Erin Obradovich got her first taste of track cycle racing at the Ed Rudolph Velodrome while growing up in Elmhurst during the mid-1980s.
“My father was a cyclist and used to race at the velodrome,” Obradovich says. “My mom said I played in the infield, so I guess you could say I was exposed early.”
A couple of months ago, Obradovich returned to the velodrome to learn the sport for real.
As one of only 27 bicycle tracks in the country, the Ed Rudolph Velodrome, located in Northbrook, offers Chicago area residents the rare opportunity to learn, compete in and watch the high-velocity sport of track cycle racing. Owned and operated by the Northbrook Park District, the outdoor track is part of the American Track Racing Association and hosts a variety of clinics, race events and open practice times to fit almost any age, ability and interest level.
The velodrome gets its name from cyclist, speed skater and trainer Ed Rudolph, who
served on the Northbrook Park District Board of Commissioners for almost 30 years. Rudolph helped design and build the track in 1960 with a perimeter for track cycling and an infield for soccer. At its completion in 1963, the track was composed of asphalt and a gypsum slurry topcoat.
Originally built as a cross training facility for speed skaters, the velodrome was flooded in the winter to create a speed skating rink and served as a practice rink for the U.S. Winter Olympics teams. In the 1990s, the park district ended the practice due to problems with water seepage.
As it does today, the facility hosted a variety of race types, including sprint, pursuit, scratch, points and Madison races. The track’s asphalt was resurfaced in 1989 and again in 2004. With the addition of lights and seating, the velodrome has become one of the few venues in the Midwest to host track cycle racing.
The racing season runs from mid-May to early September, often commencing with men’s and women’s clinics organized by the Northbrook Cycling Committee. The committee also coordinates the velodrome’s popular USA Cycling-sanctioned Thursday Night Racing series for licensed riders. According to Kevin Perez, leader of the committee’s Rider Development and Training Program, the Northbrook track is a particularly good one for riders new to the sport, like Obradovich.
“A regulation velodrome is 250 meters around and banked up to 46 degrees,” Perez says. “With speeds in excess of 42 mph, the banking prevents bike wheels from slipping. At 382 meters around and a shallow 18-degree bank, Northbrook is large for a bicycle track so our turns are not banked as steeply as other tracks.”
The sport of track cycling has existed since at least 1870, with several main early centers in Britain. Track cycle races are shorter and faster than road races and fall into one of two broad categories: sprint or endurance races. The Northbrook Cycle Committee schedules both types of races at the velodrome.
Points races can be over 100 laps and average over 30 mph. Sprint races, such as the Keirin and match sprint, are between two and six laps with sprints of over 40 mph. Since track cycling features faster speeds than road races, aerodynamics become much more important. Riders look for every edge they can get. Handlebars for track racing have a deeper drop so racers can ride with their backs lower.
Racing strategy is crucial and varies according to the race type. Teamwork factors into a points race, where certain laps earn riders points. For this type of race, riders will often wait until the middle of the race to see who is riding well, then organize a group of strong riders to break away ahead of the pack and work together to gain a lap on the field and earn 20 extra points. By contrast, in a two-lap match sprint, where only two to three riders race at a time, the race begins slowly because no rider wants to move to the front and do extra work. At high speeds, riders in back do only two-thirds of the work of the front rider, who takes the most wind resistance. At some point in the race, usually during the last lap, one rider will try to surprise the other with a burst of speed, racing for the finish line.
While only licensed riders can participate in the Thursday night races, amateurs of all ages may participate in Friday night races hosted by Northbrook’s Garner Bicycle Club. The club also offers training sessions and special events.
Apart from the organized events held most evenings throughout the summer, the Ed Rudolph track is usually open to the public during the day before 6:00 p.m. Monday evenings are also open to the public as a formal training session.
“For $10, beginners can learn how to ride and how to build a personal training program while more advanced riders can get a good workout,” Perez says of Monday nights. “All the rider needs to bring is a helmet and pedals. Mechanics are available to swap pedals from a rider’s road bike to one of the facility’s track bikes for free for the evening.”
Cyclists can also learn more about other programs available through the velodrome on Monday nights.
“Monday nights are a great way for non-competitive riders to learn to ride the track,” Perez says.
Newcomers interested in competing in licensed racing on Thursday nights can do so after completing three training sessions on Monday evening and three beginner races on Friday evening.
As a spectator sport, track cycling has a reputation of being more exciting than road racing because viewers can watch the entire race from a single location in the stands. Spectators get a bird’s eye view of the thrills, chills and possible spills that may occur while attacks and strategies play out in a single race. And the velodrome’s Thursday night races attract many of the best racers in the US. In fact, Perez, who began his racing career at the velodrome, rapidly became an elite competitor.
“Under the guidance of many knowledgeable people at the Northbrook Velodrome, I improved quickly and have won a Silver Medal in the USA Cycling Elite Championships in 2009 and a Gold Medal in the USA Cycling Masters Championships in 2012,” Perez says. “We have a very special racing community here with lots of support that has helped many riders. I have watched several riders progress from their first time as a beginner in Northbrook’s Monday Training Sessions to representing the United States abroad as one of the top riders in our country.”
Now in its sixth decade of operation, the Ed Rudolph Velodrome is a prime venue for track cycle racing and rider development in the Midwest. With a wide range of races, instructional workshops and public events to choose from, the opportunities to experience track cycle racing as a spectator or competitor are almost limitless.