If you drive from the airport toward downtown on I-70, you’ve probably missed a little-known bicyclists’ haven which sits just beyond your field of vision off of the highway at its intersection at Kingshighway Blvd: The Penrose Park Velodrome. It is one of 27 of its kind in the entire United States.
This circular track, paved in asphalt and measuring 1/5 of a mile in length, is banked at a 28 degree angle all the way around. Built for cycling track races, the track has been in use since 1962 when it was built to host the prestigious U.S. National Track Cycling Championships.
“When I was a kid I would go on drives with my Dad...we lived in Florissant and so we would end up taking Highway 70 into the city,” wrote Kelly Zara in an email. “Every time we would pass the velodrome my dad would announce it: ‘It's a bike track,’ he would say. I've always wondered about it...”
Zara wrote that email to explain why she asked the Curious Louis project, “What is the history and current status of the velodrome off of Hwy. 70?”
Across from the Matthew’s Dickey Boys and Girls Club, the track is located in Penrose Park and is surrounded by green grass and few other amenities—a storage shed, some trees. On Thursday nights, from May to August, you’ll also find a group of dedicated cyclists there who come out to race on what has become known as “Mr. Bumpy Face.”
You see, the track itself hasn’t held up so well since its inception. Three guests recently joined “St. Louis on the Air” to discuss the track’s history, how it fell into disrepair, and what exactly is being done to ensure its future in north St. Louis:
- Scott Ogilvie, 24th Ward Alderman and avid cyclist
- Russel Murphy, Manager of Mesa Cycles and champion cyclist
- Julie Carter, Track Director of the Penrose Park Velodrome and Head Coach of Men’s and Women’s Cycling for Lindenwood University
How the track fell into disrepair
“If you can imagine, a track that was built in 1962 is not in the greatest functional repair at this time,” said Carter of the current status of the track. “It is just functional enough to be able to host sanctioned events.”
In the 1970s, a sewer main break under the track had rendered it unusable. In the early 1980s, one of the benefactors of St. Louis cycling, Ray Florman Sr. of A-1 Bicycle Sales in Kirkwood, spearheaded a move to resurface the track, said Murphy.
“The primary mistake that occurred was that the paving contractor couldn’t figure out how to roll the pavement concentrically,” Murphy said, which is important when the track is banked, as the velodrome is at 28 degrees, like a mini NASCAR track.
The track was rolled radially, moving the roller up and down the banking, instead of parallel with the direction of travel.
“It has all these facets,” Murphy said.” That’s why it is ‘Mr. Bumpy Face’—it is facetted instead of being smooth. At every one of those facets, water rolls down, and now, years later, there are cracks.”
Resurgence and use today
Since 2005, the track has seen a bit of resurgence in the St. Louis cycling community. It was around that time that Ogilvie, whose current aldermanic district is around Dogtown in south St. Louis, was working for Murphy at Mesa Cycles and was introduced to the track himself. He and a group of other cyclists, including Bill Howard in Clayton, started raising money to refurbish the track, which had become overgrown and even bumpier in the previous decade’s disuse.
At that time, Michael Staenberg donated money to seal, stripe and put up fencing with the volunteers’ handiwork.
“Now, in 2015, a decade later, we’ve had years of good events,” Ogilvie said. “We have a bigger group of people using the track I’d imagine since the 1980s.”
Ogilvie estimates that, over the past decade, volunteers have put about $100,000 worth of donations and work time into maintaining and forwarding the velodrome. Events are held one weekday night per week from May to August and on weekends.
“There’s a lot of room, there’s no provided seating,” Murphy said. “The seating is provided by you in your lawn chair or your vehicle. We get people that are cycling enthusiasts, people from the community who show up and watch. It is a really nice atmosphere. It is pretty relaxed and fun and people are helpful—it is a relatively vibrant community.”
The track is also used by cyclists for personal training—as is the case for Murphy, a world champion track cyclist, who frequently uses the local track to prepare for races far away.
