ROCK HILL — Each year, thousands crowd Rock Hill's Cherry Park to watch softball and baseball tournaments.
The Rock Hill Tennis Center boasts multiple tournaments, and the fields at Manchester Meadows will be overflowing this summer when the U.S. Youth Soccer Association holds its national championships here.
But at the turn of 20th century, Rock Hill's biggest sports attraction wasn't softball, baseball, soccer or tennis. It was bicycling. The city boasted two outdoor and one in-door cycling tracks.
The city's first cycling race was held in 1890 at a quarter-mile outdoor track located just south of Hampton Street.
On a clear day in 1894, at least 1,000 fans would crowd the stands at another track at the corner of what is now Cherry Road and Oakland Avenue. A streetcar took fans to the track, where they could drink cold beverages and eat roasted peanuts as they watched the races.
Riders came from all over the country, ultimately receiving diamond rings as prizes.
History will repeat itself - minus the diamond rings - Saturday , when Rock Hill opens the Giordana Velodrome, a 250-meter, 42-degree banked track. The velodrome's stands will hold 800 spectators. The facility also has an overhead judging station.
Designed by German architect Ralph Schuermann the track meets Olympic standards. Yet, city officials say it will offer something for all Rock Hill's residents, as well as attract people to the area.
But when the idea of building a velodrome was first broached, the reaction started out as "lukewarm."
'A lukewarm beginning'
Though the in-door track of the late 1800s was long gone, conversations about a velodrome began in 2002 among representatives of the city's Economic Development Department, attorney Spencer Lueders and Carolina Neurosurgery & Spine Associates.
The discussions involved just a velodrome. Manchester Meadows and River Park were considered as potential locations.
Riverwalk wasn't even a consideration then, said John Taylor, operations supervisor for the city's Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department.
However, the velodrome wasn't being "warmly received" by other city officials, including Mayor Doug Echols.
"When the idea first surfaced, it was more about just the velodrome, the focus on elite cycling, cyclists and events," Echols said.
Even after visiting another velodrome, he and city council members still weren't convinced.
"Everyone was still a bit lukewarm because everyone felt like it was not going to be able to serve all of Rock Hill's residents," Taylor said.
After they saw the Brian Piccolo Park in Florida, with its trails, athletic fields and courts, the conversations evolved.
"The value is how we open up cycling and make it available to residents of all ages and make it as much a public facility as possible," Echols said.
Several economic impact studies conducted by the state, Clemson University, and the city showed Riverwalk was the ideal location. Plans were approved that expanded the proposal from just the velodrome to the Rock Hill Outdoor Center. The 250-acre center will include mountain biking trails, a BMX/Supercross track, walking trails, canoe/kayak access to the Catawba River , and open space.
The project was made possible through partnerships between the city and the Assured Group, which offered up the 250 acres for the center.
The Assured Group is developing Riverwalk, and its manager Dave Williams said the velodrome and the amenities offered at the center would not have been possible without the partnership.
"We each benefit in many ways and are able to leverage investments made by the other," he said. "From our perspective, we believe investments in recreational amenities will serve as a catalyst for the overall development and enhance the active outdoor lifestyle component of the development."
Amenities such as the velodrome will set Riverwalk apart in the market place and give people and businesses a reason to locate there, he said.
"The buzz about Riverwalk in the cycling community continues to increase at the national level and has been galvanizing for Rock Hill and Charlotte cyclists," he said.
To fund the velodrome Rock Hillbudget director Steven Gibson said the city sought $5 million through the federal new market tax credit designation.
"To fund the velodrome and other cycling amenities, we sought the $5 million," he explained. "We pay interest-only payments on that for seven years, at the end of which $1.2 million is forgiven."
State stimulus funds will take pay $787,500 of the $5 million. Hospitality tax revenue and escrow payments over the 7-year period will reduce the figure by $875,000 . About $700,000 in sponsorships reduces the total to about $1.4 million.
"We exceeded our sponsorship goal of $500,000," Gibson said.
One of the bigger sponsors is Giordana, a maker of cycling clothing. The company paid to have its name on the velodrome, as well as providing $20,000 each year for 10 years. Carolina Neurosurgery & Spine Associates and the Carolinas HealthCare systems are founding partners of the center.
The remainder the $5 million will be paid through hospitality tax, paid when people visit local restaurants and hotels.
No property tax or general fund money went toward the project, Gibson said.
Construction began last summer.
With less than a week to its opening, project leader Rhea Faris said all that's left to do on the velodrome is mainly landscaping.
"We were very fortunate because we had a mild winter," he said. "We stayed on schedule."
Ed Thompson, head of the city's Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department, said multiple surveys have indicated the importance of recreational activities for residents.
Velodrome programming recently approved by city council target all ages and socio-economic backgrounds, Taylor added.
Thad Fischer is the cycling coordinator for the velodrome. He has 35 years of experience in the cycling sport and industry.
