course, including stairs and a flyover.
Peterson said the plan is to build a first-class 'cross course that could hold a national or international-level event. Louisville hosted a U.S. Grand Prix last weekend that was expected to draw 750 riders and 2,000 spectators. About a third of those visitors would be traveling a great distance to attend, according to Joan Hanscom, USGP race director.
Although Hanscom said the race series isn't looking to move from one of their current venues -- cycling's governing body allows only eight such events in the United States -- nothing would stop Marian and Cycloplex officials from starting a their own major event, like Cincinnati is doing with their annual three-day cyclocross festival.
Lake Sullivan officials, in conjunction with the Indiana Sports Corp., have put in a bid to host the 2014 Elite Cyclocross Nationals, Peterson said.
Several professional racers were slated to participate in a free clinic sponsored by local wheel manufacturer Zipp Speed Weaponry on Nov. 14, and Peterson hoped he could enlist their support in bringing 'cross nationals to Indianapolis.
The event realistically would attract thousands of athletes and their families. An estimated 10,000 spectators attended the men's and women's elite races in Bend, Ore., last year.
Marian and city officials realize drawing new riders and spectators will likely hold the key to the Cycloplex's ultimate survival. This year, the track and cyclocross course attracted about 600 riders and more than 300 spectators; Peterson hopes to increase those numbers to 1,000 and 900, respectively, next year.
"Most velodrome operators realize they've got to offer more than just track racing," Peterson said. "They've got to be year-round cycling venues. These are far from cash cows; in fact, if not managed properly, they can be huge money pits. But if you create a series of activities around it, you can create energy and momentum. We need to bring in new users, younger racers by offering different types of races. Once the kids try it, they're usually hooked, but we haven't had the kids out here."
To that end, Marian and the city are sponsoring a new cyclocross racing series aimed at local children called the Mayor's Cup. Although it's currently limited to events held at the Cycloplex, Peterson said it could spread to other Indy Parks properties in the future.