The Empire Oval
As I drove through Portland on my way to Vancouver for the first time in 2007 I couldn’t help but think I was making a big mistake. I’d just left San Jose for Burnaby, the site of the only track in BC’s Lower Mainland and the only indoor velodrome in the Pacific Northwest, and the snow cover was getting heavier by the minute. Years later, I’ve come to appreciate the cold, wet weather that is the Vancouver winter and even more so the covered facility that rests on the North side of Burnaby Mountain. Although the temperature is often cooler inside than out and the track surface is a patchwork of cancer-like Bond-O fixes, I can’t imagine not riding the velodrome year-round.
But the Burnaby Velodrome is a relatively recent fixture in BC. Just over thirty years ago track cyclists in Vancouver would have been forced to wait out winter storms to ride what had once been called, “the best velodrome in Europe.” For the 26 years it stood at the cross-streets of Glen and Broadway, the China Creek Velodrome was track cycling in Vancouver. Now the site of Vancouver City College’s Broadway Campus, it’s hard to imagine the site as an undeveloped plot of land covered in refuse and stagnate water. But, up until just before the track was built, that’s exactly what it was. Far from the babbling brook imagery the name might elicit, China Creek hadn’t been much of a creek for decades.
In the Beginning
In a letter to the City of Vancouver dated 1942, Ernest Silverton (a Barrister) had inquired as to whether or not the City was interested in acquiring the land at Glen and Broadway streets as it, “may prove of value as a dumping ground.” In fact, ownership would protect the City from legal complications arising from the fact that a sewer ran through the plot of land (no doubt the Joint Sewage Board storm overflow). The City’s response at the time was no, but it must have made them consider the possibility.
By the time City Council finally approved a works project that would cover the China Creek flats in June 1951, residents had been complaining of the stench left by decaying garbage for years. It was even said that children living in that area were more prone to skin conditions than in other parts of the city. Though not officially, the area was a dump. So much so that John Gadsby -a founding member of the C-Trac Board of Directors- recalls that in 1972 as the track was being rehabilitated, area residents were digging through the exposed track supports in search of crockery that had been abandoned there prior to the track’s completion.
Luckily, there was hope. In the same decision that would set aside $135,000 to fix the “health menace,” that was China Creek, an additional $10,000 was to be set aside for creating a park. While the original plans certainly didn’t call for erecting a track, thanks to Vancouver’s successful bid to host the 1954 British Empire and Common Wealth Games, the decision to build a velodrome in China Creek Park was announced in 1953.
As a host for the British Empire Games, building a velodrome wasn’t a choice the City had — but I have to respect the leap of faith on their part. For all of the press cyclists managed to get in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, it was, by all accounts, still a relatively obscure sport. In 1951 the “full slate” of road racing consisted of only 22 races. And, in 1952, the grueling road race organized by the British Empire Games Society from Vancouver to Penticton — said to be the longest of its kind in North America — had only 23 participants. Far from their well-paid European counterparts, the riders were contesting the event for prizes ranging from, “a 13 pound ham to a bicycle.”
Vancouver’s Early Tracks: Brockton Point, Denman Arena, Hastings Park and Digney Speedway
As brave as the City was, they were far from trailblazing; the China Creek Velodrome wasn’t the first track in the Vancouver area. Those honors go to Brockton Point, where records indicate races as early as 1893. In fact, racing continued at Brockton Point all the way through 1933 which, probably not so coincidentally, was right around the time a portable wood track was brought to the Denman Arena (also known as the Vancouver Arena) for six day races. Although the thrill of six day races waned as the top riders retreated to the few oases where good money could still be had, Vancouver’s organizers managed to pull off races in 1931-32 and again in 1934.
At the same time racing was taking place downtown and in Stanley Park, bike races were also being organized on the ¼ mile track at Hastings Park. As the other tracks faded into obscurity, Hastings became the go to place until Digney Speedway was constructed in 1948 in the city of Burnaby; it’s there that track racers retreated, unaware that a new sanctuary was just around the bend.
