Through the doors of the great hall, the acrid fog of cigar smoke swirls with the splintered tempo of live jazz. There is hollering, then an eruption of whistled cheers, and the faint salty-sweet smell of grilled hot dogs and fresh-popped corn.
Inside, a crush of high- and low-class men and women pack the arena, many waving wads of cash above their heads, shouting names like "Mr. 13!" or "Torchy!" as bookies worm their way through, snatching cash and taking bets.
Toward the front of the crowd a thick guardrail, sticky from spilled moonshine, restrains the crowd from pouring out onto the revelry below. Everywhere, people are dancing and singing, gambling and eating. Near the center of the arena floor, a jazz ensemble frantically belts out a soundtrack to the mayhem. Enveloping the rafters above, more dizzying clouds of tobacco smoke.
Binding it all together is a spectacle the New York Times called "An athletic contest in which participants 'go queer' in their heads, and strain their powers until their faces become hideous with the tortures that rack them... [It] is not sport. It is brutality." Spread around the bulk of the Madison Square Garden arena below, drawing the awe of the more than 8,000 fevered fans: a bicycle race.Ain't What It Used to Be
Until the advent of two-man teams in 1899, six-day bike races stretched men to the point of delirium. Riders would cycle continuously, all day and all night, completing as many laps as possible before the end of six days — or until they collapsed.
Even after that kind of all-night riding was banned for the health of riders and two-man squads were introduced, each rider would rack up 12 hours of riding a day. While one teammate logged laps, the other would rest briefly to eat, relax, or dope up with amphetamines, strychnine, or ether, all of which pervaded the racing culture. When the six days were up, top-performing riders would have individually logged over 1,300 miles.
The brutal competition was the darling of spectator sport at the turn of the century.
But when the country's attentions turned to the mounting push toward World War II, the tracks went dark and did not return to the limelight. The closest a bicycle comes today to the hallowed halls of Madison Square Garden is the rack out front.
Today, over one thousand miles away in Minneapolis' northern suburb of Blaine, rests an aging, empty velodrome, almost identical to the wooden track in New York that gave "Madison" six-day races their name over a century earlier. It is one of only two dozen tracks that remain from a prewar peak of 100.
"Back in the day, when six-day races came to town, it was the place to see and be seen," recalls Bob Williams, track coordinator for the National Sports Center (NSC) velodrome in Blaine. "It was exciting. That's what we've got to get back."
The National Sports Center was initially envisioned as a massive training facility for every Olympic event, complete with ice hockey rink, soccer field, volleyball court, and track and field arena. Over time, many of those facilities failed to bring in fans and fell into disrepair, as the NSC gradually shifted its focus toward amateur sports and the money makers: ice hockey and the biggie, soccer. The velodrome miraculously hung on, thanks in large part to its iconic status.
The NSC velodrome was built to prepare Minnesota Olympians for the 1996 Summer Games. It was the first 250-meter track built in the U.S. to meet the international standard. It is still the only outdoor strip-wood track in the country and one of just a handful in the entire Western Hemisphere. The sleek, graying wood surface is composed of now-endangered Cameroonian afzelia wood, renowned for its resistance to expansion and contraction — ideal for enduring harsh Minnesota extremes.
Since the 1990s, the track has drawn international talent and attention within the track cycling community. But that community is sparse, at least in the U.S., where spectatorship has been lackluster. The attention — and money — necessary to keep such a world-class facility in peak condition have long been wanting.
"It was in the red after its first year," Williams says. "[The NSC] was going to lock the gates and walk away from it."
For 20 years, Williams and whatever volunteers he could lasso have donated their time and sweat to fight off the inexorable decay of the one-of-a-kind velodrome. They replaced soft or cracked Afzelia strips, expensive and difficult to obtain, with oak substitutes. And with each passing winter, Williams petitioned the NSC board to hire professionals for intensive repairs. The foundation was wary of investing in a sport without proven returns.
Finally, in 2014, the NSC — worn down by a combination of Bob's entreaties and continued monetary losses — sought out a civil engineer to evaluate the health of the track. What they learned, Bob says, "scared them to death."
The report detailed advanced deterioration and a "high risk of liability." Immediately talk began of closing the track.
Williams was unconvinced. He persuaded the board to entertain a second opinion — this time from an engineer with experience in maintaining and repairing wooden velodromes. The results, far less ominous than the initial review, presented a straightforward path to rejuvenating the track and making repairs that would guarantee its future for five to ten years.
The problem: a $100,000 price tag.An Unexpected Savior
With a fierce platinum pompadour, motley tattoos winding up her arms and legs, and a presence as big as her name, Anna Schwinn can make a lasting first impression. Never one to flaunt her pedigree, Schwinn nevertheless descends from the same family whose name is stamped on bicycles across the country. And though the family's stake in the manufacturing giant has since faded, Schwinn is a gearhead through and through.
