Bikers’ Dream: A Bronx Velodrome and Indoor Skate Park.
Bikers’ Dream: A Bronx Velodrome
Above left, the Kingsbridge Armory briefly revived six-day bicycle racing in New York in 1948. Jack Simes, far left, and Mike Green want to restore the long-vacant and much-fought-over armory, right, for cycling events.
By J. DAVID GOODMAN
DWARFED by the soaring expanse of the long-vacant Kingsbridge Armory, a small group of bike advocates and Bronx residents strolled through the main hall recently and imagined a mecca of bicycling.
Picture it: Over here, young BMX riders from the neighborhood perform tricks, spinning their bike frames and leaping over obstacles. Over there, racers warm up and cool down, as fans drink Belgian beer at an indoor bar and live bands play.
And in the center, under the lights, elite athletes from around the world zip around a smooth plywood track during six days of competition — the sort of marathon racing that once drew tens of thousands of spectators to cycling tracks, or velodromes, across New York, from Coney Island to Madison Square Garden.
“Six-day races are a blend of Broadway show, going out to dinner and high-end sporting event,” said Jack Simes, a Pennsylvania bike track developer and elite rider who led the group through this vision for the Bronx armory, New York’s largest and among the most fought-over. “We want to bring them back to New York.”
Mr. Simes and Michael Green, the former president of a local bike racing club, have founded the National Cycling Association to help create a cycling center and 820-foot track in the armory. As a first step, they plan to seek city approval to rent the fortress for a demonstration race sometime in the next year as a “proof of concept,” Mr. Simes said.
Theirs is just one of several proposals for the 285,000-square-foot space. But the dream of recapturing the glory days of the velodrome has been surprisingly common, if largely quixotic.
Jason Gallacher, a bike shop owner in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, recently had the dream, picturing bike aficionados flocking to an indoor track in Greenpoint. “I firmly believe that there needs to be a beautiful facility in this city,” he said. “We created track racing.” But his proposal has been shot down by residents, who would prefer to see a public park instead.
Josh Rechnitz and Matthew Heitman formed a nonprofit group, New York Velodrome, in 2009 to push for a track in Manhattan. The effort has faltered, and the group appears to have ceased trying.
The Kingsbridge Armory was the site of an indoor racing revival in 1948, when six-day races returned to the city, but only briefly. And the most promising plan would have built a track in the Bronx as part of the city’s bid to host the 2012 Olympics. That, too, failed.
Still, as the Bloomberg administration has beckoned bikers to the streets in recent years, many have looked back at the history of New York cycling and the heyday of urban track racing, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Then, Madison Square Garden attracted hordes of race fans to grueling competitions that, long before Nascar, featured hair-raising speed and spectacular crashes. Newspapers condemned the brutality of races in which racers pedaled nonstop for days. “The knowledge that a man can propel himself 1,769 miles in 110 ½ hours is purchased too dearly when it costs the reason and the physical well-being of the person who imparts it,” The New York Times said in an editorial in 1897.
City lawmakers responded by limiting the time a racer could ride in one stretch. But the organizers adapted, adding a second rider to relieve the first periodically in team events that came to be known as Madisons.
Modern six-day races, which are held mostly in Europe, limit the amount of cycling per day. The demonstration race that Mr. Simes and Mr. Green want to bring to the Kingsbridge Armory would feature six nights of events on a temporary track, with tickets sold for all or part of the competition.
From there, the two hope to attract strong corporate sponsors and show the city the viability of a permanent cycling center in the Bronx.
But, for the moment, the idea faces significant challenges, starting with financing. The permanent track alone would cost a few million dollars, by Mr. Simes’s estimate.
The armory has already been the battleground for a rancorous public fight over a planned mall that pitted residents against developers, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg against the City Council.
After the mall project was scrapped in 2009, many competing proposals emerged, including a film studio, an educational complex and a home for sustainable food production. “Whatever it is, it has to add to the community,” said Kwasi Akyeampong, a community representative from the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance, who tagged along with the cyclists’ tour last month.
As they gazed around the drill floor, another group — dressed in business suits and talking about a hockey rink — moved quickly past. “That’s the competition,” Mr. Simes said. “But I like a horse race.”
Should the cyclists lose that race, there is still one place for bicycle track riding in New York: the Kissena Velodrome in Queens. It may not have a roof, a bar or even a subway stop close by, but racers still compete there regularly on its banked and sun-baked circuit of asphalt, as they have since 1962.
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