In its’ bid for the Games, the British Empire Games Society had made some lofty goals. Confident that they could raise $2.1million dollars to leave a legacy of $1.8million in building developments throughout the city, the new Society put out on an aggressive fundraising campaign. Leaflets were distributed and fundraising drives featured top athletes strutting their stuff to onlookers and the army of volunteers called upon to canvas local businesses. By their estimation, a new track would cost $60,000. Pricey, but not too bad when compared to the $300,000 needed for the Empire Pool or the $1.5million needed for Empire Stadium.
On April 10th, 1953 a call for bids was announced and the race to the bottom began. It’s ironic to think that a set -of blueprints- was only $10 for interested contractors but when I visited the City Archives to find the blueprints, none could be found. Months later, I found two sets independently: one in the basement of an Ontario home, and the other in a small suite above a Vancouver bike shop.
Back in 1953, the winning bid was awarded to Jarvis Construction Company Ltd. In all, they had allotted $63,713 to build a 250 meter track with a seating capacity of 2000 as well as provisions for washrooms and medical offices. The contract outlined every detail of the track:
All lumber in the deck shall be 2”x4” Yellow Cedar #2 Common and better, square edges, one clear edge, double trimmed, small intergrown knots not to exceed ½” in diameter. No lengths shall be less than 8’ 0” and all shall be air dried from 12% to 16% by moisture.
Often used in the production of boats, yellow cedar is typically very resistant to decay, an ideal quality for an outdoor Vancouver velodrome, but I’m sure the smell must have been intoxicating. As I started my track career at Hellyer, which at the time was surrounded by Eucalyptus trees, I have a strong association with the scent. So at 250 meters long, 10 meters wide and 45 degrees in the turns the newly emerging track would have been breathtaking (perhaps even literally).
By mid-November 1953, at least two thirds of the track’s surface had already been laid. The fact that the surface hadn’t been completed didn’t stop people from riding. There are photos of Lorne Atkinson and Robin Manson riding the track in October of 1953 which is the same month that the added expense of the fieldhouse, an additional $15,000, was approved by the Empire Games Society. Already a total of $30,000 over budget the track still lacked lighting. Additional funds were raised and by December 1953, the track was done. When the track was completed, roughly 100,000 pieces of wood and four-and-a-half tons of galvanized 10-penny nails were hammered in place. The stage was set.
The Empire Oval
Up until the track’s completion the local racing scene was composed of a small fraternity of local riders. To give you an idea of how small the racing community was, in 1949 when the Dominion Championships and Empire Games Trials were held in Burnaby, only 30 adult riders and 7 juniors participated. The completion of the velodrome in China Creek brought change, at first from Australia. With the hope of representing Canada in the upcoming Games, a group of seven Aussies ventured to Vancouver. Their arrival, remembers Jim Davies Jr., ushered in a realization that the rabbit hole was much deeper than they had previously thought.
“We didn’t know what training was like,” Davies Jr. recalled as he described their arrival to me. “It was a real game changer.”
The first real test of their new found speed would come when the first official race was held in April of 1954. Englishmen Reg Harris the reigning Professional World Sprint Champion and the Italian Enzo Sacci, the Amateur World Sprint Champion, were scheduled to compete alongside a full schedule of local racing. The spectator stands were packed and hundreds of people lined Broadway to catch a glimpse of the action. It was a phenomenon that would become common. When the British Empire Games finally came in August capacity crowds filled the stands every night. They were wowed as Games records were shattered and bitter rivalries erupted among the competitors.
Ironically, the Australians that had immigrated to Canada to join the Canadian team at the Games had come a few days too late. Unable to ride for Canada or Australia they were in forced to watch as their countrymen stormed out of the infield in protest of a call made against Lionel Cox in his sprint heat against Cyril Peacock of England. They later returned to competition but the dispute made headlines for days and masked the absence of a Canadian victory in the competition.
In the wake of the Empire Games there was a small wave of riders that immigrated to Canada bringing with them their energy and talent as athletes. The years that followed were a bit of a Golden Age as they saw a host of events that brought riders from across North America to compete. Provincial, National, and North American Championships were hosted at the new facility. Among the many riders to compete were: Jack and Bill Disney, Dick and Gus Gatto, and Bob Tetzlaff; all giants of the cycling world. For a community that had been somewhat nomadic only a few years earlier China Creek was a godsend.
