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Hochman: A makeover for 'Mr. Bumpy Face'? It's true, to the delight of St. Louis cyclists

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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.”

The velodrome is just one of St. Louis' 'secret places'


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