Velodromes and monorails. Giving people what they (think they) want.

The Primero De Mayo velodrome in Bogota (one of two in the city), was inaugurated with great fanfare on November 11th, 1951. The opening races included then reigning Olympic road champion José Beyaert. Beyaert was invited to Colombia from France for the opening of the velodrome, and he decided to stay there for most of his life.

Mimes and capes
Colombian politics have always been entertaining, particularly for those of us who grew up and lived in the city of Bogotá. In the 1980s, the city had Regina 11 (a self-proclaimed witch and healer) in its city counsel. Later, we had Antanas Mockus as mayor. Mockus is a mathematician, philosopher and university Dean, who rose to prominence after he managed to quiet down a large crowd of unruly students by mooning them (perhaps not fully safe for work image here). As he ran for mayor, Mockus took to wearing a superhero outfit during campaign stops. He was brutally honest during interviews, and he seldom hid his emotions.

Antanas Mockus

During a live TV interview where the topic of child molestation came up, he openly admitted to having been molested. He wept in anger. He was human, likable, and perhaps the only man crazy enough to manage a city as unruly and insane as Bogota was. At a time when Bogota's citizens were largely unaware of what the city's problems were (violence, crime, and a staggering lack of civility), most candidates would usually get elected by promising to build a subway, train or monorail system of some kind. That promise alone got several mayors elected. None of them delivered. Mockus had no such pseudo-futuristic ambitions, and thus made no such promises.

His goals were simpler. He wanted to teach the city how to respect each other's lifes, and how to treat one another. He was a college professor teaching the whole city a lesson. He instituted man-free nights, where all men were forced to stay home, in order to point out how men were the root of most (if not all) violent crime. He also created car-free day, which still continues to be celebrated to this day. He fired all traffic cops (due to corruption), and instead hired and trained hundreds mimes to direct traffic, and mock citizens for their faux pas as pedestrians or drivers.

A mime mocks a pedestrian in downtown Bogota

Against all odds, this idea also worked. Mimes, perhaps the creepiest street performers of all, mocked people openly. Soon enough, other citizens took up the cause, and began mocking each other playfully for minor infractions. Mockus invested in cultural programs, as well as the upkeep and building of new sports facilities such as velodromes, but most importantly he taught civility to a population that was previously thought to be beyond reach. He did all this while wearing a cape, and with the help of mimes.

Velodromes are popular in Colombia. This one, however is an unusual one. It's one of the illicit velodromes (now in obvious disrepair) that Pablo Escobar built in the outskirts of Medellin, in order for him and his friends to bet on races.
Photo scanned from Matt Rendell's Kings of the Mountains

If all this business of mimes and capes sounds insane, it's because it is. I share these stories with you in order to explain just how many unusual characters Colombian politics have had throughout the years. My personal favorite, however, would have to be Gabriel Antonio Goyeneche, who ran for president of Colombia multiple times and became a colorful fixture in the political landscape. Throughout his many campaigns. His main proposals were the following:

1. A train or monorail type system for the city

2. Building a dome to cover the entire city of Bogota (covering all 8 million of its citizens) since it rained so much

3. Instituting the use of his waterless and paper-less toilet, which used an oven to bake and destroy fecal remnants. No proof of such a toilet's existence was ever given.

4. Build a major highway where the Magdalena river (the largest river in Colombia) currently flows. The way he figured it, in order to build a highway, you need water, sand and concrete. The river already had sand and why not add concrete and simply let nature do the rest?

If you're thinking that this man was probably nuts, you'd be right. The first proposal, a monorail, sounds normal enough (if a bit dated). To solve traffic problems in Bogota, he also suggested that in the future, cities be built in the countryside...where there's no traffic. Think about that for a minute. You gotta' love the guy. So as normal as his train/monorail idea was. when you view it in context along with his other start to see the lunacy involved. Still, after all these years, citizens of Bogota (and many other cities around the world) continue to obsess over their perceived need for a mass transit train/lightrail/monorail or variant thereof. In nearly every city in the United States where I've lived, citizens have wanted a subway system, even if the population, economy, city layout or culture could not support such a thing. These are cities where no one wants to use the existing bus system, but they somehow think that a train would be different, and that it would suddenly put their city on the map. They would be one of the big cities, and their life would be like that one Seinfeld episode that takes place entirely in the New York City subway. The populations of these cities complain, they tantrum, and they want their subway or light rail trains...even if all they really need is a crew of mimes to teach them civility, and perhaps a guy in a cape to help feed their poor. But no, everyone wants a choo-choo train. Even if they don't need it, and other forms of public transportation would work better for a city of that size. Trains look cool, and the public doesn't want to be left behind.

Still from the Simpson's monorail episode. The lyrics in the song featured in this episode could easily be modified for velodromes.

If you've been reading this blog for a while, and I'm sorry for you if you have, you know that this is the part of a post where I somehow try to tie all this together, and magically make this post have something to do with cycling. So as long-winded and faulty as a post like this may seem, I'm here to tell you that it's merely a reflection of how long-winded and faulty my brain is and how it operates. So here it goes...