The Crash: Slated for Demolition
High from the intoxicating rush brought on by the racing fervor of the 1950’s the coming crash, as ever, wouldn’t be so convivial. But the premature demise of the facility wasn’t the result of just one factor, it was the combination of many. City-owned and operated, the track relied heavily on the expertise and vision of its local cyclist-volunteers. Many of the events organized up until 1958 were the product of Jim Davies Sr., former Madison partner to the likes of Torchy Peden. Shortly after he stepped aside as event organizer, the City struggled to navigate the complex lexicon needed to communicate with the tight-knit cycling community. At the same time the crowds, which up until then had an enthusiastic Italian constituency, started to wane as the area’s Italian club dissolved. With its passing, the lively crowds that had once cheered as their riders hurled themselves around the track, and occasionally broke out into all out brawls over perceived slights, would also vanish. And, by 1966 the track was slated for demolition. Desperately in need of repairs, the City felt that they couldn’t justify capital expenditures on the track due to the declining attendance in both the riders and spectators. Splintering and warped, the dilapidated boards wouldn’t have helped to attract new riders either. Though Lorne Atkinson, by all accounts the Godfather of road cycling in Vancouver, later admitted that local clubs could have done better to recruit fresh talent (he might have been right, an integrated youth program wouldn’t actually be created until the early 1970’s) but his sentiments belie the changing ethos of the sport’s National governing body. On the world stage, road cycling was becoming ever more popular and the allocation of resources mirrored the changing reality. Regardless, the track, once the crown jewel of Canadian track cycling, limped on until the early 1970’s.
Although present at both the Olympics and British Empire Games, it wasn’t until 1969 that Canada finally sent a rider to the World Championships on the track. Their absence at the Worlds mirrors the collegial attitude that had predominated the previous decades — but change was afoot. In 1971, the National Championships returned to the park for the first time in eight years. In preparation for the meet, the City spent roughly $11,000 to resurface the track with a concoction they believed would help preserve the track surface. They were wrong. Bas Lycett, who had recently emigrated from England as a multi-time grass track champion, recalls sinking in to the tar like substance as he circled the track.
Luckily, things were about to change for the better. In 1973, a small group of cyclists consisting of Tony Hoar, John Gadsby, and E.D. McRae got together to form the society C-Trac. The purpose of the newly minted non-profit was to rehabilitate the facility and manage its’ programs. Things moved quickly, and through a combination of a grant from the federal Labor Improvement Program (LIP), a provincial grant, and funds from the Vancouver Parks Board, the new society managed to scrape together $150,000 needed to restore the China Creek Velodrome back to its former glory.
Aside from the obvious repairs needed, it was also necessary to slightly re-engineer the track. When it was first designed in 1953 a City draftsman, P.R. Marsh, created the plans but his lack of experience with velodromes was evident. Originally going from 45 degrees to 7 degrees, the transition from the turns to the straights wasn’t particularly smooth. To help, Albert Schalstraete of Apollo Velodrome Systems was brought in to fix the transitions so riders could more easily carry speed through the turns. Furthermore, in a decision that illustrates the foresight of the new Society, it was decided to make the most of the apron by adding a slight banking through the turns. Essentially an asphalt extension of the track, the new apron could be used more effectively to teach children to ride the velodrome –something the former build would not have accommodated as well.
Designs in hand, the work of actually building the new track could commence. In February 1973 labor began and, much to the chagrin of local Unions, most of the work was carried out by local riders such as Ron Hayman and Bas Lysett, whom C-Trac had asked to be foreman. First the old track would have to be cut out section by section, ensuring that the struts were left in-tact. Under the supervision of John Gadsby the struts on either straight were raised to accommodate the new design. From there the actual laying of the deck seems to have progressed rapidly. After only six months and roughly 602 “man weeks of work” the hemlock track –yellow cedar was in short supply and high demand- was laid.
With the track complete racing could begin and in July 1973 C-Trac kicked things off with the Air Canada International Professional Omnium. Using his influence, Tony Hoar, a former yellow jersey holder in the Tour de France, was able to piggyback off of a Six Day in Montreal and convince a number of top riders to help Christin the newly rebuilt track. Among the riders to come: Hugh Porter –the reigning World Champion in individual pursuit-, Tony Gowland, Jackie Simes, John Vande Velde, Dave Watson, Norman Hill, and Jocelyn Lovell –then still only an amateur. The race was significant not only because of the caliber riders they were able to attract, but also because it helped reinforce what everyone had already thought, that C-Trac was able to make things happen.
