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A RIDE ON THE WILD SIDE : They Gather at the Encino Velodrome Each Weekend to Put Their Bikes on the Banks--and Sanity on the Line

Times Staff Writer

When you see bicycle racing at the Encino Velodrome for the first time, various questions come to mind, most of which concern the basic sanity of the participants.

To the novice, it is, in a word, crazy.

Even the racers admit it. “It’s a dangerous sport,” says sprinter Dave Gordon. “Sometimes when I watch other racers out on the track I think, ‘They’re crazy.’ ”

For those who have never seen racing in a velodrome, imagine a bike race inside an emptied pool the size of a football field, with riders reaching speeds of 40 m.p.h.

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A velodrome’s most ominous feature appears to be its steep banking. Some European tracks have banking of up to 52 degrees. The Olympic Velodrome at Cal State Dominguez Hills banks at 34 degrees. Surprisingly, such tracks are thought to be more safe than the velodrome at Encino, which banks at 27 degrees.

“Encino just doesn’t have enough banking to go full speed,” says Matt Rayner, who has raced at the track for four years. “If you go too fast, you’ll go off the track.”

Rayner cites an example of “some guy who tried to break the track record in 1973.” As it turned out, the racer’s high speed, combined with the track’s tendency to shoot a rider upward, caused the cyclist to fly over the top of the course and through a fence bordering the velodrome.

“I guess he recovered after a while,” Rayner says, in hushed tones. “But the hole is still there. They must’ve left it as a monument to his crash.”

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In his four years at Encino, Rayner says, he has taken four spills, but has never been hurt seriously.

Although most mishaps result in scrapes and bruises, concussions and broken bones are not uncommon. Most bikers wear small helmets known as “hair nets” that are helpful when skidding along cement tracks, but protection against flipping and bouncing and flying through fences is minimal.

Two years ago, there was a nine-racer pileup at the track. John Waite, a former national sprint champion who broke his hip in the accident, says, “Up front, one rider came too close and overlapped someone’s wheel. Then everyone tumbled.”

At 250 meters, the Encino track is one of the shortest in the world. The velodrome’s abrupt corners combine with its low banking to make the racing, as one cyclist puts it, “a little wild.”

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Among the racers, Encino’s reviews are mixed.

“At the Olympic track, the best rider will win,” says Gordon. “But at Encino it’s mostly positioning. The best rider doesn’t always win.”

Adds Rayner: “It’s a fun track, but I race better on the bigger tracks.

“And with too many racers, it can get dangerous.”

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Conversely, Waite says Encino is his favorite track, broken hip and all. “It suits my style. I’m more of a snappy rider, so it’s tailored for me. But you do have to concentrate harder out there, you can’t make many mistakes.”

Currently, there are no plans to renovate the velodrome’s outdated design. The Southern California Cycling Federation, a nonprofit organization that is made up of representatives of various racing clubs in the area and manages the track, has limited funds for improvements.

“We hope to get funding from the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee,” says Gordon Stauble, president of the SCCF, “but we’d use those for improved lighting and restrooms.”

Built in 1960, the Encino Velodrome is one of the oldest in the country. And it looks it. The bleachers are beat-up, the light poles rusted and the infield grass is worn. In fact, everything about the place is past its prime, except the track’s surface.

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The track, which has been the site of two national championships, a number of international events and the trials for the Pan American games, has weathered its 25 years remarkably well.

“Obviously,” says Stauble, who’s crashed a number of times himself while riding at Encino, “this isn’t the Olympic Velodrome, but it suits its purpose.”

Which is: Saturday night racing. Nearly every weekend from April to October, local cyclists gather at Encino to compete and maybe win a little cash. On a good night, a racer can pocket $200.

Occasionally, world-class racers such as Mark Gorski, Nelson Vails or Steve Hegg show up, but most of the racers are less serious.

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Typical of Encino is Evelyn Off. For 11 years, Off, a 32-year-old professional house cleaner from Monrovia, has found time to escape her job to race and train there. For six years, she’s dominated women’s events at the track, winning 75% of the races she has entered.

Although Off has never extended her success to a national level, she says she is satisfied with her racing career. “I’ve won a lot of races and I’ve enjoyed the competition. The racing has been a lot of fun. I feel good about what I’ve been able to do out there.”

After 11 years at Encino, just surviving is accomplishment enough.


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