After graduating with a mechanical engineering degree from Ohio State, Schwinn bounced around the cycling industry, gaining experience and building a formidable resume. Before long, she landed a spot as a lead design engineer for the highly respected Bloomington-based bike manufacturer All City Cycles. The then-29-year-old Schwinn was just putting the finishing touches on a velodrome-approved bike frame when Williams showed up to deliver flyers for a cycling event.
"I said, 'Schwinn? Of the Schwinn family?!'" says Williams.
Williams invited her to try out her new bike at the velodrome.
"This track was recommended as the best track anybody had ever ridden in the United States. People at the Major Taylor track in Indianapolis would tell me they hadn't ridden it in 20 years and still had dreams about it — it was that beautiful," says Schwinn.
Their meeting seemed preordained: Williams needed a big name to promote the track, and Schwinn needed to experience the crown jewel of American velodromes.
It was late summer 2013 when Schwinn hauled the shiny aluminum Thunderdome frame she'd helped design up to the National Sports Center. She paid her racer fee, made her way to the infield, and waited. Dozens of men clad in high-performance Spandex and toting sleek, carbon fiber bikes piled onto the infield. A smattering of fans, mostly close friends and families of riders, dotted the metal bleachers. As the minutes ticked down to the women's race, just two of the six minimum required slots for female riders were filled.
Bob was forced to cancel the women's events that evening.
"I told her, 'I can't hold a race with only three women,'" Bob remembers. "'You have to race with the men.' Well if you know Anna, raving feminist, that just wasn't going to do."
The cancellation of women's events had become an unfortunate regularity for the track. Initiatives that had been bringing women/trans/femme (WTF) riders to the track — intro-night barbecues, bake sales that funded recruitment, mentorships — suffered as well.
"The funny thing is, I wasn't really a bike racer at the time," Schwinn says, "but I was super bummed out that my favorite format of bike racing was dead here for women."
Schwinn wasted no time: If more women needed to race, she was going to get them up there herself. To do that, she needed to get them qualified to race on the track. She petitioned Williams for a women-only track clinic, the instructional riding courses necessary to become licensed to ride in a velodrome race.
"'Find six women and I'll throw it,' he said. I told him I'd come back with 10. I didn't even know 10 women in town at the time."
Schwinn went viral with her message, creating events on Facebook and asking any women interested to attend the clinic. Friends and friends of friends returned the call, and when the day came, Anna rolled up with 10 anxious, uncertain women/trans/femme riders, some complete strangers, all of them new to the velodrome.
"I had never even heard of a velodrome before," laughs Tiana Johnson, who attended that first clinic. "I had no concept of it whatsoever. I Googled it, then went up there and did it. I love women doing anything that disrupts male domination."
As the 2013 racing season was nearing a close, Schwinn had nurtured a handful of inexperienced WTF riders in the training program. The group of newly certified women and transgender riders were poised to resurrect a strong women's field in 2014.Koochella Is Born
The self-proclaimed "ragtag group of heroes" Schwinn had assembled were just that: a disparate collection of tattoo artists and designers, bike mechanics and chemists, CPAs and PR managers. In fact, the only thing they truly had in common was a newfound love of track racing. Schwinn wanted her nucleus of novice riders to become seasoned cyclists with team backing, helping grow a stronger women's field in their sport.
However, her attempts to find team spots for her girls were rebuffed. Sponsors wanted the women to have at least a year's racing experience before they would consider placing them on a team.
With nobody willing to back them, Schwinn's group decided to go at it themselves and form their own team with a progressive, no-bullshit identity. Koochella — a loose play on Coachella, the annual music and arts festival in California — had all the gusto and disruptive impact its members were aiming for, if you just read between the lines a bit.
"You can't have any profanity in your team name and technically it's not a bad word," grins Schwinn. "What it is, though, is something that people could get excited about around town."
Startup costs easily exceed $1,000 per rider, so sponsorship became an immediate concern. Schwinn's experience and tenacity helped secure some discounted gear, but when it came time for a primary team sponsor to throw in on their behalf, it wasn't Schwinn's credentials that came through, it was the team itself.
"Previously, the face of the track was a bunch of overprivileged white guys," says Jamie McDonald, owner of Sunrise Cyclery in Minneapolis and official team sponsor of Koochella. "Koochella is a really good banner for biking here in Minneapolis, and that's got to be a pretty big banner because we are spoiled as shit when it comes to biking here."
McDonald, 50, has as important and personal a reason as any to support Koochella. His wife, Jennifer, an avid cyclist and promoter of women in cycling, died two years ago, just 18 months after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. The money she left him he earmarked as "Jennifer money," which he has largely dedicated to promote and benefit their shared passion — cycling.
