The sport had ebbed in popularity by the 1920s, and a century later, the Americans are still trying to play catch-up. “I’m one of the few that happened to grow up near a velodrome and 100% that’s how I ended up here,” said Jennifer Valente, who will compete in three different events for the U.S. when track cycling begins Monday.
In fact, the old arena even lent its name to one of track cycling’s signature events, the Madison, a two-person team effort that’s returning to the Olympic program for the Tokyo Games. That was more than a century ago, though. Now it’s nearly impossible to find a velodrome in the United States, unless you live on one of the coasts and are willing to drive. There are 27 cycling tracks spread across the country, but few of them are usable year-round, only three are indoors and just one, near Los Angeles, meets international standards. “If I grew up in a city without a velodrome,” she said, “that wouldn’t have happened. The San Diego velodrome has kids classes, you can ride the track in a noncompetitive environment, learn the basics. That was important.”
The reason all of this is important? More than half of Olympic cycling medals are decided on the track. More medals means more attention. More attention means more money.
It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of success. It just takes opportunity. “It’s not pure science. You have kids just as good sitting on the outside trying to get in,” said Rob DeMartini, the CEO of USA Cycling. “I think where we’re 100% aligned, we will not get to our medal goals for Los Angeles or Paris without some significantly better performances on the track. We do well in some of the endurance events, especially our women, but we’re not very successful in sprints. And we’re almost non-existent on the men’s side.”
There are a multitude of reasons why some nations have become dominant on the track. In the case of Britain, they pump money from the lottery into financing their cutting-edge program. In the case of the Dutch, the sport is so overwhelmingly popular — think football or basketball in the U.S. — that the talent pool is naturally deep. But both nations, along with powers such as Germany and Italy, also have a plethora of facilities at their disposal. Britain has 21 velodromes in England, three more in Wales and two in Scotland, and several are among the best in the world. The velodrome in Manchester is the home of British Cycling, and the facility in Newport was used as a holding camp before the team arrived in Tokyo. The velodrome in London that was used for the 2012 Games is still used for elite events, but it’s also become a popular place for children and amateurs to ride, stoking the fire of the next generation.
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