Bicycle racing at Kissena Velodrome, located in Kissena Park off Booth Memorial Avenue at Parsons Blvd., is more than a sport for many of its riders. It’s a passion, a way of life, a community. And, this sense of purpose and belonging is not limited to the athletes. This track is a family affair with parents driving their children to the racetrack then sticking around to help make the day’s activity go smoother. For adult racers, there are spouses, friends, and children there helping to check equipment, provide water, and cheer the racers on. For spectators, it’s a chance to relax in the bleaches and read between races.
“Bike racing is competitive, but friendly,” said Brean Shea, the Kissena Velodrome’s race director. We spoke at the track back in April when the racing season was already underway. There was a time when bike racing was so popular that Madison Square Garden boasted a banked velodrome and so did The Bronx, Coney Island and Staten Island. Now the only velodrome in the region, this track in Kissena Park attracts riders from all over the tri-state region. Jesse Shotland, one of the tracks superstars, comes all the way from Pennsylvania. The Velodrome is open to all levels of riders from beginners to state-level championships. “There no racing in PA below Olympic level,” he explained.
With a storied history – the track was built by Robert Moses in 1962 and produced a string of Olympic champions – the 400 meters of track is a tangible thread that connects cycling’s past to its future. There are programs for children and adults alike. As planes fly overhead and buds form on the trees surrounding the track, the comradery between the bike racers is obvious.
Leona Chin became involved with the Velodrome when her daughter Peye Wong began racing at 11 years old. Wong is now 20 and doesn’t get to the track as often as she’d like to. “I made longtime friends here,” she said. “The people are friendly. There’s no judgement and racing is exhilarating.” Her mother points out that there is no shortage of female role models here, and Wong agrees. Looking out over the track she explains that her dream is to keep up her fitness with lifelong racing.
At around 11:30 a.m. on this sunny, but cool Saturday morning the parents from the Star Track Cycling juniors’ program began preparing to pack up and leave. Then the racers in their iridescent racing uniforms began arriving with their bikes slung over their shoulders like backpacks as they sort out officials to check-in to the six-day competition going on that day.
As the time of the first race approached, the air becomes electric with anticipation. Racers perform amazing feats, such a bobbing and weaving their way across the track carrying their bike as they navigate the cyclists already warming up. It’s Chanel Zeisel, 33, third season racing at Kissena. She learned to ride at a track clinic before the launch of Citi Bikes. “I joined a womens-only clinic. I wanted to ride to work.”
Like so many of the other riders, Zisel warmed up on stationary rollers and, between overhead planes heading to LaGuardia, the whir of wheels can be heard all around. David Underhill, the official in charge of the actual racing meet, wanders around making sure that everything is in order and that the bikes will be ready to race. “I’ve been doing this for years,” he said, and it’s clear that he’s not only good at supervising the meets, but that he loves doing it. The track was renovated a little over ten years ago, but it maintains a reputation as a track that will keep riders alert. There’s no doubt that the competitors appreciate Underhill’s diligence.
As the first race is about to start, the riders line up on their bikes against the fence. Everyone seems to know the drill. Then the signal, and the race begins. Even as a novice spectator, it’s impossible to take one’s eyes off the bikes as they glide around the track. This sport isn’t without danger, the bikes have no brakes or gears and the pace is fast with racers riding in bunches sometimes only inches separating each bike.
As the riders complete the first lap a sign displays the number of remaining laps until finally Underhill rings a bell, yells last lap and the tensions climax. It’s mesmerizing. Walking between racers, the words simple, elegant, and pure are heard over and over. It’s this sense that riders get as they race around the track that brings them back time and time again and is the basis of the community — the chance to share in this pure ritual. It easy to see why crowds of 200 spectators are not unknown.
Women racers are not only welcome but encouraged to join in, and as Zisel demonstrates, this is not one of those sports you need to start at five-years-old or never.
The Kissena Velodrome is free and open to the public. The 2018 Kissena Twilight Series runs on Wednesdays from April 25 to August 15; the Formula Femme WTGNC Skills Clinics runs from June 3 to July 1; and there are track racing clinics, an introductory class on June 30th, with an advanced class on July 1st. For more information, go to the kissenavelodrome.info. Star Track Youth Cycling runs three 8-week sessions a year that are free for all kids. For more information, go to startrackcycling.org.
Jillian Abbott is an award-winning writer. Her features and op-ed columns appeared in Newsday, NY Daily News, The Washington Post, and more. She teaches writing at CUNY and has lived in North Flushing (Whitestone) for over 10 years. Connect with her: @themindfulmouth on Instagram, and @Jannabbott on Twitter.