A $4 million multi-sport complex is coming to the City of Detroit. The Detroit Fitness Foundation is funding the project, and Executive Director Dale Hughes will design a world-class cycling velodrome as part of the plan.
Hughes is a velodrome designer and builder, and by nature of the rarity of such a career choice, he is by default one of just a few such professionals in the world. A velodrome is a term used to refer to both the arena in which track cycling is held as well as the track itself, but Hughes says it more accurately is a description of the whole facility. Regardless, “velodrome” basically refers to track cycling, and those who participate in the sport – including Hughes himself – are known as track riders, track racers, or track cyclists.
“This sport was a huge sport in the 1920s,” Hughes explains. In fact, he elaborates, all of the original National Hockey League arenas, including Detroit’s old Olympia Stadium that pre-dated the Joe Louis Arena, were architecturally designed for velodromes. 40,000 people would visit Detroit for its velodrome races over four days. Races in Madison Square Garden would bring out all the Hollywood stars and celebrities and would go on for 24 hours a day for six consecutive days; one rider would ride 2,000 miles over those six days.
“If you look back at our heritage of transportation, in the late 1800s the first bike boom hit,” he says. “Bicycles really took over in New York City; there were 150 bike shops there because everyone had bikes. In the ’40s and late ’50s all the guys came back from WWII so the car was the main source of transportation. It went from the ’20s and ’30s being all bikes in all the cities to cars in all the cities in the ’40s and ’50s. Bikes then became things only kids did. Then in the ’70s running became the first fitness craze, and in the late ’70s was the second cycling boom when Schwinn came out.”
With Detroit adopting the self-christened moniker of “Detroit Bike City” and making huge investment in public cycling infrastructure including miles of rail trail conversions and new bike path construction and the addition of bike lines on major streets, it’s safe to say that the Motor City has very much embraced the third cycling boom.
Hughes has built more than 20 velodromes in his life, including structures for the 1996, 2002, and 2006 Summer Olympics; the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto; and the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Dehli, India. He has also traveled all over the world to build facilities from Kazakhstan to Tel Aviv.
“There are only three or four people in the world who do this,” Hughes admits. He works with a business partner in Germany who just completed a project of his own in Egypt. At the risk of putting words in Hughes’s mouth, it is probably safe to say that, between the two of them, they’ve probably designed and/or built at least half of the velodromes that have been built worldwide over the last 20 years.
Hughes didn’t think he was going to be one of the world’s only velodrome designers as a child growing up in Highland Park, then moving to Rochester where he attended high school and college. He had no concept of what a velodrome even was. He didn’t discover competitive cycling until after college when he went to visit his sister in Germany who had moved there to teach. This was long before Lance Armstrong became a household name and the Tour de France a popular annual event; competitive cycling was something that wasn’t even really known, much less popular, stateside at the time.
When he came back from Germany, he told his dad he was going to open a bike shop. He and a friend both borrowing $9,000 each and opened a bike shop together, and through that shop Hughes met a world-class cycling coach (who would later become his father-in-law).
The store closed but Hughes wanted to stay in cycling, and this coach said, “Why don’t you build a velodrome?”
So he did, building a portable track that was then commissioned for use in a movie starring Bob Newhart and Julie Andrews. He built it, drove it out to California, allowed Universal Studios to film it, and then became quite possibly the first and only person in the world to have a velodrome stolen from him as truck thieves hotwired the trailer it was stored in and made off with it. Despite not having insurance on the stolen trailer and velodrome, Hughes was undeterred and continued doing outdoor track events from that point on until eventually the Olympic committee called and asked if he would build tracks for them.
This new Detroit-based facility is his latest project, a 64,000-square-foot air dome entertainment complex located in Tolan Playfield on the northwest corner of I-75 and Mack Avenue. Tolan Playfield is named after Eddie Tolan, an Olympic gold medalist runner nicknamed the “Midnight Express” who went to high school at Cass Tech in Detroit, where he set state records in sprints before going on to become an Olympic champion. Hughes says the new complex will honor Tolan’s legacy as a teacher and mentor by providing three fields of play and an area in the infield for fitness classes where they will provide free access and programs, including coaching and equipment, for youth and seniors in the community in partnership with the City of Detroit Parks and Recreation Department.
This will be the second permanent indoor cycling velodrome in the United States, though it is not the only velodrome in metro Detroit. There is another – the International Velodrome at Bloomer Park in Rochester Hills, an outdoor velodrome designed and built by Hughes 16 years ago, funded from the very beginning by donations and operated still to this day by volunteers. Being outdoors, this facility is only open during the summer. It offers free programming for kids typically ages 10 and up including bike rentals, coaching, and riding. Adults of all ages are charged a use fee, which is how they generate revenue to keep the rest of the programming free (though first-time riders ride for free Saturday mornings at 10 a.m.). Every Friday night at 7:30 p.m. during the summer they hold track races with an announcer and live rock music; it’s just $5 per person to watch the roughly hour and 45-minute race.
The Detroit facility will mimic this, hosting track races on Friday and Saturday nights, and it will also have a liquor license, limited food service, and a banquet hall for private events. Hughes says the race programming in Detroit will be much longer because they can make it more of an entertainment center. Their ultimate goal, he says, is to create a professional league in Detroit that will compete internationally and also bring in international athletes, and to train the next generation of track cyclist Olympians at their facility in addition to promoting fitness for city kids.
Between both Bloomer Park and Tolan Playfield, track cyclists will soon be able to participate in the sport year-round with both indoor and outdoor tracks available to suit all weather conditions.
While the Detroit Fitness Foundation has already held a ground-breaking ceremony at Tolan Playfield, Hughes says they hope to begin construction in earnest in April and have it up and running in September. In the meantime, check out Bloomer Park this summer and either get on the track yourself or bring a pop-up chair and blanket to watch one of the Friday night races.