SPORTS

Field of Play: the Pan Am pedal palace

01/14/2015 08:29 EST | Updated 03/16/2015 05:59 EDT
In any sport the stars of the show are the athletes themselves. They are the performers who make the magic happen out on the field of play.

But at the outset, the striking new velodrome in the Town of Milton, just to the west of Toronto, is worth the price of admission and, at least for the time being, remains the undisputed headline attraction.

“It’s dream like,” gushes Hugo Barrette, one of Canada’s top cycling sprinters who hails from the tiny Magdalen Islands on the maritime coast of the country. “When I started my career I thought that it would never happen while I was still riding. It’s a game changer and it’s here to stay.”

The Cisco Milton Pan Am/Parapan Am Velodrome was built at a cost of 56 million dollars and is the only one of its kind in Canada, one of only two in North America, the other being in Carson, California on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

It rises from a snow swept farmer’s field to dominate the horizon seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  Inside, bikes are humming around a 250 metre track fashioned from the finest Siberian spruce.  It’s a slick, wood surface with impossibly high, 42 degree banks at either end of the oval.  They say it meets the most stringent of international cycling standards.

“It’s insane,” says a wide-eyed Kate O’Brien who is making the transition from elite bobsledder to track cyclist, hopefully in time for the TO2015 Games. 

The first time she rode a “skinny wheeled bike,” as she calls it, was in May at the outdoor, concrete, velodrome in her home base of Calgary. 

“Of course it was Calgary in May so there was snow on the apron of the track,” she chuckles.  “As a Canadian athlete of any kind it’s huge to have a world class facility at home.  But when you come inside this one and you realize that it’s yours and there for the taking…it’s very cool.”

Indeed it is.

As nomads Canadian cyclists have acquitted themselves remarkably well over the years in track cycling. One thinks of Olympic medalists like Curt Harnett, Lori-Ann Muenzer and Brian Walton as well as World, Commonwealth, and Pan American champion, Tanya Dubnicoff. 

There hasn’t been a first-class, indoor velodrome operational in Canada since the venue employed for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal was turned into a nature exhibit called the Biodome in 1989.

Jacques Landy, a competitor in cycling at two Olympics, in Barcelona and Atlanta, has become the country’s high performance director in this sport.  A native Montrealer, he rues the day they ripped up the track in his home town.

“It wasn’t until this last year that I could stomach taking my little daughter inside the Biodome,” Landry says. “It was that painful to remember such a beautiful track.”

For the last two decades Canadian cyclists have been on the road, so to speak. Many of them have frequently migrated to California to train with the Americans. Others have been spending the bulk of their time in Europe, places like Belgium, France, Germany and The United Kingdom where velodrome cycling is popular and hotly contested.

With the advent of the facility in Milton there will be a permanent home for these athletes and the legacy piece, the Mattamy National Cycling Centre, will undoubtedly grow the high performance aspect of this athletic pursuit across the country. But the aim will also be to popularize what has often been referred to as a niche sport in Canada.

Then again, what sport other than hockey is not niche in these parts?

“Everybody rides a bike,” laughs Monique Sullivan who narrowly missed the podium in the Keirin race at the London 2012 Olympics.  “This place is going to prove to a lot of people just how much fun it can be to ride a bike really fast.”

Certification is required to ride on a velodrome like this. Already the demand for licenses is soaring well above original projections. That aside, the betterment of elite Canadian performance is the short term goal.

“It means we no longer have to live in exile in California,” stresses endurance coach Craig Griffin. “We have the talent.  But until now we have not had the proper tools to take the talent to the next level.”

The immediate and pinpoint focus is to develop what has been a consistently successful women’s team pursuit, which won a bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympics and a silver medal at the world championships, into an even greater international powerhouse capable of defending the Pan Am title and maybe much more.

“We want to be Olympic champions and we think we can be,” deadpans Laura Brown, a member of the foursome who was the alternate in London.  “To be in this place with this track and with the prospect of the home games just around the corner….well it means we are all fired up.”

And apparently ready to fire on all cylinders.

Inspired by the arrival of their very own pedal palace it would seem that Canadian cyclists firmly believe they are, at long last, on exactly the right track.

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