Ten velodromes to visit before you slip your gears

The great era for building velodromes ran from late-Victorian times until the start of World War Two, by which time there was hardly a city or town in Europe that didn’t have one.

Sadly in the 1950s and 1960s many fell into disrepair and were demolished, amongst them such legendary venues as the Velodromes Buffalo and D’Hiver in Paris, Copenhagen’s Ordrup (which hosted the UCI World Championships nine times), Gentbrugge (scene of Ritter Van Lerberghe’s famously drunken Ronde van Vlaanderen last lap), Stade Velodrome de Rocourt in Liege and Berlin’s Radrennbahn Friedenau.

Fortunately a few of cycling’s history soaked arenas still remain.

Antwerps Sportspaleis

Where: Antwerp, Belgium

Why: Opened in 1933, cycling legend oozes out of this place like syrup from a maple tree. Just about every great rider from Fausto Coppi through to Bradley Wiggins rode on the wooden track in this giant 24,000 capacity arena. In 1956, reigning world champ Stan Ockers died after a crash here involving Rik Van Looy (giving rise to the myth of the ‘Curse of the Rainbow Jersey’).

The Sportspaleis was built by the Apostel-Mampaey family from Boom, just south of the city (they also built De Kuipke in Ghent and the famous velodrome of Gentbrugge.

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The Sportpaleis was badly damaged in World War Two, staged the UCI Worlds in 1969 (BBC voice of cycling Hugh Porter picked up a silver in the individual pursuit) and 2001 (when Bradley Wiggins was part of the silver medal-winning GB team pursuit quartet), but since renovation in 2010 has devoted itself more to rock concerts and tennis than bike racing.

The 250-metre track is still there, though and given Flanders’ passion for cycle sport it’s surely only a matter of time before it’s being used for its original purpose again.

Need to Know: After he retired from riding, the youngest ever world road race champion, Karel Kaers ran a café just inside the entrance where one of the regulars was Rik Van Steenbergen.

Agustin Melgar Olympic Velodrome

Where: Mexico City

Why: The 6,400 capacity outdoor stadium was built for the 1968 Olympic Games where the racing was largely dominated by French aces Daniel Morelon and Pierre Trentin. However, it was before the Olympics had actually begun that the serious drama occurred.

The velodrome is located at an altitude of 2,300 metres (7,500 feet) and the Italian team arrived early to acclimatise. Along with them came a novice Danish professional, Ole Ritter, who rode for Germanvox-Wega. Ritter, who as a pro was disqualified from riding in the Olympics, was there purely as a training partner, but on the morning before the opening ceremony he went out on the track and, to the surprise of everyone, including probably himself, smashed the mark set by Ferdi Bracke in Rome the year before.

Ritter held the record for four years. Since it was clear that riding at altitude on the lightning-fast 333.33-metre African hardwood track gave riders a massive advantage when Eddy Merckx decided to make an attempt on the hour mark in 1972 he came to the Agustin Melgar.

The Cannibal blasted the record to smithereens. Merckx’s outlandish mark withstood all attempts to best it until 1982 when Francesco Moser came to Mexico City and – with the aid of a blood transfusion and a skin-tight suit – set a new mark. Moser would return in 1992 to reclaim the honour from Graeme Obree.

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The women’s hour record has also been nudged upwards at the Agustin Melgar, starting with Maria Cressari in 1972 and moving on through the great Jeannie Longo’s multiple records to Leontien Ziklaard-Van Moorsel in 2003. The original wooden track was replaced with concrete in the 1990s and the velodrome is nowadays in a state of disrepair, but the memories still shine.

Need to Know: The stadium is named in honour of Agustin Melgar a heroic military cadet who died in 1847 fighting an invading US Army.

Brno Velodrome

Where: Brno, Czech Republic

Why: The Brno Velodrome has a long history stretching back to its origins as a banked, earth track back in the 1880s. Over time the track was covered in lumpy asphalt and then smooth concrete. It wasn’t perfect but it was the track on which 1964 Olympic gold medallist Jiri Daler trained.

In 1967, the Prague authorities decided to give the place a complete makeover and bid to hold the UCI World Championships in 1969. The result is a 400metre concrete outdoor track overhung by covered steel stands that give it the feeling of a lower league football ground or greyhound stadium.

