Biking at the Velodrome


Racing series brings families together By Ashley Ernst

Photo courtesy of the Northbrook Park Distric

Parents help bikers set up for a race at the Ed Rudolph Velodrome bike track.

Every Friday, Tom Frederick picks up dinner for the family from a local sub shop and heads over to join other parents watching their children zoom around a race track--on their bikes.

One of a handful of outdoor bike tracks in the country, the Ed Rudolph Velodrome at Meadowhill Park in Northbrook hosts a variety of bicycle activities each week. Friday night offers the Developmental Race Series, a program aimed at families. "It's a great introduction to the world of bike racing," says organizer Mark Harris. "It's addictive in the best sense of the word."

Last year, 233 people raced on Friday nights. "We have plenty of families that come out--brothers and sisters race against each other, or brothers and brothers or sisters and sisters even," Harris says.

Racing at the velodrome is safer than racing on the sidewalk or street where bikers have to compete with cars and other obstacles, Harris says. In addition, the track lets them experience a formal race, he says.

Pat McNamara, president of the Northbrook Cycling Club, says, "It's a controlled environment where you've got some professional supervision so the parents recognize it's safe."

The Heipp children, Brittany, 14, and Chad, 9, of Aurora prefer racing at the velodrome. "It's fun to see where I'm going and not having to worry about cars," Brittany says. Chad adds, "I like the challenge. I like competition."

McNamara says the main purpose of the series is to help riders learn how to race. "It is fun for all ages, kids as young as 5 and adults in their 60s. Kids who want to have fun can have fun. Kids who want to race seriously can race seriously."

Racing is a family sport for the Zionts of Highland Park. Dad Marc races on Thursday nights and two of his four children race on Friday nights. "I'm a biking fanatic myself, and nothing pleases me more than to see my kids race," he says. "The kids come out to see me race, and I go out to see them race."

Frederick describes the ambiance as relaxed and family friendly. His children, Tamara, 13, and Denton, 9, are speed skaters who took up bike racing as a way to keep in shape during the off-season. "It uses the same philosophy of how to race, plus you stay in shape," Frederick says. For example, speed skating opponents can box in the racers and prevent them from passing and moving ahead. They face the same challenges in bike racing--and can practice the skills necessary for getting out of the traps.

Tamara, who took first place in the 13- to 16-year-old category last season, says she enjoys racing against other people. Her brother, Denton, who races with the 9- to 10-year-olds, says he started racing because "it looked like fun when my sister did it."

The Heipp family, who also began racing as a way to stay in shape during the speed skating off-season, races regularly on Friday nights. In 2002, Brittany, 14, raced with the 13-to 16-year-olds and took fifth place. She races in both girls and boys' races, but says racing against only girls creates a more level playing field. "Boys at my age, even though they're the same height and age, they're a lot stronger than girls are. It makes it more fun to be able to race with girls," Brittany says.

Laura Heipp, Brittany and Chad's mother, likes the family oriented atmosphere. "Someone could watch and think, 'Hey, I could even do that,'" she says. She tells of a time when Chad had raced all summer. He never placed during competition, but he still won an award--for perseverance.

McNamara says there are prizes awarded at every race, even if the kids only get ribbons after racing.

To race, contenders must be over 5 and be able to ride without benefit of training wheels. Racers are divided by age into 10 groups and each group competes in two events per night: a stock road bike and a track bike race. Stock road races involve bikes with a functional braking system, such as mountain bikes and BMX bikes. Track bikes have a single gear that must be set prior to racing and cannot be changed during the race. They do not have a traditional braking system. Instead, racers stop by slowing down how fast they pedal, known as back pedaling.

"It's hard for people to imagine, but it's really one of the safest forms of racing" because there are no brakes, says McNamara. "Nobody can stop quick, no one changes directions quickly, so there are no surprises."

Harris says track bike riders are usually adults and kids over age 10. He suggests trying a track bike at a Wednesday night practice session to see how it feels. For those with bike riding experience, making the transition is not that difficult. "It's not [that] they're safer or more dangerous. They're just different," he says.

Race officials determine the schedule and the events on the night of the race. If there are enough participants for two heats, groups may be divided by gender. Conversely, if there are too few contenders, age or gender groups may be combined.

Participants should bring their own bikes and helmets are mandatory. The Northbrook Bicycle Club has a few track bikes available for rent with advance notice. Bike rental costs $5 per night or $40 for the season. Generally, the club does not rent track bikes for Friday night races because club officials do not want a racer to have his or her first experience on a track bike during a race.

Sponsored by local businesses, the Northbrook Park District and the Northbrook Bicycle Club, the Developmental Race Series runs on Fridays from June 6 to Aug. 22 except July 4, weather permitting. Registration begins at 6:30 p.m.; races begin at 7:30 p.m.

The entry fee is $6-$8. Weather information is available by 5 p.m. Fridays by calling (847) 291-2974, ext. 646. After 6 p.m. the Velodrome Chalet has weather information at (847) 564-9524. Additional information on the series, weather or the Velodrome is available online at


-- Ashley Ernst is a recent graduate of Roosevelt University, a former Chicago Parent intern and is currently searching for a full-time job. She can be reached at

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