Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Boards of Delhi and London.

I’ve just spent the last few days in London, Ontario. I had hoped to get out for a couple of rides with some friends to see some of Ontario that I am not too familiar with but as it turned out I couldn’t meet up with them and rode on my own. The country around London is pretty flat and as I rode the straight roads across the windswept farmland I was reminded of the roads in northern France and Belgium. The cobbles are missing but there are plenty of rough gravel roads that at this time of year, just after the snow has gone, are almost as much of a challenge as the pave of Europe.

Not Belgian cobbles but almost as tough to ride.

Maybe it is because of the similarity with their homeland that Belgian immigrants settled into this area. Delhi (pronounced Del-high) is the centre of the Belgian community and was at one time a hub of bike racing in Ontario. The first bike race that I saw after arriving in Canada in 1964 was in Delhi. The main street was closed down for the race and the large crowd was obviously knowledgeable. Compared with the races I had ridden in England this was so much more exciting. Bike race spectators in England were almost exclusively connected in some way with the riders. Here they were all local residents, mostly farmers and their families, often shouting encouragement to the riders in Flemish.

Over the next few years I made several two hour drives to Delhi from my home in Toronto to not only race in their local criteriums and road races there but also to attend their winter socials at the Belgium Hall where roller racing would be the main feature.

In 1972 the bike racing fans of Delhi built a velodrome in the local hockey stadium. Of course, even in Delhi, hockey is the number one sport in Canada but during the summer the arena wasn’t being used too much. Locally they had an expert at building velodromes: An ex-six day racer himself Albert Coulier had previously built fourteen velodromes in Canada and the US during the hey day of six day racing in the forties and fifties.

The velodrome in Delhi that Coulier built was fantastic. Constrained by the available space of a hockey rink it was short and steep--118 metres with bankings at 55 degrees-- but it hosted some of the most exciting bike racing one could see anywhere. Renowned British cycling journalist Jock Wadley came to Delhi to see a six day event and wrote a glowing account of it in his book “Old Roads and New”. Jock had seen racing all over the World from World Championships to Six Days at the Paris Vel d’Hiv to nineteen Tours de France. Jock said that the racing at Delhi was “the most exciting, most adventurous, most spectacular cycling scene I have encountered in more than 40 years association with the sport”.

Delhi could not, of course, attract the professional riders but it did attract most of the better amateurs from Canada and the States. The stars of Delhi were Canadian Jocelyn Lovell, ex Brit. Chris Hooker, American Roger Young and local riders such as Pete Penman, who was an expert on the steep boards of Delhi.

Sadly, the Delhi Velodrome lasted only a few years. The new generation of Delhi residents were not as keen on bike racing as their parents and other summer uses were found for the hockey arena. The Delhi Velodrome was dead but by no means forgotten.

Thirty years later in 2005 a similar hockey arena became available in London. The local hockey team had moved to a new facility downtown and their old arena was standing empty. Local bike racing enthusiast Rob Good saw an opportunity, approached the owner and a deal was struck. Albert Coulier, now in his eighties, agreed to come out of retirement and design the track With the aid of Albert’s two sons and their company, Apollo Construction, the Forest City Velodrome was born.

A training group negociate the 50 degree bankings

The track is a work of art, a beautiful wooden bowl; Rob Good’s Field of Dreams. At 138 metres around it is a bit larger than the old Delhi track and perhaps a little easier to ride. The curves are banked at 50 degrees and the straights at 17 degrees. It is certainly quite intimidating and so far I haven’t summoned up enough guts to get on it; however, I am put to shame by the crowd that I have seen racing and training on it. There are riders of all ages from ten year olds to one fellow in his eighties looping around at speed. What a joy it is to see those little ten year olds flying around the top of the high banking without a fear in the World.

Rob Good, his wife and a large crew of volunteers have transformed a more or less derelict arena into a wonderful sports facility. When they took the building over there were numerous burst pipes due to a previous tenant being unwilling to heat it over the winter. The place was dirty and in need of paint. The volunteers have now fixed most of the problems and it is a great place to spend some time be it racing, training or just watching. There are teaching and training sessions everyday where complete novices are taught the basics and soon become confident on those intimidating bankings. There are plenty of bikes available to borrow.

Unfortunately even for the most exciting racing sessions spectators are sparse. Maybe that is because Canadians are too much into hockey and have no time for anything else. Maybe it is a lack of advertising. Whatever the reason, it seems a shame that people are missing out on a good evening’s entertainment. One group that never misses a race meet is the “Delhi Ladies”. A group of elder ladies from Delhi that remember the old Delhi track and know just how exciting the racing can be.

