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.

Community journalism can only survive with community support.

If local, independent journalism matters to you, please consider supporting NUVO with a paid membership. In 2019, 100 percent of membership dollars go towards our editorial budget/paying writers.