“To be quite honest, it really would be impossible to compete nationally or internationally without the velodrome, even in the condition it is in,” Murphy said. “Without the ability to race and train on the track—it is a little hard to just show up on the track in Great Britain and do well.”
The same goes for collegiate cycling programs in the St. Louis region. Carter, in her purview as the head coach of cycling at Lindenwood University, one of 17 schools that have varsity collegiate cycling programs in the country, said she brings her team members to train at the track.
“It is imperative for what we do as a university,” Carter said. “You can’t just hop across the ocean and be competitive at a world’s level or at a collegiate national championship level.”
That doesn’t mean the track is only available for professionals. Carter emphasizes that track is for anyone who has an interest in cycling—regardless of skill level.
“What is completely unique about the Penrose Park Velodrome is that it is completely free and open to the public, compared to other velodromes across the country,” Ogilvie said. “Other velodromes, you have to be a member. Especially some of newer velodromes, you have to pay an annual membership fee and they have limited hours. We have an asset that is pretty unique and has the ability to draw people who are interested in bike racing but can’t afford the cost of paying a membership for a membership facility.”
Everyone’s favorite subject: funding
Ogilvie sees the facility as a “quality of life amenity,” which is one of his main arguments for a large monetary investment.
“The racing community uses it one weeknight in spring and summer and some weekends,” Ogilvie said. “But as a facility it allows people to come, learn to ride bikes, and sometimes it is just a safe place to take kids to play, to read a book while people ride. It functions both as a competitive facility and as a park. In that sense, it is one of the most important things that cities do—to provide places like this for people to have fun.”
So far, fundraising for the velodrome has been largely grassroots but 2013 saw the adoption of a two-pronged upgrade approach.
In the first phase, a city parks bond initiative allocated $250,000 to the Penrose Park Velodrome. Part of that money, $90,000, is being used to estimate the cost of new asphalt and upgrades in a range of styles—from bare-bones functional (around the $200,000 price range) to a state-of-the-art facility (over $1 million). Arcturis and Burns & McDonnell did the initial study, which should be ready for public viewing “any day now,” said Ogilvie.
The second phase of the approach will include gathering input from the Penrose community, the St. Louis cycling community, alderwoman Sharon Tyus, the city and the city parks department to see what level of velodrome upgrade would be most beneficial to each party. Then, “we’ll have to determine, ‘Can we fund these things?’” Ogilvie said predicting the funding would come from a combination of the leftover bond money, a possible capital campaign and public-private partnerships.
Carter is currently working on getting the velodrome designated as a 501(c)3 to make such fundraising efforts easier.
In a cash-strapped city, it seems like an investment for such a subsect of the St. Louis community might not be the top item of most critical funding importance.
“I would argue that it is part of a city park,” Ogilvie said. “The city has an obligation to maintain the things we have in city parks to a standard that is usable. It is also an amenity that appeals to a relatively large region. It is the only velodrome in Missouri—the next closest velodromes are in Chicago and Indianapolis. It is somewhat of a unique facility. The local cycling community has poured an enormous amount of their own time, effort and, in some cases, money into maintaining the facility to the point that it is usable.”
Cyclists would like to keep the track free and open for use for everyone in the community—to foster a younger generation of all different types of cyclists.
“Funding is an issue, not just for the repair of the track, but for the programming that we would like to do,” Carter said. “We would really like to have more youth and junior programming—a development program to learn about cycling as a sport, just grassroots programming.”
Murphy, whose store, Mesa Cycles, has already contributed junior-sized bikes for rent at the velodrome, said that successful velodromes across the country and world are usually “a result of a successful partnership between the community, the sport and a group of dedicated individuals who are trying to make the facility happen.”
For Carter, this is just the beginning of continuing to grow St. Louis’ reputation as a center for world-class cycling.
“I think St. Louis has a very vibrant cycling community in all disciplines,” Carter said. “Not every city in the world has two world champions just on the track that live in the city. We also have a former Olympic gold medalist living in this community just for track cycling. We also have universities nearby that have some of the top collegiate cyclists who frequently come and use the track for training and racing.”
"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.
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