Here in the United States, there seems to be a real push for cities to build velodromes right now. This sentiment is sometimes expressed as actual proposals and plans to raise the money required to build such a structure. Sometimes the desire for a velodrome is expressed as mere rumblings, internet posts, and bad photoshop renderings. Many people who ride bikes, for whatever reason, want velodromes as much as other people want monorails. Who cares what it will cost, who cares if it doesn't get used. The damn things look cool, and they need one. And they need it now. Never mind the fact that some cities who have them are struggling to keep them open, while others have sadly seen them fall into disrepair (who knows why, but I assume bureaucracy, budgets etc play a role in such stories).

I'll be the first to admit that I have little personal experience with velodromes. As a matter of fact, I can tell you that the banked corners at the Roubaix velodrome scared the crap out of me. I don't say this figuratively either, I may have actually pooped myself when I tried to ride to the top of the banking (not shown in this picture). I'll blame it on my legs being tired from a long day...but damn, that thing is steep.

I don't mean to come off as an anti-velodromist, if there is such a thing. Quite the opposite, I support pretty much all initiatives that will help spread the joy of riding a bike in any of its many iterations. I say "pretty much all" because I still flinch when I see unicycles. Anyway, I'm aware of the fact that cyclists who compete in track events need funding for their programs, and that they often have to travel long distances to train in proper velodromes. But at the same time, I have to wonder what is driving this (seemingly) sudden rise in velodrome popularity. Are these venues needed? Does Brooklyn need a velodrome, when there's already one in Queens? Perhaps I'm behind the times, and I'm not aware of the fact that velodromes in greater New York City are like Starbucks in Manhattan. You can have two across from one another, and they will both be busy.

Starbucks across the street from another Starbucks? Am I in an MC Escher drawing, or perhaps in the nexus of the universe? Nah, it's just your average two-Starbucks intersection.

Even with the double-Starbucks theory in place, does Coatsville Pennsyvlania absolutely need a velodrome, when there's one in the Lehigh Valley about 50 miles away? Is the one in Lehigh Valley so absolutely packed at all times, and so very, very far away that there must be a new one? What about the proposed ones in Cleveland, Rock Hill South Carolina, and Austin?

I admit that I know little about these proposals (because I have better things to do, like organizing my collection of rare Blues Traveler recordings in cassette format), but I wonder what the need (perceived or actual) is at these locations. Have the number of participants at track events risen substantially in these or any other regions throughout the US recently? Has there been a substantial rise in track bike sales (not just fixed gear bikes) recently? I suppose some places need these facilities, since Colorado is getting its third velodrome (the last one having been built just two years ago), but I'm not convinced that every city would put theirs to use.

So is this rise in velodrome interest merely driven by the amount of twenty something pseudo-urbanites who uncomfortably ride around in pursuit frames they bought on eBay? I don't mean to blame yet another thing on the tight jean-wearing young men with neck tattoos (particularly since everyone seems to blame everything on them, including world hunger, the rise in gas prices, and Tom Brady's awful haircut), but I wonder if they are partially behind this perceived need for velodromes. Would they actually use the track, particularly as so many of them have shifted their attention away from doing track stands, and into doing BMX-type tricks on their bikes? Do some of them see the idea of taking their track bike to a velodrome in the same light as zoologists perceive the release of wild animals back into their native environment?

"Fly little birdie...I mean...vintage Italian track! Weeeee!"

How has the desire, or need for these velodromes been gauged by those who want to build them? Perhaps some cities really could use such a venue, particularly when its built as part of a complex that includes facilities for other sports...but I imagine that most cities could make better use of that money (and more importantly, that effort) by building bike infrastructure that everyone could use. Sheltered bike lanes (as another Bogota mayor, Enrique Peñaloza, once said, "painted lines on the street don't make a bike lane. If a bike lane isn't safe for a ten year old to ride his bike to school, it's not a bike lane"). Perhaps proper bike paths that actually go somewhere (not just from one suburban parking lot to another), maybe a circuit for road races that can be used by other sports. I don't know, I just have my doubts about the fact that all these places truly need velodromes. I think that raising millions of dollars for a velodrome—a venue that will house a subset of an already small sport—seems insane to me, at least for most cities. Is another discipline in the sport in more need? Perhaps their venues, tracks or parks wouldn't look as cool on Vimeo videos, or artistic black and white photos posted to Flickr...but should this matter? Hmmm. Come to think of it, monorails look pretty damn cool too. So let's build one of those as well while we're at it.

"What if we build a velodrome inside that big ball behind the monorail? That would be hella' tight. We could probably get a company that makes messenger bags to sponsor a video shoot in there. "

So do we need all these velodromes? I don't know. But I do know that the last thing we as cyclists need is even more angry drivers whose collective panties are in a bunch over how their tax dollars were spent. They will see us riding our bikes, and their blood will boil. They will resent us for having made them pay for a local velodrome, only to have most of us ride in the streets anyway. This will all make no sense to them, and their tempers will flare. "Get off the road, go ride in your god damned vee-low-drowm!" I can almost hear their angry screams now.

Luckily, these drivers will have something in the near future to look forward to. A monorail.

Other stuff:

A quick question. I notice that some of you come to this blog through Facebook. Since I'm the only human being on earth that doesn't have a Facebook account, perhaps you can explain to me how that comes about. Do you have this blog as part of some RSS feed-equivalent on Facebook or something? Is someone posting links to the blog on Facebook? I know I sound like an invalid grandmother who's asking for help working a toaster oven, but bare with me. I simply don't know how these things work.

Lastly, I know this could have happened to a rider in any other country, but damn, sometimes I feel that latin-american riders can't catch a damn break. Really.