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Photos: 'Bike prom' takes its last lap at the velodrome

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The curve of the track leads left to a group of cyclists.
A pack of cyclists ride out of a turn during the Fixed Gear Classic at the NSC Velodrome on Friday, August 2, 2019, in Blaine, Minn. The 30-year-old track is one of only three outdoor wooden tracks in the country and is made of 42 miles of African Afzalia wood.
Evan Frost | MPR News

After last week, “bike prom” is no more. Cyclists from across the country flocked to the National Sports Center Velodrome for the last Fixed Gear Classic tournament and a chance to ride one of only three outdoor wooden tracks in the country.

Thirty years of Minnesota winters have taken their toll and the velodrome is set to close at the end of the year.

“The track got old, that’s the problem,” said director Bob Williams, “We can’t stay ahead of the repairs.”

The German-designed track was built in 1990 to host the Olympic Festival and the national championships. The turns are banked at 43 degrees and the straightaways at 15. Forty-two miles of African Afzelia wood make up the surface of the only outdoor, wood-planked velodrome in the western hemisphere.

For most of the last decade, the Fixed Gear Classic has been a summer staple at the velodrome. The invitational tournament draws some of the country’s best cyclists for two days of racing and camaraderie.

“This is it. This is the bike prom,” coach and tournament organizer Linsey Hamilton said. The track and the community are a core piece of her identity. The sensation of flying down the track is an experience every rider can bond over.

“It's like having a name spelled you know weird,” Hamilton said. “And you find somebody with your same name and you go, ‘oh my gosh, we have this thing in common and we've never met but we can talk about it.’”

Cyclists bond over the intensity of the sport. The fastest racers can go upwards of 40-miles-per-hour in sprint races. But the track isn’t just for the ultra fast. Hamilton founded the VeloKids program, which teaches kids ages 9-12 to safely race the track in a four-week summer camp.

Athletes who got their start on the NSC Velodrome have gone on to race around the world. Last year, then 17-year-old Peter Moore of St. Paul was named to the USA Junior World Championship team.

Over three decades of racing on the track, one rider hasn’t missed a season. Mark Stewart wore the number 30 this year in honor of years he’s attended. He came out to watch the track being built and took a class as soon as he could. Since then, he’s watched hundreds of riders fall in love with the sport and the community.

“The Velodrome has put a spark in a lot of kids I think, and they get excited about cycling and then hopefully they continue to do it as a lifetime sport,” Stewart said. “Seeing that possibility go away is just really disappointing and a huge loss for the state.”

Over the years, the community has raised money to fund continual maintenance of the track, but the National Sports Center has decided to end its run. The land will be used as a green space by the Spring Lake Park school district.

Efforts to fund a proposed Minnesota Cycling Center with an indoor track and multi-purpose community event center closer to the metro have yet to yield any results. 

The 2019 season will extend into the fall, with races every Thursday night.

Cyclists ride in a tight pack wearing bright spandex.
A pack of cyclists vie for position during a race at the Fixed Gear Classic at the NSC Velodrome on Aug. 2, in Blaine, Minn.
Evan Frost | MPR News
Right, riders on the track below a sunset. Left, three racers fix a bike.
At left, The sun sets over the track during the Fixed Gear Classic. At right, Team Corpse Whale members Chelli Riddough, Erin Porter and Amanda Harvey swap the wheel on Riddiough's bike before a race.
Evan Frost | MPR News
Riders put their feet up as others race on the track in the background.
Racers relax in the infield between races. The tournament draws riders from all over the country and over $10,000 in winnings are up for grabs.
Evan Frost | MPR News
The sun shines through a wheel as riders life their bikes onto the track.
Racers carry their bike onto the track before a race. All bikes are fixed gear and without brakes, which means that riders have to ride off the track into the grass to slow down.
Evan Frost | MPR News
A tight pack of riders is led by one wearing orange and blue.
Team Corpse Whale rider Erin Porter leads a group of cyclists in a race. Races over the two-day tournament range from one on one sprints to 80 lap team races.
Evan Frost | MPR News
A rider in blue and orange with an intense gaze as she rides.
Team Corpse Whale racer Chelli Riddiough sprints down the track.
Evan Frost | MPR News
Left, a rider pumps her fist. Right, a rider with one arm.
At left, Masters world champion Rachel McKinnon celebrates after winning a sprint. McKinnon is a transgender woman and the first trans person to win a cycling world title. At right, John Terrell of San Antonio, Tex., sprints on the track. It was Terrell's first Fixed Gear Classic and he called it "the best bicycle race I've ever been to."
Evan Frost | MPR News
Blurry cyclists go left into a turn.
Racers enter a turn during the Fixed Gear Classic. The walls of the track are angled at 43 degrees and the straightaways at 15 degrees, requiring racers to keep a certain level of speed in order not to fall over.
Evan Frost | MPR News
A man holds his hands on his helmet sitting on a motorcycle.
Dave Thimsen sits on the pace bike before leading the riders into a race. Thimsen started volunteering at the track in 2000, briefly racing but mostly helping with maintenance and organizing races.
Evan Frost | MPR News
Cyclists ride in front of stopped cyclists and trees.
The first group of racers set out onto the track during a Madison race at the end of the night. The Madison races consist of teams of two racing and physically launching each other forward in between laps.
Evan Frost | MPR News
Two cyclists in blue hold hands while riding.
Two racers work together to perform a hand sling, where one launches the other forward during a Madison race.
Evan Frost | MPR News
Three cyclists hug wearing bike jerseys.
"Can I give you guys a hug?" John Terrell, center, says to Aaron Collins, left, and Mark Stewart after the three of them faced off on the track.
Evan Frost | MPR News
The shadow of a bike is cast onto two cyclists riding.
The overhead lights cast the shadows of cyclists on the track.
Evan Frost | MPR News
Left, a woman watches in a yellow witches hat. Right, the race schedule.
At left, Sarah Bonneville of team Koochella watches races from the infield. At right, the second day's race schedule is written in chalk, including a group picture and dinner.
Evan Frost | MPR News
A cyclist in orange tries to catch two wearing blue.
Two teammates vault each other ahead with a hand sling as another racer tries to catch up in a Madison race.
Evan Frost | MPR News
Three cyclists sit on bleachers and watch the races.
Thirty-year track veteran Mark Stewart, right, watches some of the races from the stands with friends and fellow racers John Thompson, center, and Julie Thompson. Stewart started racing at the track shortly after it was built in 1989.
Evan Frost | MPR News
Riders stand on their pedals without moving as others watch.
Riders compete in a track stand competition where they have to balance on their bikes with minimal movement for as long as they can.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Correction (Aug. 9, 2019): A previous version of this story stated that Spring Lake Park Schools will build a school on the site of the velodrome. They intend to use the land as a green space for students.