"Koochella is one of the fun things I did with that," McDonald says, smiling. "I invested some Jennifer money in a whole bunch of other women that have the potential to be really, really good racers, and are really, really good people. I want to see them do as much as they can in the time that they have."
Armed with a primary sponsor, vibrant matching skinsuits, and 15 custom-painted, brand new racing frames, Schwinn proudly approached Williams to tell him he'd have a robust women's field for the upcoming season, even if most of them were all on the same team.
Williams had bad news. Despite fundraising efforts, the board was convening a vote about the viability of track racing and whether to open for the 2014 season. The NSC had decided not to abandon the track in light of the expert analysis Williams obtained, but neither had it softened its stance on the track's monetary problems. The board's leniency was dwindling. Instead of having to cover half of operating losses and repair costs, Williams now had to cover the full amount.
But he was buoyed by the devotion and investments made by all the teams who had stepped up along with Koochella, committing time and money to the upcoming season. Williams went to the NSC board and compelled them to keep the track open for one more year despite the financial shortfall. The promise of a healthy women's field didn't hurt either.
"When Bob told them that he had a women's team with a bunch of custom team bikes that had just arrived, I guess that was the thing that pushed it over the top," Schwinn says, grinning. "Fake it till you make it, man, all day long. That's Koochella style!"Devil's Due
The summer of 2014 was Koochella's coming-out party, and everyone took notice. Their presence dominated the scene every Thursday night; with no other all-female team, their pink and yellow sherbet-splashed uniforms overwhelmed women's events.
Add their on-track camaraderie and unapologetic cheering section, and the velodrome quickly became one big home-field advantage for the new kids on the track.
What Bob saw in Koochella was the hook his sport had lost since its prewar glory days. The spectacle of track racing had been fading for decades, but in the women of Koochella, there was hope.
"It's about the fans," Williams explains. "[Riders] have to be professional performers. Koochella's good for that because they've got personalities and they've got people beginning to appreciate what track racing was and what it could be again."
Schwinn and company embraced the role of entertainers, hooting and cheering from the infield where they set up a massive team camp, waving to fans, swapping friendly taunts across the track, and, on occasion, singing while racing. Schwinn even broached hosting karaoke during longer men's races.
"Bob thinks it's a little garish, but I keep telling him they would have done it a hundred years ago," she says.
Though their antics wooed some fans, the boisterous attitude and unabashed glamour of Koochella met with some resistance from both the cycling and WTF communities. The fact that Koochella turned away some applicants for the team outraged a few of the WTF advocacy groups, who believe the team was not doing enough to help women and transgender individuals get a foothold in bike racing. Veteran riders, meanwhile, took exception to the pomp and flair with which Koochella promoted themselves on the track and off.
"Many, many people have given tons of time and sweat over the years to keep the track alive and to recruit riders but generally have not received the recognition that Anna's people have," says Williams. "Mostly because Anna makes a bigger noise about them."
"Koochella is polarizing," agrees Linsey Hamilton, nationally recognized cyclist and longtime veteran in the women's field. "They bring their success in a very loud way and that can push the buttons of other racers."
Still, the splashy new cycling team was taking racing seriously. By season's end, three of the top ten Track Rider of the Year finalists at the velodrome were from Koochella, an impressive feat considering it was the first year most of the team had ever been to the track, let alone raced on it.
Koochella members were becoming recognized around town by fans who had been at the track or simply heard of the tenacious team. Interest in women's racing was returning to the velodrome, and it translated into a loyal fanbase and well-attended track clinics preparing more WTF riders to turn laps on race night. The paradigm of women in racing was beginning to crack, and Koochella didn't stop applying pressure. They played to the fans and raced with abandon.
"You want to know my trick?" asks Johnson, who surprised herself as much as her competition by placing 10th in her first year racing. "I'm fucking stupid. I don't think about crashing. I pay attention to what's going on around me, but I'm being completely reckless."
"No one wants to watch you go around in circles," she adds. "What's the point if you're not going balls to the walls?"
That attitude was the lightning in a bottle Williams needed at his events, and he leveraged it. Friends, family members, social media acolytes, and prospective team members — anyone who had been roped in by the persistent efforts of Schwinn and company — started packing the bleachers more regularly to enjoy the show and cheer on Koochella. Williams began scheduling the women's events toward the end of the night's program, just to keep those fans at the races longer.
Thursday Night Lights at the Blaine velodrome were once again hip. The fan base was growing, sponsors were noticing, and the vibe around the track was lively. For the first time in years overall interest and participation was trending upward. Everything was great.