In the past, he had talked about marketing programs not just to elite cyclists, but to the general public as well. A recently held clinic about velodrome track-riding drew 100 people, he said.
"Because it's a velodrome and has a steep embankment, it takes a certain level of confident and skill to do it," he said. 'Cycling is a lifestyle... But the velodrome is not all about competition. ...It's a vehicle to take adults and children down a really good road."
The velodrome's programming targets all levels, including:
"Kids on the Track": Designed for ages 6 through 14. Children learn track basics on the infield. Advanced riders move to the banked track. The class is free.
"Giordana Try the Track": Directed at the beginning cyclist. The staff introduce track-riding and safety. The program is a stepping stone to the more structured programs. It can accommodate two people per day and is free.
"Track Basics": This program is required for all cyclists who don't have extensive track-riding experience, or have taken the other programs. It serves discusses track rules and safe techniques. Experienced riders must also complete this 8-hour class, which costs $20.
Memberships packages are $100 for youth 18 and younger, $200 for adults and $300 for family packages. Bikes for the track's introductory programs will be provided. The bikes used on velodromes have no brakes and use a single, fixed rear gear. This helps increase speed while reducing weight.
Types of races include Keirin races, with involves pacing six or nine riders with a motorcycle until the last lap and a half, when they sprint to the finish; Madison races, which puts riders in tag-teams; and elimination races, where the last-place rider is removed from the race at the end of each lap.
Asked why the city needs such a facility, Taylor said the cycling center - and the velodrome - will "create opportunities for everyone."
"We've grown into not only providing quality facilities for locals, but it's turned it into an economic impact," he said. "It's another opportunity for the city of Rock Hill - for children, grandchildren - to experience leisure services not every community has."
'There's definitely been talk about it'
An avid rider, Fischer said the new velodrome has sparked excitement in the cycling world.
Reuben Bloom, advocacy director for the Rock Hill Bike Club, said everyone is "stoked" about the velodrome "It's going to be big deal," he said. "It's a huge step for the whole Southeast region."
Jake Francek with Saturday Bike and Run on East White Street said he sees only good things for cycling once the velodrome opens.
"All the new customers we have come in are asking about it and wanting to know what kind of bikes are going to be allowed ridden on there," he said. "It's going to spark some other things like bike trails and other activities. It'll expand their interests in that area of cycling. People who aren't riding, it'll make them more aware."
Cyclists in Charlotte are talking as well.
Diab Rabie with BikeSource on Park Road said everyone at the shop has been following the velodrome's and cycling center's progress.
"Everybody is very happy," he said. "It looks really cool, especially having the mountain biking. Any time a city or county or municipality gives that kind of credos to the sport, it definitely makes people like us in the industry happy."
He said it seems like people spend so much money on other sports facilities, so it's a "huge thing" to see so much attention toward cycling.
"It's a nice way to promote your city and healthy living," he said.
City leaders have also focused on the economic effects they hope the velodrome and cycling center it will have.
Officials are estimating at least a $4 million impact each year from the velodrome, based on attracting prestigious events and avid riders.
Fischer said they are working on the numbers of people who are expected to use the facility.
With the prestigious races coming to Rock Hill in late 2012 and 2013, they expect 500 people who are related to the races to attend. That figure doesn't include the number of spectators.
Attracting world-class events is a great opportunity for the city to get some visibility and an opportunity for residents to see top athletes, Fischer had said.
Dr. Curt Laird is an assistant professor in the physical education department at Winthrop University, where he focuses on sport management. He said the velodrome and cycling center will have a huge impact on Rock Hill, economically and in overall health of residents.
"It will make Rock Hill much more a destination city rather than a city people travel through to get to Charlotte or along Interstate 77 to get somewhere else," he said. "A lot of people probably aren't realizing just what kind of impact it might have. Professional athletes and professional cyclists are going to be using this facility, many of which are not even here nationally, but who live here internationally."
These athletes need a place where they can work out year-round, he said, and the weather in the city compared to other countries and regions will bring "international flavor" to the area.
"We have some issues, particularly here in the South, with obesity," he said. "With a facility like this, the first thing is all of a sudden there's this initial curiosity," Laird said. "As people get involved with it, go out there and see what the facility is all about, people will take an interest in cycling and in doing so will be more physically fit."
The grand opening for the velodrome is Saturday at 10:30 a.m., People are encouraged to arrive early and carpool because of the limited parking.
The opening will feature exhibits, programs, the unveiling of the velodrome and demonstrations of track-riding.
The track will be open for public use after that. Velodrome hours will be 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays.
City tourism director Mark Sexton said operations at the velodrome will follow the model the city has used elsewhere: a quality facility, good staff and high maintenance. Fischer, who has toured multiple velodromes, agreed with the quality.
"Nothing holds a candle to it," he said.