Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Kissena tradition lives on - opening weekend 2009

April 28, 2009, 11:16 am
Velodrome Tradition Lives On in Queens
By J. David Goodman

It has been more than a half-century since New Yorkers last flocked in great numbers to see cyclists tear around banked velodrome tracks at the center of Manhattan. Easy to forget, then, that Madison Square Garden, in its earlier incarnation off 26th Street and Madison Avenue, played host to major races watched by tens of thousands of spectators (some undoubtedly attracted, in the days before Nascar, by the prospect of spectacular crashes.) Or that team racing events known as “Madisons” — devised in the early part of last century to mitigate racer fatigue in events that could stretch to six days — were invented here, under some pressure from local lawmakers and the news media. Velodromes also existed in the Bronx and in Coney Island in Brooklyn. (Both were destroyed by fire.)

The faint torch of this storied history still burns out in Kissena Park, where, nestled between baseball diamonds and some overgrown woods, the city’s only cycling velodrome opened for the season last weekend. Its location, in Flushing off the Long Island Expressway, is good for attracting riders from around the city and suburbs, said John Campo, who brought the track formerly known as “the big bumpy” back from semi-decrepitude five years ago, but he still longs for a return to Manhattan.

“I always said that if Manhattan had a velodrome, if people could see it in Central Park like they used to in Madison Square Garden, people would come out and watch the races,” he said. “Because they’re exciting!” (In 2000, Madisons and several other track events were added to the Olympics.)

Turnout was healthy on Saturday, with more than a hundred riders registered to race and dozens of spectators in the bleachers. Racers warmed up their legs on rollers around the edge of the shadeless 400-meter oval as the sun blazed down. A starting gun popped off at intervals, cutting through the low roar of planes banking to land at La Guardia and the high buzz of two remote-controlled toy planes taking off and landing on a nearby field.

Kissena has benefited from the explosion of interest in fixed-gear bikes, and many of the riders at the track over the weekend were devotees. Mr. Campo, a union carpenter, jazz guitarist and novelist in addition to being the track’s director, guessed that half of the racers had come from street riding, as he did. “We were city kids — we rode what we could ride,” Mr. Campo, 63, said, remembering his days cruising around Manhattan long before the arrival of special lanes and $20,000 setups. “Now a lot of kids are coming through the alley cats” and messenger companies, he added.

Or, in the case of Hugo Giron, both.

Mr. Giron, 27, who competes in the illegal street races known as alley cats, was lounging with friends on the infield grass before their race. He and Colin Miller, 26, run Snap, a two-year-old delivery service based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and have been encouraging their 10 messengers to go out and do races. “It’s a logical extension of what we do on the street,” Mr. Miller said.

“Guys like us — big meatballs — we do better at events like this,” Mr. Miller added, referring to the importance of the power-to-weight ratio in track riding, where big thighs are more of an advantage than svelt midriffs. It was Mr. Miller’s first race at the track, though he had recently competed at a bike messenger race in Berlin. Unlike many of the other riders, the two messengers did not shave their legs for the event. “Not at Kissena,” Mr. Giron said.

Izumi Kuremoto, 30, a messenger for three years until he was fired for not working in the days before Christmas 2008, said he could easily see why so many make the transition. “When you’re riding in a group on the track, it’s fast. There is a lot of danger,” he said. “Messengers — we have the same danger around us.”

In addition to attracting street riders, Delroy Walters, a 70-something rider who still competes in international track events, tutors the next generation of local track racers through an after-school program, Star Track, aimed at 9- to 13-year-olds. “I try to let them know I’m still doing it, and if they really love it, it’s an alternative sport,” he said.

Many of the riders return each year, Mr. Walters said, and some have made it to state championships and beyond. “There’s got to be some reason why they’re back,” he added, flashing a smile.

Out on the track, Mr. Campo, dressed in his racing kit and leaning on his bike, gave a semicircle of slightly older young racers some pointers.

“I can’t just give 100 percent the whole time,” Cooper Ray, 17, admitted.

“You don’t start until you’re ready,” Mr. Campo advised. “He says ‘Ready?’ and you say, ‘No’!”

“But,” he added, “as soon as they shoot the gun off, you’re out of the saddle and immediately you get it going.”

Standing over their bikes, the young riders seemed to process what he said, shifting their weight slightly as if revving up.

NY Times

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