Over the generations, the asphalt race track grew into a character, like the ones in old children’s books. It was given a personality, even a gender:
Mr. Bumpy Face had a big, wide smile that hid any hints of a frown.
But Mr. Bumpy Face couldn’t hide all of the bumps.
As he got older, his face cracked and crumbled.
And for the cyclists on Mr. Bumpy Face, the bumps sure hurt their rumps.
Situated in Penrose Park in north St. Louis, the track has cracked and caved and decayed.
“You’re going 35 miles an hour into the corner,” shared cyclist Jason Roche, “and then your back tire bounces up, comes off the ground and your heart jumps into your mouth.”
The St. Louis cycling community raised thousands of dollars over the years to clean up Mr. Bumpy Face, while using hardware store equivalents of acne cleanser or lotion. But now, heading into its late 50s, the track finally is getting a face lift.
“In 2006, we took it from like F to D,” cyclist Scott Ogilvie said of the grass-roots improvements. “So this renovation, we’re hoping to get to B. It’s not going to be an A, but it will certainly be better than we’ve had for a long time.”
This is a pretty cool story about a local sports community working to help improve a St. Louis community. And in the bike-sharing spirit of LimeBikes and Ofo, Roche anticipates low-cost bike rentals will be available at Penrose Park’s renovated velodrome.
A velodrome is the name for an oval track for cycling. It’s not flat; its curves are steeply banked. Like a potato chip.
Velodrome. What a fun word. Nostalgic. Makes me think cyclists with handlebar mustaches holding onto handlebars. Indeed, St. Louis’ first velodrome was built in 1934 in Forest Park. But when they expanded Highway 40 in 1960, they had to demolish the venerable velodrome — paving the way for the 1962 velodrome in Penrose Park. For decades, St. Louisans raced on Mr. Bumpy Face — making some rides fun but funky — but by the 1990s, it was defunct.
Ogilvie was a bike mechanic in 2005 when a customer told him about the velodrome in Queens, N.Y. Seems the folks up there had revamped the velodrome, and maybe they could do the same in St. Louis. After all, there are only 20-plus velodromes left in the country.
“We have a great group of volunteers,” Ogilvie said, referring to St. Louisans “who put a lot of effort into maintaining the track, patching it, painting it, fixing cracks, doing a lot of heavy lifting over the years.”
Thursday night’s all right for riding. Starting in 2006, that was when local cyclists would come to North City and participate in sanctioned races. On velodromes, you race only with fixed-gear bikes — single-speed, no brakes — just like in the old days of velodromes.
“You break it up by categories (of speed), and the vibe there was generally pretty relaxed and fun,” Ogilvie said. “The events are kind of like a cookout or barbecue, plus bike racing.”
A local cyclist named Robert Mayfield learned the tricks of the trade at Penrose Park, and not unlike a streetball prodigy going off to bigger things in basketball, Mayfield is now one of our nation’s better track cyclists.
Ogilvie became an alderman of the 24th ward (the velodrome is in the 1st ward). Through an approved proposal, the St. Louis City Parks and Public Works departments set aside $645,000, Ogilvie explained. An additional $20,000 was privately financed.
“There’s an asset in a park that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention,” Ogilvie said, “but had a great group of volunteers keeping it running — and you want to see this city maintain what it has.”
They understood that an “A” velodrome would cost close to $4 million, so they went with the aforementioned “B.” Overseeing the project, set to finish this fall, is Matt Poirot, chief construction engineer for the board of public service. Instead of asphalt, they’re installing about four inches of concrete.
“They call it a white-topping or an ultra-thin concrete overlay,” Poirot said. “You get a more durable surface out of it and a longer life span, rather than just paving it with asphalt.”
Mr. Bumpy Face’s new face will offer new opportunities for events in Penrose Park. A refurbished amenity, maintaining some St. Louis history and making some new memories.
And as Roche anticipated, the Metro St. Louis Velodrome Association plans to make fixed-gear track bikes available to rent at Penrose.
“Behind the Velodrome is a dedicated group of cyclists that are really passionate about two things,” he said. “One, racing bikes, of course — but also building the community to get more people riding bikes. … With low-cost bike rentals at the velodrome — and a group of cyclists willing to help teach you — there are opportunities for anybody to join. I have found a community in cyclists that has welcomed me — and in turn, we want to bring more people into the circle.”
And this fall, we’ll all get to meet “Mr. Smooth Face.”
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If that big wicket on the riverfront is St. Louis’ most celebrated icon, what’s the least known? Or visited? Or misunderstood?
David Baugher looked for the odd and the oddly obscure to include in “Secret St. Louis” (Reedy Press, 202 pages, $19.95; paperback).
He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t just ignore an army of boots in a parking lot or a private picnic site. No, he investigates that site and learns it tops, well, a lot of toxic waste. Go ahead and bring the deviled eggs, though: The Weldon Spring Disposal Cell on Highway 94 South keeps radiation at levels lower than those in the average backyard.
“You drive by these things, and you never really think about them. But they’re out there,” Baugher says.
For people who’ve lived in St. Louis for decades and believe they know the background of the SLU Billiken and the West County Center dove, who can drive to the first Lion’s Choice after hitting a dog museum, they can use the book to verify the information, and still probably learn something from “Secret St. Louis.”
“I talk to people in Brentwood who have never been to Florissant,” Baugher says.
