Velodrome dreams

Emanuele Bianchi intends to build an indoor cycling track on the South Works steel site.

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Photograph: Martha Williams
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Photograph: Edmund White
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Photograph: Edmund White

The site of U.S. Steel’s once-proud South Works plant is now strewn with concrete rubble, trash and dead weeds. But that’s not what Emanuele Bianchi sees when he gazes out at the icy, windswept lakefront vista. Bianchi envisions the velodrome he plans to build here­—an indoor, wood-floored 250-meter high-speed cycling track, only the second in the country adequate for world-class competition.

If Bianchi raises the cash to build the velodrome, he says it will revive Chicago’s largely forgotten history as a mecca of track cycling. It will include a fitness center and restaurant with healthy cuisine, and will be a centerpiece of the 13,000-home village that development firm McCaffery Interests plans to build on the site, made up of more than 500 acres along the lakefront between 79th and 91st Streets (see “Steel trying,” this page).

Many Chicagoans likely haven’t heard of track cycling—a collection of frenetic races where riders rocket around a track with 45-degree-angle banked curves, in tight packs at more than 30 miles per hour. But the sport is wildly popular in many European countries, Japan and Australia.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, track cycling was one of the U.S.’s most popular sports, too, and Chicago once boasted at least eight velodromes, including one in Humboldt Park, according to local cycling experts. But by midcentury their popularity had diminished and they were allowed to crumble. Now Los Angeles has the country’s only world-class competition velodrome. There are about 20 others nationwide, including one in suburban Northbrook, but most are outdoors and aren’t up to international racing standards.

Bianchi, 44, who moved to Chicago from northern Italy in 2006 to grow his high-end pet products business, Pet Ego, estimates his velodrome will cost $45 million. Developer Dan McCaffery says he plans to donate the land and maybe some cash, but Bianchi and his partners will have to raise most of the money themselves. Their fund-raising so far has consisted of small donations and the sale of custom biking gear through their website (chicagovelocampus.com) and Facebook. Bianchi says they have raised several hundred thousand dollars so far, plus the promise of land from McCaffery. Once they have finalized plans with the developer, they intend to seek major investors and philanthropic donations. They’re also hosting a black tie fund-raising event at the Adler Planetarium June 3.

Though Bianchi has made some headway, the velodrome is far from a done deal. Much of the money Bianchi and his partners have raised has been spent on publicity. McCaffrey Interests’ larger residential and commercial development won’t be even partially completed for years, and there’s no guarantee McCaffrey will actually find the needed investment. Not to mention a period of economic crisis isn’t exactly the best time to try to build a massive new residential development with a luxurious velodrome on an isolated site.

But the immensity of the challenge doesn’t daunt Bianchi. “Emanuele’s nature is full speed ahead or nothing,” says John Tomlinson, an 18-year-old elite cyclist who lives on the Gold Coast, as he removes gloves warmed by batteries after a frigid training ride on the lakefront. Tomlinson met Bianchi a few years ago when Bianchi joined the XXX racing team as a youth program director and competitor.

Bianchi becomes agitated when he watches the video of Tomlinson racing in the Juniors Track World Championships in Montichiari, Italy, in August, which he and his son attended. “Look at his face, he’s gasping. He didn’t get one single point in that race,” Bianchi laments as the video shows Tomlinson falling behind European cyclists. “At the end of the race he told me, ‘We need to get a velodrome.’ All the other guys in that race train in velodromes.”

During the summer Tomlinson trains and races at the outdoor Ed Rudolph Northbrook Velodrome, a former roller rink run by the park district. Local riders like the well-maintained velodrome, but the surface becomes dangerously slippery with the slightest precipitation, so it’s unrideable for most of the winter and during rains.

If built, Bianchi feels sure the velodrome would host international competitions including the annual World Championships and the four World Cups held each year. USA Cycling spokesperson Andrea Smith says the organization might move its national program here and thinks the sport is poised to gain new popularity.

“In Japan it’s a horse-racing type thing and a social thing. People bet on it, races are held on weekend nights,” she says. “It was very popular in the U.S. at the turn of the century, but then a little thing happened called the automobile, and car racing really hurt the popularity of track cycling. But I think we’re coming full circle again, with the growing popularity of commuting by bike, the emphasis on being green. We could see a real reemergence.”

The idea of building an indoor velodrome in the Chicago area is nothing new. In January, the mayor of Des Plaines announced his intention to build one. But in less than a year Bianchi seems to have taken his plans and publicity further than anyone else. He’s won over the insular hard-core cyclists, met with South Side aldermen Sandi Jackson and John Pope, distributed fliers at bike shops and cafes across the city, and networked with cycling stars and officials around the world. He’s used his sales jaunts for Pet Ego as an excuse to tour velodromes all over the world. Many people familiar with the project say its realization is a long shot given the expense, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s Bianchi.

Bianchi hopes to install a temporary cycling track on the site this summer—called the Vandedrome and created by former Olympic cyclist John Vande Velde—in hopes of sparking public interest in the project and attracting investors. McCaffery says he’s amenable if Bianchi can come up with the money.

“I salute these guys,” McCaffery says. “I think it’s a wonderful plan and I think it will be well-supported. We’re investing in it just by letting them have the land. And to the extent we can help, we probably will contribute some funds that are significant.”

One of Bianchi’s partners in the velodrome project, social-media entrepreneur Michael Quintos, 40, has spent countless unpaid hours promoting the project. He is especially attracted to the plans for a free program aimed at youth who live in the surrounding impoverished, violence-plagued neighborhoods.

“I’m less about cycling, more about Chicago, and making sure all children here have a chance,” Quintos says. “I’m less interested in John Tomlinson having a velodrome to train in and more interested in that ten-year-old kid from the neighborhood who could be making the choice of whether to hang out on the corner and cause a ruckus or check out this new thing, where he could start riding and gaining self-esteem. And maybe one day try out for the Olympics.”

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