ST. LOUIS • In the mid-1980s, back when Tom Brinker was a young cyclist from Franklin County on his way to winning national titles, he trained at the Penrose Park Velodrome. And that meant trying to avoid getting shot with BBs.
People armed with BB guns sometimes hid like snipers in the thick brush along the oval track’s far straightaway. That wasn’t the only training hazard. People also drove cars on the track and changed their oil there, leaving behind dangerous slicks.
“It made you tougher,” Brinker recalls with a laugh.
But he kept coming back. Brinker was a track cyclist. He needed the oval. Now, with the snipers gone and the brush cut back, a new generation of cycling enthusiasts say they need it, too.
Velodromes are rare birds. This is the only one in Missouri. The entire country has fewer than 30. The Penrose Park Velodrome is a hidden treasure in an odd location, tucked between Interstate 70 and railroad tracks in north St. Louis, barely visible from nearby roads and hardly known even in the surrounding neighborhood.
A weekly race series begins its summer run today at the velodrome. But the track is worn and slow. A push is on to find hundreds of thousands of dollars to rebuild the oval. That’s why Brinker, now a bike store owner in Columbia, Mo., recently returned to his old training ground. He and other cyclists want to convince people who may have never heard of the Penrose Park Velodrome that it is worth saving.
All it takes is an evening at the track, they say.
Matt Hartman leans on his bike and explains the race unfolding. He is 30, with tattoos extending from the sleeves of his SpokedSTL shirt. A dozen cyclists are flying around the track. Most are clad in biking shorts and shirts. All wear helmets. Their bicycles have no brakes or gears. These are fixed-gear bikes. Slowing down means riding high into a banked curve or crashing into the grass infield, as one cyclist with a slipped chain does just now.
In this race, the last rider drops out with each lap. Hartman points out an architect. A bike shop employee. An ad executive. Just two riders left. They are both couriers for Jimmy John’s. The riders do not appear bothered by the rough surface.
“It’s in really bad shape,” Hartman says. “But it’s good enough for us, for now.”
Cyclists call it Mr. Bumpy Face. The asphalt surface is shot through with cracks. Entire sections are uneven. Angie Coggan, an accomplished national sprint cyclist now living in Ballwin, visited Penrose Park a few years ago as she contemplated a competitive comeback after several years off. But she called it off after a few laps. The ride was jarring.
“I couldn’t concentrate on what I was doing,” Coggan says.
The track has a rocky history. Shortly after it opened with a concrete surface in 1962, Penrose Park hosted a national track championship and Olympic qualifying races. But, in a fate known to many city structures, it deteriorated with time and neglect. The oval then suffered an ill-fated asphalt resurfacing project in 1984.
By the early 1990s, the oval seemed forgotten. No one rode it for about a decade until 2005, when real estate developer Michael Staenberg bankrolled a rehabilitation that included patching the asphalt and clearing dense brush.
Now, supporters of the Penrose Park Velodrome feel the time is right to push for a new track. Fixed-gear biking is popular, thanks to the bikes’ surge among urban hipsters. Other cities in recent years have built or redone their velodromes. Chicago plans to debut an indoor track next year. Scott Ogilvie, a St. Louis alderman, hopes to persuade city leaders to spend some of the $64 million in city parks bonds passed in 2011 on the velodrome project. But private donations will be required, too.
Ogilvie is a cyclist. He is holding a wrench and talking about how the track allows children to try racing without worrying about getting hit by a car. Ogilvie is the 24th Ward alderman, which includes Dogtown. The velodrome is in the 1st Ward. The new 1st Ward alderman, Sharon Tyus, is not here. (Tyus later says she supports the velodrome.) The cyclists notice.
“I was wondering where your colleague was,” one says as Ogilvie walks by.
“We’ll keep working her,” Ogilvie replies.
Curtis Royston III looks over the dozens of people gathered by the oval. Some are waiting to ride. Many are spectators. Children run on the grass by parked cars. Someone has fired up a charcoal grill. The sun is starting to set. The vibe is calm and happy, part REI and part bike courier. Royston, his short dreadlocks poking out from under his bike helmet, is warmly greeted again and again.
“You’re looking at South City folk, South County and West County folk,” Royston says. “That’s my goal, to get more neighborhood folk.”
Royston lives seven blocks away. He rode his bike here. He discovered the velodrome only about two years ago after more than two decades in the neighborhood. Now he tries to encourage nearby children to join his St. Louis Major Taylor Bicycle Club, named after a famed African-American bicyclist from the turn of the 20th century.
Royston says the neighborhood would benefit from an improved velodrome. And he feels he has the support of cyclists here.
“I’ve had so many people ask me,” Royston says, “where are the children from the neighborhood?”
Just then, two of them ride up. They are wide-eyed at the crowd. The track never looks this busy. Joseph Dorsey, 11, is riding an orange BMX bike. Kevin Huddlen, 20, is riding a purple mountain bike. He has never been on the oval. Their eyes grow wider when they learn the cyclists have bikes without brakes or gears.
“Can we ride out there?” Huddlen asks.
Sure, they are told. The races are over. The other cyclists are just having fun. The newcomers hesitate. And then they pedal off into the first steep turn.