Cyclists gear up for national track racing title in Detroit

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Detroit — Several Michigan high school students will join dozens of cyclists from across the country in a national championship that is returning to Detroit after an almost 45-year absence. 

It's a big moment for students like Connell Alford, 15. The last time the USA Cycling Madison National Championships came to the city was more than a quarter of a century before he and the other young racers competing this year were born.

Starting Friday and running through Sunday, 44 riders will descend on the Lexus Velodrome on Mack Avenue to compete in the Madison race, which the track was tailor-built to host. The Detroit Fitness Foundation, which operates the Velodrome, won a five-year contract with USA Cycling and will hold the championship until 2025.

Teammates Connell Alford, 15, of Chelsea, left, and De'Jon Parks, 17, of Detroit, make an exchange during practice Tuesday for the Madison track event at the Lexus Velodrome in Detroit. The velodrome is hosting the US Madison National Championships this weekend.

Opened in 2018, the Velodrome provides training, bikes and equipment for young Metro Detroiters and subsidizes their participation in national races like the Madison championship.

Racers will compete for cash prizes of up to $400 per race across Junior, Youth, Semi Pro and Elite divisions for men, women and children. 

With a closed loop around which riders cycle hundreds of laps while training and in races, never quite coming to a full stop, the Madison seems like the perfect sport for Alford, who lives in Chelsea. He said seven hours of sitting still at school make him feel restless.

Brendan Leary, 17, left, of Detroit follows Connell Alford and De'Jon Parks. They chat after a practice session at the Lexus Velodrome in Detroit on Tuesday. The velodrome is hosting the US Madison National Championships this weekend.

“It's sort of a lifestyle, in my mind, you live around it,” said Alford, who comes from an athletic family with a sister who figure skates, a father who cycles and mother who runs.

“It's just constantly thinking about how to be better, and always getting your best performance,” he said.

Named after Madison Square Garden in New York City, cyclists in the relay race, also known as the “American Race” abroad, hold onto their bike with one hand and use to the other to launch their teammate’s bike forward.

Teams compete in close proximity on the inclined track at the same time, inviting the potential for chaos, according to Dale Hughes, executive director of the Detroit Fitness Foundation.

“At times, there's going to be 20 riders doing 35 or 40 miles an hour, elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, wheel to wheel,” said Hughes. “It just takes one little mistake by one person.”

Donnell Anderson, 15, Detroit jokes with teammates during practice at the Lexus Velodrome in Detroit on Tuesday.

Hughes’ son, Jon, who built the track, trains the cyclists, and wi be the announcer at the championship, said the Detroit racers have a clear shot at the titles, cash prizes and recognition in at least a few of the several dozen races over the weekend.

"All of them have shown dedication and a real drive to really get better, and they trying to take it to that next level," said Jon Hughes. "Also, they've gotten really fast." 

Cyclists describe the races like a chance for a relaxing ride instead of a high-intensity, Olympic sport, discontinued in 2012 but reinstated in 2020.

“You go into this state of mind where you don’t have to worry about anything,” said Brendan Leary, 17, of Detroit. “It’s like therapy.”

Leary, the second of 10 children, started track cycling two years ago at a summer camp at the Velodrome after his mother made him go. Hesitant at first, in a short two years he has decided that track cycling is the career he wants, with aspirations to travel internationally to do it.

De’Jon Parks, also 17, wants to travel for cycling too, and has a specific goal: he wants to go wherever the Olympics are.

Racers round the tack during practice at the Lexus Velodrome on Tuesday.

Parks said joining the Velodrome helped him become a better student, because he knew that if his schooling did not improve, he would not be allowed to continue doing the sport he loves.

“It keeps me out of the house, it keeps me focused,” he said. “…This sport actually changed my life.”

Education, along with careers, is something Dale and Jon Hughes said the program is designed to inspire: it can help young riders at the track and outside of it.

“They learn that if you do some hard work, you're going to get some really great results from it,” said Dale Hughes, adding that six of their members had received college scholarships through their program.

“Long term, we want also create a professional racing league where these young riders can actually make a living racing their bikes, like they do in football and basketball and those kinds of sports.”