Unfortunately for the Czechs, no sooner had the UCI awarded Brno the world championships than the Red Army rolled across the border, overthrew the liberalising government and replaced it with a hard line one that was more to Moscow’s liking.

The professional part of the competition was swiftly moved to the Antwerps Sportspaleis, but the amateur events remained in Brno. The Championships were held on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion. The atmosphere in the velodrome was fraught. Soviet tanks lined the streets and Soviet soldiers were on every corner.

The Czechoslovakian crowds booed the USSR riders, cheered all westerners, and walked out of medal ceremonies in protest. It had little effect on the Kremlin. The World Championships returned to Brno in 1981 with Leonid Brezhnev, the man who had ordered the invasion, still in his Kremlin office.

This time the locals at least had the satisfaction of seeing the men’s Czechoslovak tandem pairing win gold. Races are still held regularly at the Brno Velodrome though new safety regulations mean it may not stay that way for long.

Need to Know: Eastern Europe’s first-ever bicycle race was held in nearby Luzanky Park in August 1869.

Herne Hill Velodrome

Where: London, England

Why: England’s most illustrious velodrome, a shallow concrete bowl with a 450metre concrete track and a football pitch in the middle, dates back to 1891 making it one of the world’s oldest.

The famous Good Friday meeting that began in 1903 attracted internationals stars such as Jacques Anquetil, Fausto Coppi, Tommy Simpson and Reg Harris. During his days with Cofidis Bradley Wiggins appeared in one, too. Herne Hill also hosted the track cycling events at the 1948 London Olympics (Jacques Dupont, a future Paris-Tours winner, took gold in the time trial).

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The track’s heyday though was arguably way back at the end of the nineteenth century when the marathon Cuca Cocoa Cup 24-hour races drew massive crowds to witness the extraordinary feats of men such as Frank Shorland who covered 460 miles in 1894.

Eccentric and beloved, the Herne Hill Velodrome was saved from destruction in 2012 and after extensive restoration work looks like being a fixture for amateur racers for years to come.

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Need to Know: Herne Hill Velodrome was the home ground of Crystal Palace FC from 1914 till 1908. Rugby Union side London Welsh took over from them and stayed until the late 1950s.

T’ Kuipke

Where: Ghent, Belgium

Why: This historic velodrome in Citadel Park was built by the Apostel-Mampaey family on the sight of an old greenhouse and opened in 1927. Originally it was named the Sportpaleis, but the short track and steep banking eventually earned it the nickname of T’ Kuipke (The Little Tub).

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The velodrome was gutted by fire in 1962 and rebuilt in 1965, though some bits round the edges were more or less abandoned. The track hosts the opening presentation of traditional season curtain-raiser Het Nieuwsblad and once did the same for Ghent-Wevelgem, though it is most famous for the annual Six-Days an event in which an extremely massive drunken party is every so often interrupted by bike races.

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T’Kuipke’s wooden track has been graced by just about every great rider since the 1930s although the man whose legend is greatest is Flemish lad Patrick Sercu who won dozens of races here – often in partnership with Eddy Merckx – and was, until his death earlier this year, the velodrome’s director.

Need to Know: The Flemish version of TV’s hit amateur singing show The Voice was recorded here. One of the judges was Bent Van Looy who is sadly no relation to the Emperor of Herentals Rik.

Millenaris Velodrom

Where: Budapest, Hungary

Why: The ‘Millenium’ was opened in 1896 to celebrate the 1000 year anniversary of the formation of Hungary. The winners of the inaugural races held that day were two Belgians Emil Huet and Raymond Depage. A few years later the great African American cyclist Woody Headspeth caused a sensation by blowing away local opposition.

The 412-metre reinforced concrete track was rebuilt after World War One to a design based on the Dresden Velodrome. A 3000 seat covered grandstand was also added by architect Alfred Hajos, a former Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer who – as you might expect – normally designed swimming pools.

Milenaris hosted the UCI World Championships in 1928 when the star was Frenchman Lucien Michard, a sprinter who won four successive world golds (Hungary was the second in the sequence) and cycling events in the World Student Games in 1949.

During the Cold War it was often used by western teams warming up for events behind the Iron Curtain. These days the Millenaris hosts vintage motor car racing as well as games in the local bicycle polo league.

Need to Know: The Millenaris has a sports museum with a wide ranging collection vintage cycling gear including a helmet worn by Eddy Merckx.

