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Cycling for All

Vigorelli: a velodrome for the citizens

Milan’s Maspes-Vigorelli Velodrome
Milan’s Maspes-Vigorelli Velodrome

Milan’s Maspes-Vigorelli Velodrome is arguably one of the venues in the history of cycle sport worthy of the appellative “legendary”.

Built in 1935, bombed down during World War II, then rebuilt in 1946, its odd 397.7-metre long track has hosted decades of world-class cycling. All ten UCI Hour Records set between 1935 and 1967 were performed at the Vigo by riders of the likes of Fausto Coppi, Maurice Archambaud and Jacques Anquetil. In those same years it hosted four UCI Track Cycling World Championships, and in (relatively) more recent times, spectators had a chance to admire some of cycling’s best of the best: Antonio Maspes, Eddy Merckx, Francesco Moser raced there. The velodrome is one of the temples of track cycling.

The shift in popularity from track cycling to road during the 70s and 80s meant the velodrome went progressively unused. Two structural collapses in 1985 and 1988 initiated an era of oblivion, just occasionally interrupted by a handful of one-off events. It was in 2001 that bicycles last raced at the Vigorelli. In recent times, only the city’s two American football teams have kept the venue alive – while the wooden slats of the track have rotted and decayed.

Milan, though, is a cycling city. Home to some of the finest bike manufacturers, its compactness and pancake-flat orography are an invitation to bike commuting. In recent times, moreover, just like any other Western urban area, Milan witnessed a cycling renaissance (+26% between 2007 and 2012) – propelled by a generation of bike activists, engaged in growing cycling culture and in claiming space for riding.

These urban cyclists, together with bike retailers, club riders, veterans and anyone else who has discovered how much better it is to tour Milan by bike, united in a grassroots movement and started advocate for a refurbishment of the Vigorelli.

Yes – but with whose money?

Milan is the 2015 host of the Universal Exposition, a giant trade show with some 20m projected visitors.  A chunk of the planning fees that the developers of “City Life” (a massive real estate project related to the mega-event) paid to the Municipality will be used to renovate the velodrome. EUR 18m.

All good, then? Not quite.

In 2012 the city of Milan opened a tender procedure among architecture firms to identify the best project for the venue. The winner was announced in 2013. The chosen project ruled out cycling – judged one of too many sporting activities destined for the facility. In the accompanying documents the Vigorelli is even referred to as the “Ex-Velodrome”.

That was too much for local cyclists, who formed a coalition and took their lobbying to the next level. The pro cycling world supported the cause with – among the others – Italy’s top track cyclist Elia Viviani, Gianni Bugno and Brian Cookson, at the time President of British Cycling.

The campaigning was successful, and at the end of 2013 the local Superintendence of Cultural Heritage enforced restrictions on the renovation projects. Rebuilding was fine but the wooden track had to be preserved.  In May 2014 the Municipality of Milan announced a review of the project. The velodrome and its history-exuding track were safe.

The wooden track will be preserved

Although a victory for local cyclists, the challenging part is only about to begin. Around 2 years will be required to complete the renovation (work has not started yet), and it is not clear who will manage the velodrome. The local cyclists’ committee and the Milan chapter of the Italian Cycling Federation (FCI) have pinned down their ideas on how the facility can be run. Their manifesto is centred on these pillars:

1.    In the velodrome, cycling is King. American football (which was instrumental in keeping the facility alive through the years of semi-demise) is Queen.

2.    Open access. The Vigorelli is for youth, club riders, veterans, elites: every layer of the cycling pyramid. Any management plan should not oversee this principle.

3.    Sound financial operations, so as not to spoil the opportunity that has now arisen for Milan cyclists.

The Vigorelli committee is also looking at building a European network of historic velodromes. Talks are underway with those of Roubaix and Herne Hill in London – the latter is now being renovated, and shares a similar story of disrepair, potential closure and cyclists fighting for it.

Velodromes – and bike parks in general – are an increasingly popular urban cycling facility. Providing citizens, especially in low-income areas, with sporting opportunities is a key element in the governments’ quest to keep populations active and healthy. See, for example, how London turned the Games’ cycling and swimming facilities into sporting legacies for its citizens.

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