Did you know we have a velodrome here in St. Louis? One of fewer than 30 in the country, Penrose Park on the city’s north side contains our very own “cycle-racing track with steeply banked curves.”
Tucked in where North Kingshighway Boulevard hits I-70, the track is a living, breathing part of the St. Louis cycling community. And it’s recently received a significant facelift after being offline for a year, bringing a new energy to St. Louis track cycling.
Originally located in Forest Park, the velodrome was relocated to Penrose Park in the 1960s after Highway 40 was routed through the park. It has served as a unique bike racing venue for decades, even drawing a number of nationally prominent racers.
But after years of use and exposure to the elements, the track was damaged to the point that cyclist safety was becoming an issue. Cracks big enough to catch a bike wheel had opened up, making it dangerous for racers. Additionally, the rough surface created a slower ride, jarring rattling riders’ teeth as they careened around the oval. The track wasn’t nicknamed “Mr. Bumpyface” for nothing.
Once it became apparent that a major renovation was necessary for the velodrome to continue, two people stepped forward. The first was Julie Carter, who is both Lindenwood University head cycling coach and the president of the Metro St. Louis Velodrome Association. The other was Scott Ogilvie, a cycling booster and, at the time, alderman in the City of St. Louis. (Ogilvie has since moved on to become transportation policy planner with the City.)
For Carter, the problem was a practical one. Once the velodrome became essentially non-functional, it became much more difficult to recruit track cyclists to the Lindenwood squad. “How can you have a competitive track cycling team without somewhere to practice?” she asked.
The team found itself husting over to Indianapolis on Thursday nights, trying to fit in a few precious hours at the velodrome there, the closest one to St. Louis. The time was beneficial, sure, but the team found themselves frustrated, spending far more time in the car than they did on the bike.
But Carter’s interest in making the track functional went beyond just her Lindenwood team. There were plenty of other cyclists in St. Louis who found the 1/5-mile track to be a special slice of the local racing scene, a place where Thursday night sessions throughout the summer brought people together in a special way.
“When you have a facility like this where people go regularly to train and race, you see the same people again and again,” said Carter. “It’s a great community, where you find this incredible support and encouragement.”
Ogilvie agrees. “Track racing is such a spectator-friendly event. The races are short, so you have multiple events where things move quickly. It’s people hanging out, really just a fun vibe.”
Well-known as a biking advocate, and a strong cyclist in his own right, Ogilvie was able to access dedicated sales tax funding earmarked for city parks to help bring the velodrome project to completion. But don’t think for a minute that this was some pork-barrel deal where a politician was able to feather his own nest with city tax dollars.
“As a unique athletic facility, the velodrome is truly an important city asset,” said Ogilvie, noting that it was just one item on a master list of key park properties identified for improvement across St. Louis. “The track had degraded to the point that it was dangerous and so this renovation made sense for user safely alone. But the velodrome is such a visible and historic aspect of the park system that investing in its preservation and enhancement was almost an obligation.”
The $800,000 velodrome renovation project involved a complete resurfacing of the track, including removing old layers to make different sections of the track connect smoothly and eliminate those dreadful cracks. The track still has the same footprint, just a smooth new racing surface. It’s 1/5 of a mile, 321.8 meters of pure cycling joy.
“On a grading scale, the track was a D- in terms of surface quality before the renovation,” said Carter. “It’s a B+ or A- now. We did the very best we could, knowing we didn’t have an unlimited budget.”
With the project all but finished as this issue of Terrain was going to press, Ogilvie is excited for what the track improvement means for St. Louis.
“This is a regional facility. It brings people to St. Louis, as it draws from a much broader area than just the city,” he said. “It’s free and open to the public. It lowers the barrier to entry in the sport, offering opportunity to riders who might not otherwise participate if there were fees involved to access the track. It’s just a great thing all around.”
Plus, says Carter, racing at the velodrome can help riders in every category of competitive cycling, whether that’s racing mountain bikes, cyclocross, or out on the road.
“Track racing makes riders better in all other disciplines,” she said. “It makes for stronger riders and improves bike-handling skills and a person’s ability to maneuver in a pack.”
Author: David Fielder is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.