The others that seem to be staying away are the road racers. With Canada’s long winters one would think that the opportunity to train indoors would attract a good crowd. What better place to get in a few winter miles and sharpen up your bike handling skills than at the velodrome.

However even without the crowds of spectators and the road racers the Forest City Velodrome seems to be flourishing. There is a very enthusiastic youth group and a large group of regulars that put on exciting racing. If you get a chance pay them a visit I’m sure you will be equally impressed as I am.

For information on the Forest City Velodrome go to: www.forestcityvelodrome.ca


dbrk said...

Your entries are too infrequent, Mike! This was a wonderful story! Thanks a million for taking the time.


Anonymous said...

I heard a special bike, that you lost, made it's way back into your hands. Is there a story?

Anonymous said...

Mike: I'd heard through the grapevine (a pair of younger cyclists actually, whom I'd stopped to compliment on their riding classic frames in immaculate condition) that you'd closed shop.

It's a sad eventuality, this aging business, that all must pass. Somehow though, your excellent writing skills seem to have stopped the clock!

I was very lucky in obtaining some used but very lively 531 frames, as well as components, from Mike over the years. My last one, albeit a tad on the stiff side (A Raleigh Gran Course, from the seventies I believe) still serves as my workhorse.

Mike has never seen a lot of profitable business from me over the years, I'm a man of modest means, so I hope a heartfelt "thank you" helps.

Absolute best regards:
Steve Saines

Anonymous said...

Been catching-up on your wonderful chronicles. It's an odd thing, you're a few years up on me (albeit age and health have *almost* gotten past me, it's a long story, but briefly...my muscles are in phenomenal shape, the joints not...years of being hyperthyroid, albeit the rheumatic aspect is now being addressed...I call it a 'reprieve') so I was delighted to read this...something perhaps I'd realized before you had:
[qt]In recent years cycling out of Toronto has become pretty miserable with traffic. We now almost always drive out to the outskirts and ride from there. The countryside is still remarkably close and after half an hour in the car we are in quiet country roads.[/qt]
I'd mentioned this to the Randonneurs (sp?) a decade or so back, only to be treated as a heretic! Rofl...

I've spent decades finding the 'safe' routes in and out of Toronto by GO train. Unfortunately, until the Georgetown route is re-established, (and Rush Hour scheduling further complicates this score) there are very few options, but there is one glaring one:

Rouge Hill Station.

Unless one is heading further East from Oshawa (and even Oshawa is now a tribulation to transit until clear of Bowmanville Creek on the East, where eastbound county gravel roads become available at a reasonable latitude to the lake...avoid Hwy 2, it is dangerous!) then Rouge Hill is by far the best GO gateway to the very roads that Mike mentions leading up to Goodwood.

Here's how:

Exit at Rouge Hill Station. Go east on Lawrence to Rouge Hill Park. Cross the foot-bridge into Pickering. Continue east along the path and the two roads available where the path ends (either will do) to arrive at Petticoat Creek Park. Take the northerly path just inside the gate at the park, and it will lead you to the foot of White's Road...admittedly, no country lane anymore, but follow it north for a few kilometers north of Hwy #2, turn right at the *second* gravel road you intersect (first one is a dead-end stub going east) which is immediately south of the Steeles extension. At this point, you are offered a relaxed route to nirvana, almost all gravel until you reach Columbus Rd, still one of the few paved roads eastbound that reaches past Oshawa with a degree of civility for cyclists. Many of the parallel sideroads are also fun to cycle in that district, many with hard-packed clay content gravel roads, on which you can make good time *and* have the all-important conversation with the Gods. If it isn't a joy, then what is it worth?

Beware that GO trains go to a number of interesting jump-off points, but scheduling disallows bikes due to rush-hour service. In the west end, there are very few 'safe' routes out, but some of them offer safe routes in. (That may sound oxymoronic, but again, it is due to scheduling of service)

Whatever, the outstanding portal remains Rouge Hill Station. I usually head well north of Hwy #7, go east, and then return from Oshawa GO station.

As GO re-establish some of their earlier destinations, more options will become available.

I can't tell you the joy I've had reading your chronicles, Mike.

My thighs are bulging from the excitement of the pictures of Spanish roads alone!

As long as I can still do the miles, then damn the aging!

Steve Saines

OAP said...

Wonderful blog Mr. Barry. I wish there were more entries!