BMX supercross tracks on the rise

Panoramic view of the new BMX Supercross track nearing completion in the Riverwalk development in Rock Hill. The city will become the only city with two Olympic-quality venues for bicycling competitions.
Panoramic view of the new BMX Supercross track nearing completion in the Riverwalk development in Rock Hill. The city will become the only city with two Olympic-quality venues for bicycling competitions. jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com

It’s a super way to lure super-skilled bicycle racers: Build a BMX supercross track.

Rock Hill did just that. The city formally opens the $7 million track on Saturday, which will make it a national destination for enclosed-track bike racing.

BMX stands for bicycle motocross, in which riders sprint along a groomed dirt course of hills and hairpin turns on compact, small-wheel bikes, often jumping high as they vault over obstacles.

Paired with the supercross track is the $4 million Giordana Velodrome, at which cyclists race around a concrete oval track. The velodrome looks like a miniature NASCAR raceway. Both are city-owned and operated.

The venues mean Rock Hill, with a population of 68,000, will be the only U.S. city with BMX and velodrome tracks that meet Olympic standards.

“We want to be a major player in cycling,” said John Taylor, director of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. “Our aim is to be a national cycling center.”

Rock Hill, 20 miles south of Charlotte, took a major step in accomplishing that goal in June when it was awarded the 2017 BMX Supercross World Championships by the Union Cycliste Internationale in Switzerland. The week-long event is expected to draw 3,000-3,500 pro and amateur racers and 10,000-12,000 fans from 40 countries.

In addition, Rock Hill in July won the BMX Supercross World Cup finals scheduled for September, 2015. The World Cup is the main qualification event for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.

The two tracks are in the 1,000-acre Riverwalk development, east of Interstate 77 and beside the Catawba River. They’re part of the bicycle-themed Rock Hill Outdoor Center that includes mountain bike trails and, eventually, cyclo-cross trails and a paved road bike course.

The Novant Health BMX Supercross Track, its official name, will be the only U.S. supercross track outside of Chula Vista, Calif., according to Craig Barrette, spokesman for USA BMX in Chandler, Ariz.

The supercross track is two tracks in one. Skilled supercross athletes launch from a starting ramp 26 feet high compared to 16 feet for amateurs. Mike King, the city’s BMX coordinator, said supercross racers lined up eight across will reach speeds of 35 mph on the downslope. The 1,300-foot-long course winds across a series of red-clay hills and asphalt-banked corners. Racers finish in about 35 seconds.

King said he expects international BMX racers from time to time will come to train on the supercross track.

King joined the city staff in January from Chula Vista, Calif. He oversaw the U.S. BMX Olympic teams in 2008 and 2012 and was a pro BMX racer.

The BMX track consists of bleachers that will seat 1,500, offices, rest rooms, concessions and 750 parking spaces. Seating for the 2017 world championships will be increased to 7,000.

The track’s first event, the USA BMX Gold Cup East Finals on Oct. 10-12, is expected to draw 800 racers.

“We’re definitely going to be there at least once a year if not more,” Barrette said, in addition to state, regional and local races.

USA BMX sanctions 370 tracks in the U.S. and Canada, including the Capital City BMX track in Raleigh. BMX racing bills itself as family-oriented, with adults and children, including a 5-and-under category, competing in classes based on gender, age and skill level.

Taylor said the two tracks came about as part of Rock Hill’s strategy to promote sports tourism. Soccer and softball tournaments bring in $20 million a year.

“We were kind of looking for the next thing we could do in sports tourism,” Taylor said.

Riverwalk lies on the site of the former Celanese textile plant property. When completed in five to seven years, Riverwalk is to have 800 single-family homes, 500 apartments, 150 town homes and 5,000 residents plus offices, restaurants and shops, according to Dave Williams, development director for the Assured Group of Cincinnati.

Assured Group donated 250 acres for the outdoor center. The $12 million center is being paid for by Rock Hill’s 2 percent hospitality tax, Taylor said.

Rock Hill bicyclist Rick Anderson said the center offers more than cycling venues.

“It gives people an opportunity to get involved in these sports on a competitive level,” said Anderson, who volunteers as a referee at the 800-seat velodrome.

The velodrome, which opened in 2012, features a 250-meter-long (820 feet), Olympic-caliber track. It’s steeply banked (42 degrees) at the ends. Racers can reach speeds of more than 40 mph. Cyclists must attend a clinic to learn to ride the steep banks.

The nearest velodrome that meets Olympic standards is in Frisco, Texas, said Thad Fischer, recreation superintendent. The only other velodrome in the Carolinas is in Asheville.

Together, the velodrome and the supercross tracks are “a one-stop destination for elite athletes and for people from the community,” Fischer said.