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Building A Dream: Boulder Valley Velodrome

A plate of half eaten nachos sat on the table, Doug leaned back and quoted W.P Kinsella’s book, Shoeless Joe, “If you build it, they will come.” It wasn’t the first time I had heard him repeat the line. Unlike the novel’s protagonist, Ray Kinsella, whose dream was to build a baseball diamond, Doug’s was to build a velodrome. For over a decade he’d looked for a field within riding distance of his hometown of Boulder, Colorado, where he could build a track.

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In his dreams, this wasn’t a fancy facility that would cost a fortune, but a board track in a yard with a few port-a-potties, an announcer calling the races, dozens of riders whirling around, and a small crowd of spectators in the stands that are munching on popcorn and drinking beer under the summer sun. When I first met Doug Emerson, he’d described it just like that. On some level, building a board track was once a dream of mine as well. As a teenager, riding outside of Toronto, I imagined that one day I might have enough money to buy a farm outside of the city. And if I did, I’d build a track on the land for my family, friends, and others to ride. I could understand why Doug so badly wanted to build something for the community and for himself. Many would say it was a crazy pipedream, but his conviction and love of cycling told me that he would jump every hurdle to get it built. And it now seems like it could be the ideal moment for it to become reality.

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Velodromes are popping up all over the continent again. As cities become increasingly congested, and cycling surges in popularity, they’re becoming more and more ideal. Not only do they provide somewhere safe to race and train, but they also provide an environment conducive to teaching children basic cycling skills. Many of these velodromes are built and maintained by passionate cyclist just like Doug. In London, Ontario, Rob Good built the indoor Forest City Velodrome, which has inspired hundreds of young and veteran cyclists. Cleveland built an outdoor velodrome close to the city center last year, which I’ve heard is being well used. Milton, a suburb of Toronto, is in the midst of building a world-class indoor track and athletic facility for the 2015 Pan American Games. There’s no doubt that future national and world champions will be born from these facilities, but most importantly, children and adults will learn to ride and handle their bikes well. That will positively affect both the individual’s life and that of the community. The more people that are confidently riding bikes on city streets instead of driving cars, the better for us all.

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Over another beer and plate of nachos last week, Doug and I were again chatting about the velodrome. I hadn’t seen Doug in a few years, but I’d followed the velodrome project’s progress online and through occasional email. It had taken twists and turns over the years. He’d battled with city council. He’d realized that the velodrome would need more than a few outhouses. But it was now almost finished. He’d found a nice piece of land, 10 miles from Boulder, in the town of Erie. He told me all about it: how he got the land, where the boards came from, what paint he was using on the surface, what putty he used to fill the gaps, who had designed it, who had built it, and dozens of other details. With a grin on his face, he spoke about how much he enjoyed hammering in nails, cutting boards, and sanding out seams and blisters. Out at the track, there was no ringing phone, he didn’t have to answer emails, and he felt satisfied with the work at the day’s end. He was turning his dream into reality, nail by nail. But it hasn’t come together easily. Last year, it was almost finished: a few bike lengths of track needed to be put in place and nailed down before someone rode the first lap. Then a tornado ripped through town and lifted half of the track into the air, ripping it up and shifting the oval. Shortly after that, heavy rains left the bike storage, kitchen, change rooms, and the track center under four feet of water. Winter has also slowed the progress.

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But I stood on the banking with Doug last week, and saw just how close he is to completing the project and realizing a dream. The track sits like a monument in the field — it’s a lovely structure in the heart of a typical American town. On one side, there’s a residential community, and on the other, a shopping mall and two open lots. The parking lot and infield were still frozen mud, but over three-quarters of the track was in place. To allow trucks full of building supplies to enter the oval, a few meters of the track were still missing. The lines needed to be painted and the grandstands, which Doug bought on Craigslist, needed to be bolted down.

Down in the bike storage, children’s bikes were hanging neatly in a row, ready to be raced. Clubs have booked their tracks time, coaches have time slots for clinics, and race days are set. Within no time, Doug will be sailing around the oval with the boards clickty-clacking beneath him. And as he said, even if the prophecy that “if he builds it they will come” doesn’t materialize, the sensation of flying around the banking, legs spinning with the wind on his face, will be satisfying enough. But one thing is for sure, I’ll be out there with my boys and wife the next time that I’m in Boulder, and I’m sure that thousands more will do the same.

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