Image source: Seth W. on Flickr
Kissena Park in Queens is home to the only velodrome (a bicycle racing track) in all of New York state – and one of only 27 in the country. The outdoor Kissena Velodrome (GMAP), which is 400 meters around and has banked curves, is a major hub in the city for the sport of track cycling.
Track cycling is completely different from road racing, mountain biking, or riding around the neighborhood. First of all, the bikes used for the sport are fixed-gear, AKA “fixies,” without any brakes, meaning that the rider doesn’t stop pedaling until he or she wants to stop moving.
Secondly, the events are not straightforward contests of speed, but involve a lot of strategy related to wind resistance and the steepness of the track. Sprint races usually start off quite slowly, as riders try to trick their opponents into getting into an unfavorable position. Watch this video from the New York Times for an explanation of winning strategies.
The sport, which puzzles many modern spectators upon seeing it for the first time, reached its peak of popularity in the US in the 1920s. Crowds used to pack into New York venues to watch the races. Madison Square Garden, back when it was located at 26th Street and Madison Avenue (current home to Madison Square Park), once hosted six-day extreme endurance races on its indoor bike track; the event became known as the “Madison” and is still popular in Europe. There were also velodromes in Marble Hill (1922-1930) and Coney Island (1930-1955).
Image source: Seth W. on Flickr
Now, with the growing interest in fixed-gear bikes and cycling in general, velodromes are making a comeback. The Kissena Velodrome, originally built for the 1964 Olympic trials, was renovated in 2004. It is now used seasonally from May through September for amateur racing, and further into the fall for the free Star Track after-school program, which teaches youth ages 9 to 13 to race bikes. You can also bring your bike and try out the track yourself, if you have a fixed-speed racing bike without brakes.
Since it is made of asphalt instead of wood, and is longer than standard 200-meter tracks, the Kissena Velodrome currently cannot be used for professional racing. Other drawbacks include its uneven surface (it has been called “old lumpy” or the “big bumpy”) and the fact that it can only be used during daylight hours in the warmer months, since it is not enclosed and doesn’t have a lighting system.
To close these gaps, there has been a recent proposal to build an indoor professional velodrome in Brooklyn Bridge Park, but there are many arguments against it. Some worry that it would disturb the beauty and calm of the park and Brooklyn Heights. Peter Flemming, co-chairman of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Community Council, suggested that the $40 million gift behind the velodrome/field house idea be directed toward renovating the Kissena Velodrome instead.
Although many of us have barely heard of track cycling or a velodrome, even if we’ve spent time in lovely Kissena Park, it may be time to start thinking of the Kissena Velodrome as an important Queens landmark. Currently bearing the distinction of being New York’s only bike racing track, the venue is bound to get increased attention as cycling makes its way back into mainstream culture.