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In a leafy suburb of South London, if you know the right place to look, you can find a narrow and rather bumpy cut-through wedged between two large Edwardian houses. Ride your bike down it and you will discover a surreal and charming sight—a velodrome. Its banking is low, the track is surfaced with tarmac, there’s no spectator seating or roof and its original pavilion has collapsed; but this is a very important place in the history of cycling, because it is the oldest oval-shaped track in the world.
Words: Paul Maunder
Illustrations: Matthew Burton
Herne Hill velodrome was built in 1891, many years before the houses that now surround it. In its heyday, it hosted the 1948 Olympic track competitions and later saw thousands of spectators flock to this Dulwich suburb to watch Britain’s track racing stars take on the best of the continental Europeans. Fausto Coppi raced here, as did Tom Simpson. It is the spiritual home of British track racing, and to fight a headwind along the back straight is to experience a piece of history.
Track racing is the purest expression of cycle sport. Its simplicity makes it simultaneously beautiful and ruthless. There are the boards (or tarmac) under your wheels, the air to cut through and an opponent to race against. All the chaos and clutter of other forms of racing—road, ’cross, mountain bike, BMX—is stripped away. And it is the perfect proposition for a spectator because everything is in sight. As well as being able to see a whole race, or series of races, the spectator can witness the tense preparations of the athletes in the track center and their emotional aftermath too.
Little wonder then that until the 1960s track cycling was arguably more popular in Europe than road racing, with tens of thousands paying to enter such hallowed venues as the Velodromo Vigorelli in Milan or the Vélodrome d’Hiver in Paris. In the United States, the six-day races at Madison Square Garden in the early part of the 20th century were some of the biggest sporting events in the country, when track-racing stars could expect to be paid more than baseball players.
With the advent of televised road racing in the latter half of the 20th century, the focus shifted away from the track. Many of the great velodromes fell into disrepair. The Vigorelli, once a host for the iconic world hour record attempts by Coppi, Jacques Anquetil and Roger Rivière, became the home to Milan’s two American football teams. While they practiced on the infield, the banked boards around them began to rot.
The 21st century has seen a gradual resurgence in track racing, partly because we have rediscovered the velodrome as an object. A well-designed velodrome can intensify the racing within its walls, create spectacle and provide a joyful experience for both spectators and racers.
When Thom Kilvert of London-based Hopkins Architects began working on the Lee Valley Velodrome for the 2012 Olympics, the brief set out by the Olympic Delivery Authority was, well, quite brief. The building had to house a 250-meter track, comply with UCI regulations, maximize spectator occupancy and meet a sustainability target. Though Kilvert and his team had worked on many other sports venues, Lee Valley was their first velodrome and as they got more involved in the project the nuanced challenges of designing a world-class facility became apparent. The track itself was relatively straightforward; the architects worked with legendary track designer Ron Webb to ensure they created a suitable space for him to drop his track into. It was the spectator seating that proved more troublesome.
The objective was to create as many seats as possible, ensure every seat had a good view of the racing (and not just the track center) and arrange the seats so that there was a continuous loop of spectator noise around the track. The Olympic planners knew that noise equals atmosphere, and the Hopkins architects’ design did not disappoint. The velodrome was one of the hottest tickets of the 2012 Games, and the phenomenally electric atmosphere (understandably partisan) helped propel Great Britain’s team to nine Olympic track medals. For Kilvert and his team, designing the velodrome was a satisfying job because the finished building was very close to their original conception.
“It helped enormously that the velodrome was in a new space, the Olympic Park, and that it was a permanent building. Also that it was only for cycling,” Kilvert says. “Other velodromes have to accommodate facilities for other sports and that’s when things get complicated because you end up with netting hanging from the ceiling and suchlike.”
With a space dedicated to cycling alone, and no design constraints created by the existing environment, Kilvert and his team were able to create a building that is both functional and aesthetically stunning. Its signature roof is a concave lid made from Western red cedar, and while it has been likened to a certain well-known potato chip, the design of the roof came about for very practical reasons. To create an environment for world-record-breaking performances, the track must be kept at an average temperature of 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit), but heating a large building to such a toasty temperature is both expensive and damaging to the environment.
