The history of cycle racing started on the track. Prior to the invention of pneumatic tires by Irish veterinarian and inventor, Dunlop, wheels were only equipped with solid rubber attached to a rim, and riding on rough terrain and was obviously very uncomfortable.
Velas and Brno
The city of Brno saw the very beginning of closed-circuit cycling for the nation, when, in 1889, it hosted the first official bike race in the Czech Republic. The site which is now home to the Brno Velodrome, within the Brno Exhibition Center, has older roots; it originated as an earthen path built by the owner of the surrounding land and Brno entrepreneur, Viktor Bauer.
The legendary Bauer ramp, also known as Baurák, was one of the first banked tracks in Central Europe and remained intact until the fifties. It was then replaced with a clay surface and later by asphalt concrete, which proved faster and, in case of a fall, also slightly safer — after all, smoother surfaces are marginally less abrasive on exposed tissue.
Brno Velodrome soon became a cycling mecca and stands regularly sagged under the weight of thousands of visitors. As it gained traction, the idea of hosting a World Cup arose. The first took place back in 1969 (see reprint below), the second in 1981.
Its fame and popularity also attracted track cyclist and Olympic gold medalist, Jiri Daler, who in the Tokyo 1964 finals, defeated the favored Italian, Giorgiho Ursiho. Daler, native Brňák, is a likeable, well-built, tanned Belmondo, who at almost eighty years old, rides daily (!) On a bike, you can meet him in the Velodrome.
Unbearable lightness of time travel
Velas has long since lost its former glory and international renown, which from the perspective of a watchful observer, could be a blessing in disguise. What was once a place of unusual genius loci has gradually transformed into a time capsule, a living museum of sorts, frozen in the architectural craft and taste of its heyday with its panel track, bleachers, and cloakrooms. Even the patrons who frequent the facility today follow suit in their authentic retro style. With a few exceptions, no major structural changes have been made, thus it has remained a well-preserved gem where gracious visitors can delve deep into the seventies.
Now Velas serves as a training grounds for Dukla Brno’s most successful track cyclist in recent years — European champion, World Cup winner, and recipient of the 2017 “King of Czech Biking” award, Tomáš Bábek.
Dukla in recent years has managed to organize an annual Grand Prix – in the UCI international race and 400m oval categories (today these races are only ridden in covered halls with wooden surfaces at 250m length to achieve the absolute world-class caliber).
Most of the photos published in the article come from this tournament. In the unusual role of “sports photographer,” I took it as a challenge to record the whole event with an inconspicuous compact camera (Nikon Coolpix A) with a single-lens and a fixed focal length. I enjoyed it thoroughly; due to the lack of an obtrusive lens body or ten kilogram bag to weigh me down, I could shoot with one hand and sip beer with the other. Nikon recently stopped production of this model – the quality compact sensor (APS-C) has unfortunately been discontinued. My fondness for this unit cannot be overstated. I do not know why, but somehow all those forgotten Saab, Minolta and other no-longer-existent projects appeal to me; I appreciate manufacturers who try to do more than simply meet the current market demand.
The 2016 race brought an onslaught of world-leading athletes, intending to tune-up their form before the Olympics in Rio. I think Brno made a deep impression on many of them, with cheap beer flowing in the center of the stadium, a handful of spectators moving freely about the grounds (read: without unnecessarily complications and direction on behalf of the organizers), and unlicensed photographers capturing the magic where it suited them. Admission for both days of racing amounted to a whopping fifty crowns.
Such a thrilling and unique time-travel experience is hard to find anywhere else in the world.