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Photo: Maia Ades

Field of Dreams: The inside story of Kansas’s grass velodrome

At first glance, the Lawrence Velodrome in Lawrence, Kansas is little more than a grassy track in a field. But the innovative model could hold the key for cycling development in rural communities.

On windswept prairie in eastern Kansas sits the country’s only grass velodrome. The Lawrence Velodrome in Lawrence, Kansas is, in the words of its founders, “dinky,” a 333-meter DIY-project undertaken every summer in a hay field by two long-time cycling teammates.

Bill Anderson and Mark Thomas know their velodrome is easy to dismiss. But ever since U.S. track phenom Ashton Lambie smashed a world record last August, they have seen increased interest in the velodrome that gave Lambie his track cycling start. This summer, more riders are racing there than ever before. Cycling associations from across the Great Plains are looking to visit this cycling “Field of Dreams” to see if they can create similar tracks in their home states.

While the quirky fun of it makes the idea of a grass velodrome appealing, Anderson and Thomas believe it can be so much more. With little overhead costs and terrain adaptability, grass velodromes can play host to youth development in areas that don’t have access to hard surface velodromes. It’s an opportunity to develop and foster cycling, and it has worked already. Ashton Lambie is proof.

Anderson and Thomas met on the Kansas City cycling circuit in the 1980s. Back then, they sat on committee after committee that proposed, then denied, construction of a hard surface velodrome in the Kansas City metro area. “It was just out of frustration we said dammit, we’re just going to build it,” says Thomas, an IT company marketing director.

The track was Anderson’s brainchild. A student of cycling, Anderson was versed in the sport’s history and culture. “It used to be that every picnic or festival outside a major metropolitan area would have a bike race,” says Anderson, who operates an equipment rental company in Lawrence. “And it would almost always be on a grass velodrome.”

In 2009, Anderson and Thomas consulted a British Cycling manual on how to build their own velodrome. They measured out two stakes in a public field by the banks of the Kansas River, and formed two circular end turns by tying rope to the stakes. The space between the turns were mowed into straightaways. The track lasted a little over a year, before the the area flooded.

Through a handshake deal with a local landowner and avid cyclist named Steve Schwada, Anderson and Thomas secured a new tract on higher ground for free.

“It has never been farmed,” Anderson says. “It is virgin prairie. Some of the last in the United States.”

Nine months a year, Schwada harvests the land for hay. The summer is set aside for cycling.

During the inaugural season, the velodrome began hosting the annual Kansas Track Championship. A few years later, Anderson and Thomas began running youth programs and adult scratch races on Tuesday nights.

In golf terms, the surface is less putting green than first layer of rough. Anderson mows and smooths the surface with an asphalt roller, but natural imperfections are inevitable. Anderson and Thomas believe the grassy, bumpy surface attracts cyclists who started in gravel racing. Both grass and gravel pose similar traction requirements: low-pressure, wide tires.

Riding on uneven grass, even for experienced track riders, can be an adventure. With barely concealed pride, Anderson recalls panicked veteran track cyclists who bail after a few laps.

“Riding without brakes on flat grass is still an acquired taste,” Thomas says. To maneuver flat turns, riders stay seated to shift their weight toward the rear and their bikes on the track. Hitting the inside pedal on the flat ground is a constant threat, and safety lessons are mandatory before racers can ride.

Cyclists and their families, mostly from the Kansas City-metro, began making the 45-minute drive east to the region’s only Velodrome. Still until recently, few outside the area had heard of the track.

“We are probably still treated as a sideshow,” Anderson says. “You can laugh at us, but we now have a world-record holder from our track.”

Ashton Lambie was a 25-year-old long-distance gravel rider when he took a job at Lawrence’s Sunflower Outdoor and Bike Shop in 2016. Fresh off a trans-Kansas ride, Lambie grew curious about the local velodrome.

“It was very, very rough,” Lambie says of his grass riding experience. “You don’t have the banks to help you navigate the corners, so you constantly feel like you’re going to slide out.” Coming from gravel, the uneven terrain had a familiar feeling. “The stayer’s lane and the pole line are basically just different strips of grass and dirt,” Lambie says.

David Sturm, President of the Kansas Cycling Association, first saw Lambie ride at that summer’s Kansas Track Championships. “He got out there, they said go, and we watch him start working,” recalls Sturm. “We were like, ‘He’s strong, he’s strong.’ Then when he was warmed up after two laps, he sort of kicked in. It was the most astounding thing I’ve ever seen live.”

Lambie finished three laps ahead of the field.

The next summer, Lambie announced himself on the national stage by winning the Florida Track Championship. Then last August, he set the individual pursuit world record in Mexico.

At a USA Cycling conference in Colorado Springs that September, Sturm heard other local chapters inquire about Lambie and the track he came from. Sturm recalls people asking him, Oh my god, how did this happen? So he explained the grass track. The response was consistent: What’s a grass track?

“There was buzz and discussion about, ‘We want to start one,’” Sturm said. The Iowa, Illinois, and Oklahoma chapters asked if they could come visit to see how they could replicate it.

On the national level, USA Cycling is looking to expand access. “We have 330 million people and we have a hard time finding 20 exceptional riders to come and race on track,” Jeff Pierce, Director of Elite Athletics, Road and Track at USA Cycling, says. “They’re out there for sure. One of our issues is our lack of tracks.”

Anderson and Thomas believe they have the answer.

“If they [USA Cycling] want to expand their talent pool, so it’s not just a bunch of white suburbanites in areas that have money for a traditional velodrome, they could put these in all different neighborhoods,” Thomas says. “If one of your missions as USA Cycling is to find the best and the fastest athletes, then here is an inexpensive way to identify them.”

Anderson notes that the international hotbeds of track cycling — Australia and Great Britain — are also the hotbeds of grass track cycling.

Grass tracks are more adaptable to weather, giving racers more opportunities to train. “God waters it, we ride it,” Anderson says of the track’s only irrigation source. During extended periods of drought, the grass browns and bristles. “We’ll do Mad Max until the lights go out,” Anderson said.

While the land cannot get too dry to ride, it can get too wet; this summer, historic rainfalls and tornadoes have threatened several scratch races.

When not in use, the velodrome infield can be used for other sports and activities, which lowers the cost. Anderson and Thomas acknowledge the advantage of having their own velodrome rent-free, but both insist the costs are manageable and the maintenance is replicable.

USA Cycling lists 26 velodromes on its website. The Lawrence Velodrome is not included. While Pierce is aware of the Lawrence Velodrome, he does not envision USA Cycling spearheading efforts to build more like it. “It’s not really part of anyone’s strategy,” he says. “It would need to be the community driving it.”

In May, Anderson began preparing the Velodrome for the summer season: mow, roll, paint. Tuesday nights —weather permitting —feature scores of adult cyclists battling for bragging rights in scratch races. Tagging along are dozens of kids who have gotten their first taste of track riding on the grass.

“I think we are missing that grassroots developmental effort all over the country with the youth that will produce more Ashton Lambies,” Anderson said. “I think the train’s going by us basically.”