Except the track itself.One Last Push
Repairs were imminent, as was their substantial price tag. To combat the looming spectre of a shutdown, Williams reached out to Hamilton, who had become one of the track's ambassadors. Hamilton had seen the ebbs and flows of the track's success and the women's field in particular. She formed the Friends of Velodrome Racing in Minnesota (FOVRMN) to "ensure investment in and vitality of the National Sports Center velodrome." Among her first recruits was Schwinn.
The collective launched a Go Fund Me campaign, composed letters soliciting donations, and took to social media to spread the word, and, they hoped, cover the costs to keep the velodrome running.
Some riders even pulled strings to secure donated lumber that could be used when track repairs began.
Word was out. Hamilton and FOVRMN were getting attention. Track riders of all sorts were organizing fundraisers, doing what they could to save their sport. Koochella was an integral force in that effort. An event they organized at Fulton Brewery raked in $5,000. After three months, FOVRMN had amassed over $60,000. As the money poured in, companies took notice. The public support, coupled with the fresh image and devoted following Koochella helped foster, won over sponsors that had previously balked at track sponsorship roles.
"Cargill stepped up with a big amount," acknowledges Williams. "Medtronic matched employee donations to the track — they were one of the biggest contributors. We've always been trying to get them involved, but they'd never done much before now."
Before the winter off-season had expired, FOVRMN was able to pay for the repairs in full and guarantee the Blaine velodrome's viability through the 2019 racing season.
"If not for Koochella, the track would be closed for sure. If not for Koochella, there wouldn't be a track here at all," says McDonald.
Williams agrees, putting emphasis on Schwinn's role in the track's revival. "She can be a pain in the rear, but she delivers what she says she's going to do and her heart's in the right place. I love her to death, I can't afford to not have her here. I need her here."Back to the Future
The Blaine velodrome opened for its 26th season on May 21. Treated pine "sister trusses" now reinforce the track's undercarriage, the entire structure has been carefully leveled, and the surface has been fully repaired. The track has been given new life, but its fate has also been sealed.
"After five more years the track will have deteriorated to the point where a complete rebuilding would be necessary," acknowledges Williams. "It has been determined that... after the 2019 season, the velodrome will be closed for good."
Until that time, Williams, Koochella, and all racing teams will be held to a higher standard, as the future of track racing depends upon creating and maintaining a premium product. Racer fees are going up "considerably," as is enforcement of those fees. Despite making up only a tenth of the total competitive field at the velodrome last year, Koochella accounted for nearly a quarter of the track passes sold, with every member of the team paying in full.
"In the past, I would have looked the other way and let riders compete for a nominal fee just to get riders up there," says Williams. "We can't do that anymore. Now you've got to pay to play."
The more rigid rules will strengthen the track's place now and ensure its place in the future. The newly formed Minnesota Cycling Center, a nonprofit tasked with securing a facility that uses bicycles as a vehicle for community engagement, is on the hunt for property to host a brand new velodrome and cycling center.
"I've been working hard at this track since it was built," says Williams. "I could see after 10 years that it wasn't going to last forever. There's been people all over the country talking about how to make an indoor concept work. Nobody has been able to figure out how to make it work. Yet."
Williams's idea: a multi-use venue in northeast Minneapolis, potentially on the Shoreham Yard railway between Central and University Avenues by St. Anthony Parkway.
"This isn't going to be a velodrome," asserts Williams. "It's going to be a community center with a velodrome in it." He envisions a multi-use facility that revolves around cycling activities like BMX riding, which he dubs "the gateway drug to cycling," safety training facilities where kids and adults can learn to bike safely on streets in an enclosed "bike garden," and, of course, a velodrome.
For it to happen, he says, it has to be in the city. "Nordeast. You talk about our constituency — the bike riders and fixie riders — that's where they are. It's where everybody hangs out. We want people to be able to ride their bikes there, especially kids."
A recent feasibility study endorsed the rail yard as an ideal candidate for the cycling center, though further research must be done on the retail and entertainment elements of the plan. And the MCC has yet to convince the Soo Line Company, which owns the property, of their vision. The problem? Same as always.
"Money," says Williams. "We gotta go after them with money, then they'll listen to us."
As it stands, there is no guarantee track racing will continue after the 2019 season, though sanctioned racing is healthier than it has been in a very long time. Teams now are on notice that their sport, like their track, deserves respect. It is no longer the domain of mature, affluent men; it is increasingly a discipline for the young, the hip, the working class, and if Koochella is any indication, the feminine.
The future of track racing will almost certainly hinge once again on the grassroots efforts of its motley proponents who maintain an "if you build it, they will come" attitude.
"I feed myself some pretty potent Kool-Aid on a fairly regular basis," smiles Schwinn. "So even if I don't believe something is going to happen, I repeat it over and over again. So far, so good."