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First of all, if we are going to call this velodrome "ancient," we have to consider what ancient history is in Detroit. This track—known as the Dorais Park Velodrome—is in fact not very old at all. Construction began on it during the time of Detroit's 1967 race riots and was completed the very day Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, in 1969. Detroit was in chaos, as was the entire nation, and maybe the chaos has never left and has changed our perception of time. Is it because so many buildings in Detroit are skeletons we can't help equating a lost ruin like the Parthenon with a modern calamity like Detroit.
Dorais Park lies east of I-75 and occupies a desolate rectangle of land within the larger desolate rectangle described by East Eight Mile Road and Mound Road and East Outer Drive. The park used to be famous because it features one of the only hills in all of Detroit, Derby Hill, which further back in history than 1969 used to host Detroit's annual soapbox derby. People used to sled down Derby Hill in the winter. Children used to play in Dorais Park all year round. Then social-class divides and racial tensions reached a flashpoint and buildings burned and National Guard tanks used to roll up and down Eight Mile to keep the people's anger repressed. After the riots ended, this used to be one of the most dangerous urban areas in the United States. Thugs roamed the streets and prostitutes worked the street corners and dime-bag hustlers used to do business on the sidewalk, in daylight, till crack cocaine arrived and oil tripled in price, and everybody started getting the hell out of here with no thought whatsoever of coming back. In all this, across the street from Dorais Park, a 35-acre Chrysler assembly plant used to operate at full capacity. They used to make Ram trucks there. It's all gone now. Everything. Trees grow in the parking lots. Birds fly in and out of the buildings as if among cemetery stones.
Used to be. In grammar, this construction is known as the imperfect. In life, "used to be" stands for regret and loss and memories fading out of mind. In cycling, used to be is a grammatical construction we try to avoid. In cycling, we use the future tense—we try to look forward, to see where our wheels will roll—but in Detroit, maybe the only way we can look is back.
So in ancient Detroit history, in 1967, a man named Mike Walden, a legend of Michigan cycling and a world-class track coach, believed in the future of Detroit and designed a velodrome and built it in a flat area not far from Derby Hill. The Chrysler Corporation donated the land and helped with the resources. Chrysler could do that kind of thing back then. Walden's goal was to finish the velodrome in time for the 1969 U.S. National Track Championships. They were in fact held on his track, and John Vande Velde, a two-time Olympian and father of current cycling superstar Christian Vande Velde, won a couple of events that year. After the championships, Walden had himself a top-notch facility at which to train racers capable of competing with anyone in the world.
The promise of success was surely there: 250 meters around, 45-degree banks, and its surface was concrete, with an ingenious system of concrete pads designed to withstand the harsh weather conditions Detroit experiences, the heat of summer, the cracking cold of winter. Still, Mike must have known the long-term odds were desperate at best. While he worked for two years grading the track and setting the concrete pads, the Dorais Park air must have been filled with the smell of burning tires and automobiles. Mike must have heard the National Guard tanks rolling on Eight Mile and the gunshots ringing out daily and bottles breaking and windows shattering and the cries for help, for social justice, for equality, for revenge. Mike must have held a spirit of hope in his heart that few people are ever able to hold.