Pa. town rides high with cycling mecca

Velodrome offers lessons for Balto.

March 03, 2001|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

TREXLERTOWN, Pa. - T-town has a surprising message for Baltimore's mayor and his velodrome dreams: Bring it on.

Mayor Martin O'Malley floated the idea this week of building a cycling track at the Memorial Stadium site. And that's just fine with the nearest competition.

This Allentown suburb has had track cycling on the East Coast to itself for more than a quarter-century. Locals like to say it is to the sport what Daytona is to stock-car racing. Once simply a destination for world-class cyclists, the Lehigh Valley has become a breeding ground for a new generation of champions - from the juniors who dominated last year's nationals to hometown hero Marty Nothstein, who won a gold medal at the Olympics last summer.

"He himself is an economic development tool," crows Lehigh County Executive Jane Ervin, who says the 1996 Olympic trials here generated $6 million to $7 million, twice what the track is said to contribute to the local economy in a typical racing season. "Cycling is a unique sport, and a velodrome is a unique attraction."

An estimated 100 cyclists relocate to Allentown every summer to train and race on its track. The Australian Olympic team trained here for the summer games in Sydney. The 2001 Junior Track World Championships will be held here this summer, along with a weekly roster of races.

Given the prestige and money generated by this 333-meter oval of concrete, it would be understandable if locals blanched at the thought of a similar track less than 200 miles to the south. But the Lehigh Valley Velodrome's boosters think a Baltimore cycling track - one of the latest ideas floated for Memorial Stadium site by O'Malley, and something the Baltimore-Washington area seeks as it bids for the 2012 Summer Olympics - could be a win-win for the two towns and the sport.

A Baltimore track would raise the sport's profile and set up a potential interstate rivalry.

"If Baltimore gets a velodrome, I'm sure in no time we'll be saying, `Hey, that kid from Baltimore is good; he's going to make the Olympic team,'" said Pat McDonough, director of the Lehigh Valley Velodrome.

McDonough and others involved in running the Lehigh Valley track have lots of advice for what it takes to build and maintain a successful venue for a sport that is still relatively obscure to most Americans.

But competition is only a small part of this velodrome's life. The facility here is open 365 days a year but has only 13 racing dates in the 2001 season, which runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Far more of its hours are devoted to free lessons for area youngsters, underwritten by local businesses. That community element is key, Ervin says.

This velodrome also is one of the better-funded in the country, backed by an endowment that supports a full-time staff of four.

"There are a lot of velodromes in the country," says Fred Patton, who runs Phoenix-Sports Technology, a local business that provides the track's electronic timing equipment. "This is the only one that works on a full-time basis."

In fact, there are only 20 permanent velodromes in the United States, a steep drop from the 100-plus in operation at the dawn of the 20th century, when a cyclist reaching speeds of 40 mph seemed remarkably fast.

With the advent of the automobile, the velodrome declined in popularity in this country, although not in Europe.

Why does the Allentown area, with a population of about 750,000, have one at all? The short answer is that Bob Rodale, a local philanthropist best known for his magazine publishing empire, went to the 1967 Pan-American Games as a member of the U.S. skeet-shooting team and roomed with a track cyclist.

Rodale became enamored of the sport, in which men and women race brake-free bikes along a steeply banked track in competitions that are strategic and confrontational. He donated 33 acres and $100,000, and then asked Lehigh County to finish the project. Local residents are said to have had one reaction to the large hole on the property: Fill it in.

The velodrome, completed and open for racing in 1975, was an instant magnet for world-class cyclists.

Leigh Barczewski, originally from the Milwaukee area, first came to Trexlertown to train on the new track. He ended up marrying a local woman and taking a job at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, one of the velodrome's corporate sponsors. Now his son, Benjamin, 13, is an up-and-coming track cyclist.

"The velodrome is a real source of civic pride here," says Barczewski, a four-time national champion and a member of the 1976 Olympic team. "At first, it attracted people like myself, but it slowly developed into a local sport."

In fact, every U.S. Olympic team since 1984 has had at least one member who learned to ride at the Lehigh Valley Velodrome.

The velodrome remains a public-private partnership. In 1996, the county and state provided about $2 million to upgrade the track for the Olympic trials, adding several buildings to the site.

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