He investigates the lesser known, such as the background of Champ, population 13. Its 1959 incorporation was part of a grand plan for a domed stadium near present-day Earth City.
At age 40, the Woodson Terrace author has lived throughout the area, but his familiarity with North County means he has a deep knowledge of that overlooked area. Among his destinations were things as disparate as the Melvin Price Locks and Dam barge simulator in Alton and an old 18-foot Velvet Freeze ice cream sculpture at Mesnier Primary School on Weber Road.
Not included in Baugher’s book, though, are famous sights such as the City Museum or St. Louis Zoo. There’s no Gateway Arch (except on the book’s cover), but there is Union Station’s whispering arch.
“I included things I could say something new about.” One of the only places in the book he didn’t visit himself, though, was the Forty Acre nudist club in Franklin County.
Baugher’s book is like a tourist guide for locals who think they know the area, he says. And he wishes it would inspire them to get over a fear of going someplace new.
“We need to try to be more regional,” he says.
Want to start? Here are 10 places that might make a good scavenger hunt or day trip for those who are up for adventure.
The Gathering’s Bar Church
What • A church service forgoes pews for a pub, a place college-age kids feel comfortable. Since 2014, the Gathering has held a weekly service at Humphrey’s Restaurant and Tavern near St. Louis University. Services begin at 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Folks under 21 can contemplate the Holy Spirit, but they can’t partake of spirits, of course.
Baugher says • “Bar Church attracts big crowds of mostly young folks who want to hear relevant spiritual messages that they can apply to their lives while relaxing in a laid-back setting.”
What • Suitcases are light for couples and families packing for this 65-year-old nudist resort. While relaxing at the club’s Franklin County getaway (now actually 80 acres), visitors can hike, play volleyball or book a massage. In typical regional fashion, this year’s Memorial Day weekend features a pork steak dinner.
Where • 104 Ridge Acres Loop, Lonedell; Membership starts at $304 a year; fortyacreclub.com
Baugher says • “These are nice people. If you don’t have a genuine interest in the lifestyle, don’t show up and pester those who do. There are also strict policies in place to prevent anti-social or inappropriate behavior. Moreover, if you are there, you are expected to be unclothed.”
What • Five-piece aluminum sculpture of a giant emerging from the ground, installed in 2009. A sister piece by its artist, J. Seward Johnson, has been trying to escape the earth in Maryland since 1980.
Baugher says • “Bring the kids. Playing on the giant is a favorite activity of the younger set.”
What • Cycling arena built in 1962 isn’t the smoothest: It’s nicknamed Mr. Bumpy Face. But it’s one of only 27 velodromes in the United States, and it still holds races on Thursday nights. This year’s races are scheduled for May 9-Aug. 22.
Baugher says • “Velodrome cycles are fixed-gear, single-speed devices. Oh, yes, and I did I mention they don’t have brakes?”
Laclede’s Landing Wax Museum
What • More than 200 figures from cartoons to presidents, biblical to royal, including a “chamber of horrors.” The quirky museum, founded in 1983, doesn’t seem to have any familiar faces from the past decade. And though the waxy famous stand behind glass, many are disheveled and dusty.
Baugher says • “For the right price, you and as many as 149 of your closest friends can do an overnight lock-in at the wax museum.”
What • A plaza of “disembodied bronze footwear” positioned to suggest a forward march in front of five markers representing U.S. uniform services. The installation was dedicated in 2001.
Baugher says • “Ceremonies are held here on Veterans and Memorial Days as well as Armed Forces and POW/MIA Remembrance Days.”
What • Older than the Old Cathedral, Cahokia’s Holy Family Church predates any house of worship in the area. Its log construction dates to 1799, and the Catholic parish itself was founded in 1699, when the French were still exploring the area.
Where • 116 Church Street, Cahokia; tours by appointment during the summer; holyfamily1699.org
Baugher says • “Though it predates the Louisiana Purchase, and although the house of worship was built nearly two decades before Illinois was established as a state, it was officially part of the United States during construction, since it lies east of the Mississippi River in what was then known as the Northwest Territory.”
What • Ever-changing artwork on concrete floodwall celebrates graffiti (which is usually against the law). The annual Paint Louis event gathers urban tags. The wall even has its own Facebook page.
Where • Wharf Street, downtown
Baugher says • “The gravel-and-litter-strewn environs may not look inviting, but the graffiti wall is a visual adventure not to be missed for any true patron of street art.”
What • Our famous no-tell motel on Route 66 was demolished in 1995, but a facade from one unit was reassembled at the Museum of Transportation. Kids usually come to see the old trains, but near the Coral Court are also vintage cars, including a turbine-driven one coveted by Jay Leno, who signed its engine.
Baugher says • “Other oddities include the world’s biggest tanker train carriage, a working streetcar, one of the area’s earliest mobile phones, and a tricked-out ‘dream car’ lacquered with diamond-infused paint and used by singing sensation Bobby Darin.”
What • A Spanish king offered the land for early settlers. A small village grew, burying some of its residents in the land. Headstones were removed, but coffins and artifacts still remain. Nearby, the Old St. Ferdinand Shrine is the second-oldest church building still standing (see Holy Family Church).
Where • St. Ferdinand and St. Denis streets in Florissant.
Baugher says • Not just a nice place for a barbecue, “it also holds an irreplaceable piece of the past, and some of the town’s first citizens still reside forever under its sod.”