An update on the Chicago Velo Campus from Emanuele Bianchi


Bianchi coaches Robert, a teen who lives near the temporary velodrome – photo courtesy of Chicago Velo Campus

Last winter I wrote about the Chicago Velo Campus proposal for a Newcity cover story. The organizers were originally hoping to build a $45 million multisport complex, featuring a velodrome stadium nearly as large as the United Center, by 2013 on the former site of U. S. Steel’s South Works mill, a hump of land on the lakefront between 79th and 92nd.

Although they recently changed their target for construction to 2014, and even that may be an optimistic deadline for this ambitious project, much has already been accomplished. This summer volunteers installed a 166-meter temporary velodrome, made of marine-grade plywood, and an indoor space called the Lakeside Velo Works, containing a bike workshop, indoor training area, bike storage and office space, on U.S. Steel land at 8615 S. Burley.


Building the temporary velodrome – photo courtesy of Chicago Velo Campus

After a busy season of outdoor training and racing at the track, this winter the velo works will be hosting indoor training and “Fix-to-Own” earn-a-bike programs. Meanwhile, the organizers are working to raise $500,000 to erect a heated, airplane hanger-like structure around the temporary velodrome so that it can be used year-round. But they haven’t given up on their big dream of the multisport stadium and are still working to make this an eventual reality.

Last week I dropped by one of the monthly planning meetings for the velo campus at the velo works. But due to a Metra mix-up – the track and velo works are located just east of the 87th (South Chicago) stop but I wound up at the 87th (Woodruff) stop, a few miles west – I arrived near the end of the meeting. So I caught up with Emanuele Bianchi, a businessman, racer, coach and president of the low-profit limited liability corporation Chicago Velo Campus L3C, by phone for an update.


Last week’s planning meeting at Lakeside Velo Works

When did the temporary velodrome open and what kind of programming was going on this summer?

It opened in the middle of August and we had a couple weeks of intense activity with the certification process for riders. Lots of riders had to learn how to ride on the steep banks and be certified in order to compete because they were not used to the Olympic-style track. [Chicagoland’s exisiting bike racing track, the Ed Rudolph Velodrome in Northbrook, has much shallower banking.] They were more used to road and criterium riding. We also had many beginning riders who weren’t trying to be certified for racing.

Then we had a few weeks of races with barbecues, with a fun beergarden type of environment, so the competitors and their family and friends and other spectators had the chance to eat together and enjoy the beer that was donated by Half Acre. You didn’t need a ticket to enter, it was just for fun. We did this three or four times this summer.


Photo courtesy of Chicago Velo Campus

We have had a lot of youth programs. We had a number of kids from the local community that started riding right after the opening, people that were completely new to the sport. And then we have local community people that are either related to the schools around us or relatives of youth that came to try the track. The kids have to bring their mothers with them at least the first time so they can approve what’s going on because the steep bank can be scary.

And in weeks after the initial racer-focused time we started to have a lot of regular guys from other parts of the area who really didn’t have any cycling background. They just came to ride on the track and discover what it was like. These were people from the South Loop, some people from the western suburbs, some people from the North Side.

I can tell you about a frequent rider now that had never ridden on a track his whole life. Jim Middleton is a real estate agent that lives in Lincoln Park. He came by and saw us building the track and he said, “Wow, you guys are really making it happen.” And then he came afterwards and now’s he a frequent rider. He’s in his 50s and he’d never done any kind of competitive cycling before. He started out doing three laps at a time because he couldn’t breath. Last Sunday morning we did probably sixty laps together.


Gabrielle, a high school student, takes a lap around the “apron” of the track – photo courtesy of Chicago Velo Campus

We also hosted the collegiate regional championship with people from several states participating. It was a top-of-the-line event because it’s a championship for the whole region of the United States. It was sanctioned by USA Cycling – they provided officials. The University of Chicago rented the facility to run the race and they were the main promoters and we were the co-sponsors. It was a two-day event, Saturday and Sunday. All the participants were very excited about the track.

So you’ve got a youth program that’s about to launch now for the winter. What’s going on with that?

Those are two different programs. One is the physical component, training on rollers, and that is to sweat and keep your body in shape. It’s about maintaining your condition or creating your condition for the next season. It’s an after-school program, three days a week.

