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San Diego Velodrome: Supporting local racing and enriching young lives

San Diego Velodrome: Supporting local racing and enriching young lives

In all honesty, I know very little about cycling.

I don’t own a bike, in fact, I didn’t learn how to ride one until college. Frustrated with my inability to cruise around town with my roommates, I grabbed a bike belonging to a close friend late one night and clumsily pedaled around my apartment parking lot until I gained the confidence to ride it comfortably.

That was the extent of my short fascination with the exercise, and although I’ve rarely ridden a bike since then, I’ve somehow recently become fascinated with the velodrome in Balboa Park.

I love to jog around the area, and during many of my runs up and down the hills, it has been impossible for me ignore the track that sits near the northeastern corner of the park. I had never seen one before in person, so earlier this month, I decided it was time to finally make a visit.

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Stretching from April through the middle of September, the velodrome hosts a weekly racing series called “Tuesday Night Racing” that is free for spectators to attend.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I decided to attend said event, but was immediately caught off guard by the intensity of the racing. In spite of the fact that I had no idea what was going on, I found myself highly engaged with the fast-paced competition. Lap after lap, I watched audacious cyclists take turns with precarious speeds and near-perfect precision.

Gazing alongside me were around 30-40 fans in attendance. While many quietly watched and mingled near the track and stands, a handful of passionate supporters yelled out instructions and constructive criticism from the bleachers.

It more than likely highlights my naivety with cycling, but I never anticipated that kind of adoration and sentiment for the sport. It was oddly dazzling and confusing at the same time.

With a local food truck sitting nearby, and the aforementioned free admission, I was also baffled as to why nobody had ever told me about the velodrome beforehand.

Since moving to San Diego over two years ago, many have discussed the food culture, the beach, the zoo and of course the proximity to Mexico, but nobody had ever mentioned the velodrome that is hiding in plain sight at Balboa Park.

I had to find out more, and after chatting with a couple people involved in the track, it has become abundantly clear that the velodrome is a hidden gem in the San Diego community. As we will find out later, it’s significance also represents much more than just racing.

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“You know, it’s interesting, plenty of cyclists probably don’t even know we have one,” said Sean Burke, announcer and promoter of Tuesday Night Racing, in an interview with The San Diego Chronicle.

“I don’t know exactly know how many [velodromes] there are in the U.S. right now, it fluctuates as new ones open and old ones close, but I believe it’s under 30. We are definitely lucky to have one here. I’ve tried for years to encourage racers that go up to L.A. every weekend to go race. You don’t have to go to L.A., you can go right here and it’s super cheap, we charge low entry fees. We charge low entry fees so we can encourage people to race hard and have fun.”

Burke knows first-hand about the track, and after moving to San Diego in 2001, he has been involved in the velodrome ever since.

“I was a racer, I was a coach. I’m still a coach but I don’t do much racing anymore. I helped run it [Tuesday Night Racing] along with some other people during other years, but basically, I took over running it completely myself starting this year.”

The velodrome itself has been around since 1976, and although some form of racing has existed since then, Burke mentioned that the current Tuesday series has existed for around 20 years.

“Tuesday Night Racing, as it exists now, my best guess is that it started in 1999. We eventually got to a point where we just had too many people. So then we spun off a Friday night [race series], and that night has become its own different thing that’s beginner racing, Tuesday night is for more experienced riders.”

As the conversation continued, it soon became evident that there was much more to the track than just the event that I attended.

“We also work hand-in-hand with a group called VeloYouth, they’re a separate organization, but they work with at-risk youth. The fact that we have a bunch of middle-aged guys riding really hard on Tuesday nights is great, but the really important stuff are those junior programs,” stated Burke.

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According to the organization’s website, VeloYouth is a local “values-based program that serves at-risk kids by infusing goal-setting, cycling and daily achievement.”

In order to learn more about the group, I chatted with VeloYouth president and director of programs, Matt Hoffman.

“There are so many things that it [VeloYouth] provides, but in short, it provides freedom and the opportunity for growth. What we do is we teach a values-based program,” said Hoffman.

“What our true goal is, is to give kids self-confidence, self-esteem and the ability to unlock their own potential. We have a tagline, we say we are ‘teaching values, one lap at a time’ using the velodrome.”

Cycling is the common denominator here, and through exercising on the track, Hoffman is able to help shape young lives.

“Active learning or engaged learning are, by far, a better way of learning. If I took the kids and started talking about self-respect or teamwork, you get two or three minutes of their attention and then they’re gone,” stated Hoffman. “That’s just the reality, but if they get to ride and experience what we’re talking about, they can then take part in experiential learning.”

According to the director of programs, VeloYouth works with anywhere between 125 to 140 children a year. After graduating from the program, and providing community service at the velodrome, each kid earns a bike, a lock and a helmet.

“We source out from Title I schools, schools that are down below the poverty level,” mentioned Hoffman about the at-risk and disadvantaged children who are given lessons.

“I, or the board for VeloYouth, don’t really care if the kids ever race, but we give them an opportunity for transportation. We also teach vocational bicycle mechanic classes. We give these kids skill sets, and then on top of that, we try to get them placements with bike shops.”

Racing is at the core of the program, but the true benefits are those can be utilized off the track. Whether it be life lessons or making healthy decisions, VeloYouth is undoubtedly valuable to those kids involved.

“When we talk about a cycling program, you can see that it’s not just that, we just love bicycles. We love learning through cycling,” later added Hoffman.

After learning about the night races and the VeloYouth program, it’s easy to see the relevance and value that the velodrome has to the biking community. With VeloYouth, that influence reaches far past the the confines of the track and into the lives of adolescents as a positive and useful source of knowledge and education.

Whenever you get a chance, be sure to visit the hidden gem that is worthy of more attention from not only the biking community, but also the entirety of San Diego as well.

For more information on the velodrome, visit www.sdvelodrome.com. If you would like to learn more or donate to VeloYouth, visit www.veloyouth.org

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