The buzz of whirling wheels fills the evening air like a swarm of bees as bikes whip around the track. Spectators watch as the racers head into a steep turn. Then, calamity strikes: One slight move by one of the cyclists sparks a chain reaction of collisions, sending the group flying into a spectacular tangle of human bodies and metal frames.
It’s an action-packed Saturday night at one of the coolest new attractions in Kiev, where a century-old, open-air velodrome has reopened as part of Ukraine’s burgeoning bicycle culture. Located in a leafy neighborhood in the historic center, it’s easy to access in a city choked by traffic and riddled with bad roads. The best part: Anyone is free to attend events or even hit the track when it’s not in use.
The velodrome was first built in 1913, back when cycling was in vogue among the Russian Empire’s urban elite. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, a lack of resources and interest caused the structure to fall into a state of disrepair. For years, it languished right under Kievans’ noses, a tragic waste of perfectly suitable urban space. But more recently, interest has grown in Western trends like bicycling and, more broadly, healthy living.
Several years ago, cycling enthusiasts hatched a plan with city officials to refurbish the velodrome for around $3 million in municipal cash. The no-frills restoration, which commenced in 2016, produced a concrete track with Italian-made covering material — built to pro-level specs — a new clubhouse with training facilities, audience seating and a public space with a minimalist design that allows for crowds to comfortably gather. “Even from a European perspective,” says Volodymyr Melnyk, the velodrome’s director, “this is one of few tracks left that are in the center of a city.”
Already, history is being made here: In 2017, Ukrainian Vitalii Arhipkin pedaled his way via electric bicycle into the Guinness World Records for traveling the longest distance — more than 228 miles — on a single charge.
Spectators can watch weekend events where competitors clock individual sprints, then face off in a general race. Cycling is a graceful, technical and exciting sport, says Mykola Vohnyk, an amateur cyclist who helped lead the velodrome’s rebuilding process, and watching it “has its own therapeutic effect.”
You can also try the track out yourself for free: Just grab your bike and make your way through the underground tunnel to emerge smack in the middle of the velodrome — and enjoy the feeling of being surrounded by the massive, sloped track. On any given day you might find expert cyclists on a training run sharing the track with neighborhood kids just getting comfortable on two wheels.
Kiev’s flourishing bicycle culture comes down to several factors, Vohnyk says. Among the most important ones are the city’s terrible traffic and a newfound awareness of cycling’s health benefits. He also believes the Ukrainian capital is simply rediscovering its roots. “I think it’s a fairly natural phenomenon,” he says, “because no matter what, Kiev has always been a cycling city.”
So grab your bike and become part of history — and burn a few calories while you’re at it.
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