The other is the “Fix to Own” program which is teaching kids from the local community to repairs bicycles and earn a modest degree. This would be a certificate that says they are qualified to be helpers in a bike shop, capable of fixing flats, adjusting chain tension and lubricating the drivetrain – all those basic jobs. Each one of the students will rebuild a bicycle and they will own this bike at the end of the course.


How are you recruiting the students?

We have done single-source recruiting from one charter school called EPIC Academy, located near us at 83rd and South Shore Drive. They want us help us create a curriculum and to make sure we have a proper way to reward the kids, measure their abilities and provide data at the end. So we’re working with one school for the first launch of this program just to learn with them, and then we will open it to other high schools.

Christopher Wallace will be the teacher for this class. He’s an official Park Tool-certified instructor and he can bring our kids to a higher level, rather than having just any mechanic teach them. He is supporting the project by providing his services.

Meanwhile you guys are trying to raise $500,000 for a structure to enclose the existing velodrome. What’s going on with the fundraising effort?

We kicked off the Cycle 4 Seasons [the effort to enclose the the temporary velodrome] fundraising with an event at Rapid Transit Cycleshop in University Village two Saturdays ago. We raised about $10,000. Not a huge amount, but we had to start somewhere. Some of the guys there had been waiting for something where they could put those few those few thousand dollars that they had thought about offering to the organization.

Then we had a few other donors that joined afterwards. Actually, let’s not call them donors because some of them are members. Practically, Cycle 4 Seasons is an effort that’s not really asking for donations. It’s asking for people that would be willing to buy a membership that gives them full, unlimited utilization of the facility for three years, including the bikes. So let’s say that you decide to buy a gold membership as an adult. You pay $500 and you have the all-inclusive membership to use the velodrome, the office, cycle shop and training center and do all the training with us and have some coaching, etcetera.


Or just like Jim Middleton, the real estate agent, he does it just to have fun on the track. He just comes, rolls, trains and warms up and has fun with a friend and then goes home. He’s not looking to be in any races, he just wants to enjoy the track.

So we’re raising some money and we’re also approaching the corporations to get more substantial infusions of cash. One of the dreams was to have SRAM participate in this. But so far this local company, one of the biggest component companies in the world, located in Chicago, they have not given us any support so far. But we are very hopeful that they will join us in one way or another.

What are your plans for moving forward with your grand vision for the indoor stadium?

There’s good news from one side. I was at a meeting organized by the South Chicago Chamber of Commerce. At that meeting both [9th Ward] Alderman John Pope and [33rd District] State Representative Marlow Colvin confirmed what I had heard about the completion of the new section of U.S. Route 41.

View Chicago Velo Campus and U.S. 41 in a larger map.

[The new section of U.S. 41 that Bianchi refers to is a roughly two-mile-long length of partially-completed highway within /alongside the U.S. Steel property, visible in the map above. The highway runs from the northwest corner of the property at 79th and Brandon (a block east of U.S. 41/ South Shore Drive) to the southwest corner at U.S. 41 / Mackinaw and 92nd.]

This new roadway is unpaved from 79th to 87th. It exists as a paved boulevard from 87th to 92nd. And a new paved section of 87th Street also extends east from the velo works, accessing the interior of the property, including recently-built green space, Park 523, at 87th and the lakefront. However, since the U.S. Steel property is currently gated there is no public access to these roads within the property, or to the new park.]

So that is one sign of the [Lakeside] development having a chance to proceed to the next level and find funding. [The velo campus project was] set aside in some ways by all the potential sponsors of because it was too far from reality because [Lakeside] was too far from having any progress. Now this progress is coming because the construction bid to complete the roads inside the property is on the table. It’s being discussed now and [the new section of U.S. 41] should be completed by 2012.

Finishing this main road is the way to trigger the development of the property. All the potential investors, like big box retailers and financial companies that were interested in the residential component, they’re now looking at it in a different light because the road will be built pretty soon.

Now [Chicago Velo Campus doesn’t] have anything other than the good words and good agreements that we’ve had with U.S. Steel. They are willing to support our project with land and some cash but they’re not disclosing how much money they would be willing to contribute yet. But so far U.S. Steel is practically the only company that has expressed their intention to provide some of the funding.

We had worked with engineers and architects and city planners to include a velodrome in the development plans and that was done months ago. Now we’ll see if we can find financial partners and corporations that support the project as soon as the city opens the road and the development proceeds.

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John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

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