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What happened with Detroit’s last velodrome?

Martijn Sargentini Tekst Martijn Sargentini Gepubliceerd 20 september 2016

In the freshly mowed grass alongside the Outer Drive East Street, we see a red sign on high poles. Its white letters read: ‘Please don’t litter, there’s joy in beautification’. Littering; indeed this was a huge problem when this area was still one of the most underpriviliged neighbourhoods in all of the United States. These days, however, there’s hardly anybody around to make a good old mess. This very morning, the newspaper boy threw a rolled-up edition of the Detroit News onto one of the porches here. It hasn’t been picked up. Here, the silence of an empty town is only broken by the sound of purring motorized lawnmowers that rises from the verges alongside the broad, empty boulevards. These machines are everywhere, protecting a bankrupt city from getting fully overgrown. Giving up mowing would mean defeat, surrender, capitulation. Within months, the grass will have covered everything you see.

Just look at what happened with the Dorais Velodrome.


The velodrome itself is still here. And not all that long ago, people were even still cycling on its tracks. One can find videos of cheerful get-togethers with party tents on the centre field and suburban Detroiters that carefully cycle their way through the bends on mountainbikes and tandems. There is even footage of the occasional daredevil, riding the ruins on a proper racebike. These recordings are a couple of years old, the video-hosting website did not give a more recent life signal. Therefore, the best way to check the state of Detroit’s last cyclist arena obviously is to go there ourselves. Here, in this empty stretch of town lies the outdoor track of Dorais Park, or whatever remains of it. In Detroit, something that stands proudly today, can be demolished tomorrow.

In Detroit, something that stands proudly today, can be demolished tomorrow

Our rental car is parked in front of Family Dollar, a store that looks like a supermarket, but turns out to have nothing but garbage on the shelves; Soda and aspirin, Pringles and Barbie dolls. Apart from the staff, there’s nobody in there. It is hard to imagine that opposite this very parking lot, in 1969, thousands of people witnessed how John VandeVelde – Christian’s father – rode the concrete in the national championships on a then newly opened velodrome. Those thousands of people all turned their back on Detroit. When the car industry slowly but steadily started to decline from 1970 onwards, hundreds of thousands of families chose to leave the once famed Motor City. Detroit became a ghost town. Every night, vandals set its wooden houses on fire. The weatherworn remains were attacked by grass and plants, which slowly but steadily consumed entire city blocks. Only the reinforced concrete was able to withstand the flames. Had the velodrome of Dorais been a wooden arena, then most certainly there would have been a certain unfortunate night where the city of Detroit was startled by a blazing, oval fire.

Until 1980 such a wooden velodome had been a common site in other parts of town: a transportable, dismountable arena on which the Madison was organised. It was the first one of its kind, they simply called it the ‘Madison-Arena’. Then, one day, the warehouse where the arena parts had been piled on top of each other, proved empty. Thieves had taken all wooden planks out of the warehouse. Detroit had one less velodrome to organise its races on.

Dorais Park was the training area of local hero Frankie Andreu, once the loyal helper of Lance Armstrong, now presenter of bicycle races such as the Tour of California. In the eighties, Frankie trained at Dorais Park while the centre part was entirely filled up with garbage. The last official race took place in 1990; the Michigan State Championships. After that it was left to its own devices.

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In the summer of 2010, the Detroit Mower Gang (‘winning Detroit’s other turf war’) rediscovered the arena as if it was a coincidental archaeological find. All it took this group of volunteers was cleaning up the garbage and an afternoon of mowing with heavy machinery. Not long after this clean-up, the first edition of the ‘Detroit Thunderdrome’ took place. Twenty years after the last official race, there were bikes on the tracks again. It was hardly safe, but the joy of the rediscovery was simply too big and riders just had to give it a go. With helmets and knee pads it was just about possible to circle through the curves.

On the edge of Dorais Park there is no fence or entrance gate. A gravel path meanders upwards against an earthen wall full of bushes. Once you reach the top, you’ll have a clear view of the race track and the only hill to be seen in this area. A bit to the right, there’s the Chrysler Corporation with an enormous parking lot in front of it, a quarter filled with brand new pickups. On the side of the park, there are another five parking lots. All empty. It’s both a surprise and a disenchantment to find this arena on this location. Unprotected and eroded by the decay that spreads through Detroit like a plague. Big broken chunks of concrete lie quietly under high green grass. A thrush comes flying in, its beak full of worms to feed her young. Her nest is in a small tree that grows in the centre section of the arena.

Winds from Lake St. Clair decorated the trees on the high bend with plastic bags from the Family Dollar like flowers on a grave

Cycle amateurs and lawnmower fanatics are not the only ones that have been visiting this remote terrain. At night, youngsters with spray cans also found their way to the tracks. Illegal car races with wrecked automobiles battered and tortured the thin upper layer. One night, a pickup truck appeared in the arena. Concrete fragments flew through the air. Dorais Velodrome became a wrecked workplace.
The yearly Thunderdrome in September saw more and more motorcross bikes and fewer bicycles on the tracks. In 2014, the event ceased to exist. Bike fanatics in Detroit started an initiative for a brand new, state-of-the-art fully deconstructable racing course. The lawnmower gang found new green lawns to trim. Nobody walked up the winding gravel path anymore. The rediscovered velodrome in the park next to the Chrysler Corporation was once again forgotten. Winds from Lake St. Clair decorated the trees on the high bend with plastic bags from the Family Dollar like flowers on a grave. In 2015, there is hardly anything left of the Detroit Dorais Park Velodrome – it’s like a rare archaeological site no one cares to visit.

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