By Mitch Teich
The city of Kenosha sits in the southeastern corner of Wisconsin, 45 minutes south of Milwaukee and north of Chicago. On warm evenings, Kenoshans seek exercise just like people everywhere—basketball players pull up for jumpers, golfers squeeze in a few more holes before dark, and bicyclists head out for a leisurely ride. Or maybe a not-so-leisurely ride.
The Washington Park Velodrome, a 333-meter banked oval track, draws a competitive crowd on summer evenings. It is the only velodrome in the state of Wisconsin and the oldest operating velodrome in the country. Faithful supporters believe that anyone who doesn’t visit the velodrome is missing out on something.
“They’re making a mistake, wherever they’re at, they should be here watching this,” said Kerry Wynn. “This is a great sport.”
The track sits in a natural dip in the earth on Washington Road. Cyclists have been flying around the turns here since 1927—just three years after the city’s brief brush with the NFL. The Kenosha Maroons folded after just five games when they couldn’t draw fans. Fortunately, cycling proved to be a better fit.
“You know, Kenosha was settled by Italians, and Italians are big bike racers,” said Bob Garner, who has been riding the track for 25 years. “I think Kenosha has always had a bike racing culture to it.”
Cyclists continue to flock to Kenosha for the velodrome, even as industries vacate the region. The Simmons mattress factory closed in the ‘60s and the Chrysler plant shut down two years ago, but cyclists stay, taking advantage of the public park. Anyone can use the track when there’s not a race going on.
On Tuesday nights in the summer, cyclists of all ages compete in Olympic track races—miss-and-outs, where the last rider to finish a lap is eliminated until there’s just one rider left; keirin races, where the cyclists are paced by a motorbike for part of the race and then sprint to the finish; and the basic scratch race: fast from start to finish.
“It’s a great way to do racing without having to buy a car, or having to buy a super-expensive road bike,” said Kris Puddicombe of Milwaukee. “These bikes are fairly inexpensive and you can get down here and race three, four times a night, as opposed to once a day.”
Puddicombe is a category four masters cyclist, which is the second-lowest rating, and he’s his third season of racing at the Washington Park Velodrome.
The velodrome does not host Olympic-level competition, but the riders bring the spirit of competition to the track.
At 55, Bob Garner is the oldest rider on the track this evening. The category three cyclist knows most people—even fellow cyclists—don’t necessarily understand how he spends his Tuesday evenings. Race winners sometimes take home prize money, drawn from entry fees, sponsors, and crowd donations. But that’s not why he does it.
“I like the battle,” Garner said. I like being in a pack, and fighting out the battle.”
In years past, races here have drawn thousands of fans to the grassy hillside above the track. The velodrome hosted the national championships in 1982 and the junior nationals in ’96. Local boosters hope to resurface the track soon to attract more world-class events.
In the meantime, the velodrome has its own loyal fans.
“After a while, it gets in your blood,” said Steven Glowacki. “It’s as much a part of summertime as is sunshine, to come here on Tuesday nights and watch racing.”
Glowacki comes to the track to watch his 12-year-old grandson race.
The track even commands international attention. Diana Carolina Pinuela from Manizales, Colombia aspires to compete in Olympic-level road cycling and came to Wisconsin to train in the competitive track environment.
Skylar Schneider, 13, is the national champion in her age group, and hopes her track training in Kenosha will vault her to the next level.
“I’m having fun doing it, and I think that’s all I’m expecting for now,” she said. “I always look forward to coming and seeing the people who come out to watch.”
In the fall, the competitive track riding dies down, but riders continue to use the velodrome to exercise and to practice maneuvering the banked turns they will see again in mid-May, when they might ride under the Tuesday night lights.