More than a dozen riders trail a motor scooter around the Major Taylor Velodrome during a recent training session, furiously pedaling up to 40 miles per hour. As the motorbike gradually increases speed, spent riders begin peeling off the back.
Dean Peterson, head coach of the Marian University cycling team and the man in charge of the Indy Cycloplex, hangs on longer that most, but finally yields. He eases down to the infield, seemingly pleased not only with the workout, but also with the progress surrounding him.
At this weekend's Mass Ave Criterium, you might be hard pressed to find a podium without at least one of Peterson's proteges.
Behind the velodrome to the east, construction continues on a revived BMX track that had its grand opening in late June. To the west lies the framework for a cyclocross course that Peterson hopes will one day be the site of a national championship race. The track itself has seen numerous improvements over the last 12 months.
Not too long ago, just having a handful of riders at a mid-week track practice would be cause for celebration, but the crowds are rapidly becoming the norm at the velodrome. In less than a year, Peterson and an army of student athletes and volunteers have transformed the Cycloplex into the major hub of bicycle racing in the city.
The fixed-gear track bike is an apt comparison for Peterson, neither have brakes and are capable only of moving forward, preferably exceedingly fast.
Man of many hats
The 47-year-old Peterson has worn many hats over the years – bike racer, coach, mechanic, camp organizer, Peace Corps volunteer, teacher, Tour de France guide; he's isn't a stranger to building projects. He spent two years in the Togo region of Africa, teaching villagers how to construct fresh water wells, clay stoves and bike trailers. In the late 1990s, he co-founded the Children First cycling team – the precursor to today's Bissell-ABG-NUVO squad – which raised more than $80,000 for abused and disadvantaged youth in the area.
"I've always tried to do the kind of work that had intrinsic value to the community," Peterson said. "... With Children First, I wanted to show that compassion and competition could coexist. We could race our bikes and have it mean more than just the spirit of competition."
Peterson tries to bring that same goal to his charges at Marian, encouraging students to become involved hands-on in projects they're passionate about.
Peterson came into the Marian coaching job almost by accident; he met with newly hired Marian athletic director Joe Haklin in 2006 thinking he'd try to convince him to keep the cycling program, which had been rumored to be on the chopping block. Instead, Haklin offered him the job as coach.
Sierra Siebenlist had just finished her freshman year at Marian, but clashes with then-coach Ken Nowakowski left her discouraged and planning to leave school. After Peterson was hired, he called her and managed to lure her back. Unfortunately for the new coach, he was unable to convince the bulk of the team to stay and was faced with constructing a new team almost from the ground up.
"Dean was a good fit for me," Siebenlist said. "I majored in education; he was a teacher at the Orchard School for a long time. He wanted me to focus on academics more than the cycling. ... At the time, I wasn't very good. Dean helped me grow, both as a cyclist and as a person. He gave me the support I needed, but also pushed me when I needed it.
"When he came on, there were only seven or eight of us left on the team. We didn't have a big bus like they do now; we rode in Dean's car, and he'd recruit someone else to drive (another vehicle). Sometimes it'd be his neighbor, sometimes it was a bike rep."
The team would come back stronger than before. A track-cycling powerhouse in the 1990s and early 2000s, Peterson expanded the team's scope. The team retains its dominance on the boards, winning the last six national collegiate championships, but now also excels in the road and cyclocross disciplines, winning national championships in each over the past few years.
The rise of the velodrome
The velodrome has always been an important piece for Marian's cycling team. Built in 1982, Major Taylor Velodrome quickly became one of the premier bicycle tracks in the country. Racers from across the Midwest traveled to compete there against hundreds of others in front of spectators packed tightly into the bleachers. But over the years, the luster faded, and both cyclists and fans virtually disappeared. The track fell into disrepair, as the cash-strapped city couldn't afford much of the maintenance.
When the city sought private partners to operate the velodrome and surrounding Lake Sullivan Sports Complex, Peterson and Marian officials answered the call, presenting the city with an ambitious revitalization plan. Per the agreement, Marian will make up to $2 million in improvements to the park over the next 10 years, keeping the revenue generated.
"I'm proud that Marian felt responsible as a good citizen to step up to this challenge and keep this wonderful park open to the community," Peterson said. "We want to use our Marian team to create some attention and excitement, so hopefully people and kids will come out and try racing for the first time. ... It's our desire with the BMX and cyclocross courses to create a comprehensive cycling experience for people."
Peterson hopes to raise $250,000 in grants and private donations to start work on many of the projects by the end of the year. Officials hope to sell naming rights to each of the new courses in order to raise funds, but the Major Taylor Velodrome name – honoring the first African-American world champion in any sport -- won't be changed, Peterson has said.
Besides the new courses, some other major changes are planned, but Peterson is reluctant to share the details at this time.
Peterson anticipates national-level events coming to the Indy Cycloplex in the next few years, but hopes his student-athletes will be able to walk away from the experience with more than just medals.
"When they finally leave Marian, I want them to have experienced something special, something they can use to build a better life more so than a national championship ... like hard work and teamwork," Peterson said. " ... I'm proud of all the things we're doing here; I'll always treasure being a part of it."