The Encino Velodrome, hidden away between Little League fields and the Los Angeles River in the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Center, is an appealing mix of high-tech and homespun.
The cyclists, some of them world-class competitors, race with the latest in lightweight and aerodynamic equipment. But the velodrome also retains the feel of a small-town baseball club. Velodrome members mow the grass, sweep the track and do the general maintenance with a minimum of support from the city. The infield is home to gophers, and occasionally a rider will encounter a harmless snake wiggling its way up a turn.
"This is like Pony League 40 years ago in Dubuque," said Jim Ansite, sitting in the infield as his son James spun around the course. He likened it to "grass-roots baseball played in some cornfield."
Its ramshackle bleachers and cement track painted with the proclamation "U.S. Olympic Trials, 1968" speak of glory days past. But the 250-meter track, banked at 29 degrees, has plenty of admirers--from world-class riders to teens learning the sport to fitness fanatics in their 40s and 50s.
Compared to the 350-meter Olympic Velodrome at Cal State Dominguez Hills, the Encino track is fast and short. "Racing seems so much more action-packed here," said U.S. National Team member Janie Eickoff. Paul Swift, another U.S. National Team member, called the track "short and bumpy," but "good to sharpen your skills."
Track insiders will tell you that the Velodrome, one of four in the state, is the best-kept secret in the San Fernando Valley sports scene, a steppingstone for Olympic hopefuls and a place to showcase national and world-class champions.
Still, the atmosphere remains small town. Only 20 or 30 fans generally show up to watch. And when they shout at officials to dispute calls, they address them by first name.
But for the most part, the crowd is quiet. The dominant sounds are the whirring of chains and the whoosh of air streaming through the spokes, whispering in the night air.