Fate of cycling track on US Steel land is unclear

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It is unclear what will happen to the velodrome in South Chicago if developers go ahead with plans for 20,000 homes on the former South Works site. | South Chicago Velodrome Association Facebook page

Will it find a loving partner and a new home — or face eviction?

These are the questions that swirl around the decaying and abandoned velodrome that sits, surrounded by a chainlink fence, at 87th and Burley in the South Chicago neighborhood.

The banked cycling track sits on land owned by U.S. Steel, part of a 400-plus acre lakefront parcel that the Pittsburgh-based metals giant, it was announced last week, is selling to developers who want to erect 20,000 homes.

Final details are being sorted out, but the deal could close as early as November.

Neither the seller nor potential buyers would comment on the fate of the bowled plywood racing track.

Cyclists began swooping counterclockwise around the oval track shortly after it was installed in 2011.

The track was to be be the first step of an ambitious plan to build a world-class racing and training facility along the lakefront — the dream of Emanuele Bianchi, an Italian who lives in Chicago and owns a pet accessory company.

U.S. Steel and McCaffery Interests — the developer the steel company worked with for years to chart a vision for the land before dissolving the relationship in 2015 — supported Bianchi.

Bianchi gave it his all for three years, but when his outsized dream did not become reality, he stepped away.

“I was exhausted. I didn’t have the help I needed from the local community or the cycling community. People say I gave up. But I begged for help,” he recalled last week.

“I spent a lot of my own money, paying for lunches for volunteers alone cost thousands,” Bianchi said.

Responsibility for the velodrome was passed to a small group of passionate cyclists who formed the South Chicago Velodrome Association, a nonprofit group dedicated to looking after the racetrack and growing the sport.

However, they struggled with the same problems: mustering money and support.

And last July, U.S. Steel, which had not been charging rent on the land since the velodrome was built, opted not to renew the generous lease agreement.

No maintenance has been done to it since early last year.

“I’ve never seen one person on it, but it could be a really great thing,” lamented Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th). She said the fate of the velodrome was never broached in her discussions with the developers who are seeking to acquire the land.

“There’s never been broad support for it in the community, and I mean community in the broadest sense, not just the ward,” said John Heroff, Sadlowski Garza’s policy director. “It was just never used that much … I think it’s a cool thing.”

Dale Hughes, the man who actually owns the equipment — the galvanized steel framework and warped plywood surface — says the fate of the track is unclear.

“I’ve read there are going to be new land owners. I’m not sure what their plans are. All I know is right now the velodrome is there and I have not been asked to dismantle it and move it,” he said this week.

Hughes, who owns a Detroit-based company that builds velodromes, says he forgave a considerable amount of debt owed to him for building the track, but is still out $51,000.

He’d like to see a group come together and keep the racing oval in Chicago.

“My first choice, and easiest, is keep it in Chicago and get it back up and running and get some kids on the track,” he said.

“Chicago has a rich history of bicycle racing,” he said. “Al Capone was one of the thousands who used to go watch races at a velodrome in the Chicago Stadium.”

The track, which originally cost about $350,000 to build, is for sale for $51,000. Moving it and repairing it would cost an additional $90,000, he said.

Hughes said he has fielded interest from folks in Wisconsin and Georgia.

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