Oerlikon Velodrome

Where: Zurich, Switzerland

Why: This outdoor, 3,000 capacity venue with a 333-metre pre-stressed concrete track was built back on 1912 and has hosted the UCI World Championships seven times since 1923 -more than any other track with the exception of the now-demolished Ordrup.

The last time the championships were held here in 1983 a number of world records were shattered, proof that the Swiss know what they are doing when they mix concrete.

The Oerlikon was the training track used by the Zurich-born Suter brothers, one of the great cycling tribes, the most famous of whom, Heiri, was the first foreigner to win the Ronde Van Vlaanderen.

The Oerlikon was also the finish of the famous Züri-Metzgete one-day classic, which is sometimes called ‘the sixth monument’. The track witnessed many famous battles at the climax of this sadly now defunct race, notably the one between Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi in 1946 that lead to a lasting feud between the two great Italians and the fearsome sprint between Eddy Merckx and Francesco Moser in 1975 that almost ended with the two legends punching one another.

Need to Know: The great Swiss rider Hugo Koblet’s career started when he came to work at the Oerlikon as a trainee bike mechanic. After retirement Handsome Hugo opened a garage just outside the velodrome.

Velodrome de Vincennes

Where: Paris, France

Why: Paris was the home to a pair of the world’s most richly historic bike tracks: The Velodrome Buffalo and the Velodrome D’Hiver. They were both demolished, but this venerable place – known locally as La Cipale –  has survived and since it’s  been awarded national monument status it’s now as safe from destruction as the Eiffel Tower.

La Cipale was the main venue for the 1900 Olympics (which didn’t include cycling) and was used again in 1924 (when they did).

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It was the finish of the Tour de France from 1968 until 1974, hosting all of Eddy Merckx victories. It was here too that another five-time Tour winner, Jacques Anquetil rode his last race.

The velodrome was named in honour of La Maitre in 1986, but by then it had been more or less abandoned by the local authorities and the track had begun to subside.

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In 2012 an extensive three-year renovation saw the 500-metre reinforced concrete track returned to its former glory. It reopened in 2015 and now amateur cyclists can try their luck on it for a handful of euros.

Need to Know: In 1900 Velodrome de Vincennes hosted the only cricket competition in Olympic history. France took the silver medal.

Velodrome Andre-Petrieux

Where: Roubaix, France

Why: The finale of Paris-Roubaix should be enough for anyone. The original Roubaix velodrome was built by a couple of local textile manufacturers and opened in 1895. The owners then organised Paris-Roubaix to finish on their new track.

The current concrete-tracked velodrome opened its doors in 1935. The Hell of the North has finished here since 1943 and not much seems to have changed since then.

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Even when shown in colour the stadium seems to be in a black and white.

The legendary three-sided, concrete, shower stalls – which look like something from a 1950s prison movie – are each marked with a plaque carrying the name of a Paris-Roubaix winner. They don’t look like the water would be very hot.

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The one-and-a-half laps of the 500m track that finish L’Enfer is often nerve-shatteringly exciting as when Eddy Planckaert edged out Steve Bauer by a centimetre or so in 1990.

Need to Know: Around 160 riders start Paris-Roubaix. The velodrome has just 14 shower stalls.

Veledromo Vigorelli

Where: Milan, Italy

Why: Built in 1935 by the Vigorelli bicycle company, destroyed by the RAF in World War Two and rebuilt again, Vigorelli hosted the UCI World Championships in 1939, 1951, 1955 and 1962.

More impressively it was also one of the fastest tracks in the world (locals dubbed it la pista magica – the magic track) and home to the world hour record from 1935 – when the mark was set by Giuseppe Olmo – until 1967 when Roger Riviere’s record was beaten by Ferdie Bracke on the Olympic track in Rome.

In total, the world hour record was broken ten times here by nine different riders. It was at Vigorelli too, in 1937, that English duo Ernest Mills and Bill Paul set an hour tandem record than would stand until the start of the new millennium. The women’s hour mark set here by Luxembourg’s Elsy Jacobs in 1958 stood for fourteen years.

Latterly the Vigorelli began to fall behind its rivals, racing ceased in 1999 and by 2014 the grand old place looked in danger of demolition, thankfully a group of enthusiasts saved it from destruction and have since begun the slow process of restoring the magica to Vigorelli.

Need to Know: It was in a workshop under the main stand that master craftsman Faliero Masi hand-built frames for Fausto Coppi.

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