To minimize the volume of the building, and therefore reduce the heating requirement, the outer shell was shrink-wrapped around the track and the seating area. The roof was pulled down over the center of the space, reducing the overall volume of the building and creating the iconic curved shape of the roof. Visibility was another key objective for the design team, both inside the building and in its relationship to the rest of the Olympic Park.
“We spent a lot of time pushing the infield down,” says Kilvert. “Trying to keep the viewing angles clear for the public from one side of the track to the other. This is where other Olympic velodromes have got it wrong in the past—the spectators end up looking through the track center, rather than over it.”
Part of that outer shell is a continuous strip of glass, allowing visitors standing on the velodrome concourse to look out into the surroundings, which include a road circuit, BMX and mountain bike tracks and the green meadows running alongside the Lee Valley canal. This attempt to open up the building recognizes one of the fundamental problems for architects designing velodromes, and indeed most other types of sports stadia.
When you enter a soccer stadium or a baseball ground, there is the “wow” moment when you emerge from some dismal concrete staircase and see the field of play beneath you. It can be enough to take your breath away. The excitement kicks in and you begin to anticipate the great sporting battle you’re about to witness. But from an architectural point of view this creates buildings that are paradoxical. They are public spaces, but they can be intimidating and confusing to enter. To get to that “wow” moment you often have to negotiate your way through corridors and staircases and doors. For a public space this is less than ideal. While regular visitors will get used to it, for anyone new to track cycling it can be off-putting.
At the newly built velodrome in Derby, Great Britain, the architects have found an innovative solution to this problem by raising the track up to the second floor of the building. This creates open access on the first (or ground) floor for athletes, spectators and operational staff and gives the venue the flexibility to use the infield for other sports.
The challenge for those in North America who love track racing is less about architectural design than audience engagement. Of the 30 or so velodromes in use, only one is a world-class indoor facility. The Velo Sports Center in Carson, California, has hosted the world track championships, several World Cups and is home to both the U.S. and Canadian national track squads.
In 2015, the outdoor Colorado Springs velodrome, built in the mid-1980s, was given a flexible air-supported dome roof that can be deflated in summer—an invaluable year-round training resource for elite track cyclists in the area. Yet across America most tracks are anything but state-of-the-art. While they may vary in size and shape, most tracks are made of poured concrete, exposed to the elements and run on very tight budgets. The enthusiasts who manage them are the bedrock of our sport, but they are struggling against a lack of historical momentum.
Track racing in mainland Europe is perhaps not as popular as it is in Britain, but the winter six-day racing circuit continues to thrive because, like cyclocross, it is part of the tradition of European racing. It is viewed as entertainment, an opportunity to party, much as track racing was in America a century ago. Indeed, with the success of the new London Six-Day (at the Lee Valley Velodrome, naturally), the format shows signs of growth, and when riders such as Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish sign up to race, the tickets sell out in a matter of minutes. The entertainment for keirin racing in Japan is very different. Keirin is all about betting, like horse or greyhound racing, and there are about 50 such velodromes in Japan, mostly outdoor venues with concrete tracks.
In the U.S., track racing is similar to cyclocross in that most of the spectators are either racers themselves or racers’ families. The awareness of the general public is low. Velodrome owners are caught in a vicious circle of not being able to attract crowds because they have no famous riders in attendance, but local cycling scenes cannot create famous riders without investment.
Milan is a city with a cycling pedigree and the authorities understand the importance of its famous Vigorelli track. A group of cyclists has successfully campaigned for its refurbishment. With support from the Italian Cycling Federation and many ex-professional riders, the funds have been secured to repair those rotten boards and restore track cycling to be the primary focus of the Vigorelli. The committee responsible for overseeing the work is also looking to create a network of historic velodromes across Europe, linking with such venues as Roubaix and Herne Hill. It’s a move that should be celebrated, and perhaps emulated in the United States, for in these once creaky, windswept places live the legends of our sport.
There is also a new smooth surface on the renovated Herne Hill track. And for Thom Kilvert and his colleagues at Hopkins, a new architectural challenge—they are designing a new pavilion for the old velodrome. No spectacular roof, no huge expanses of glass and steel, just well-designed, practical facilities for the hundreds of people who come to ride this famous track every week. After all, at an English velodrome, there has to be somewhere to make a nice cup of tea.
From issue 58. Buy it here.