However, elite racing was never the sole focus of the Society, nor was it simply managing a track. In their Constitution C-Trac outlines their objectives of “promoting, conducting, and directing programs for: bicycle track riding and racing, bicycle safety, recreational and competitive field sports, and any other activity relating to the facility.” It also expressly states their desire to work with local organizations and community groups to help reach their goals. Though they fell short of enticing a representative from the Vancouver School Board (VSB) –which was their original goal- the Board did have representation from the Bicycling Association of British Columbia (BABC) as well as the Vancouver Parks Board. Both organizations seen as critical in terms of establishing a sustainable future for the velodrome.
Despite the absence of the VSB C-Trac managed a successful schools program. For the two years immediately after their grand re-opening, up to six area schools brought students to the facility for physical education. Aboard their fleet of modified Peugots, road bikes that were set up as fixed-gears, kids took to the track most weekdays and for the first time in years it seemed as though there was a home base for track cycling in Vancouver.
The coming years brought inevitable change. Barry Lysett, the track’s resident coach was asked to be the Canadian National Junior Track Cycling Coach and of course the void his absence would create needed to be filled. With so much talent around at that time it didn’t take the Board long to fill the vacancy. An English ex-pat living in LA, Norman Hill had participated in the European Six Day circuit and had moved to California to coach. Having experienced success in that role in LA, he was asked to come to Vancouver to take charge of C-Trac’s programs to which he happily accepted.
Unfortunately his arrival was not met with the accolades he had come to expect from his time in LA. He recalls it being, “a whole different game.” For the majority of his contract as coach, Norman felt as though the Provincial and National governing bodies worked against him and his efforts. Whether or not this is true, it’s clear that he had a polarizing effect on the community. At the same time that a number of riders had signed on to Hill’s training programs, another group of cyclists were signing a letter to the BABC describing his penchant to interfere and hinder, “the work of officials of the Bicycling Association of British Columbia; in fact with anybody whose ideas and actions do not conform with his own.” In hindsight it’s sad to see the rift in a community that could ill afford a lack of solidarity; in 1975 –what some remember to be the peak of the racing in the 1970’s- there were only 34 racing memberships, of which only a handful were under 20 years of age. In 1977, Barry Lycett returned as coach; he would be the last coach of the Society.
In the end, it wasn’t the weather that finally did the track in; nor was it the lack of participation or petty infighting that had existed in the club (though neither helped). For as much as cycling advocacy accomplished in the 1970’s, it also created a great deal of tension between the City and its cyclists. Conflicts between cyclists erupted on the roads as well as on Vancouver’s iconic seawall. By 1976, the Vancouver Police Department had issued 3,000 tickets to cyclists undeterred by the rules that forbade them from rolling along the scenic path that skirted the perimeter of Stanley Park. In 1977, an Alberta-based charity proposed to help fund an expansion of the seawall to allow cyclists the opportunity to safely ride alongside pedestrians. Though the measure was passed, it won by a narrow 4:3 vote in which the Mayor opposed the expenditure.
For all its worth, the velodrome was an easy target. Unable to accommodate riders without supervision and certainly not rideable throughout the year, the velodrome must have been a constant source of frustration. Although C-Trac was responsible for the majority of the facility’s expenditures, the City did still invest in its maintenance on an annual basis, albeit less and less as the years advanced. From their perspective the track was underutilized and over-funded. But was the City’s lack of funding the cause of its underutilization is the million dollar -or rather $2.75million dollar- question.
In 1980, when the opportunity to sell the land to Vancouver Community College presented itself, the City acted. And although the net profit from the sale of the land was $2.75million (remember that the same land was purchased by the City from CNR for $17,000 in 1950), $750,000 was given for “improvements” made on the land. At the time, it was argued that the money should go to help seed a new indoor multi-sport facility in which a velodrome was included. The City rebuked the idea, saying that “it would be inappropriate to give further consideration to relocating or constructing a new cycle racing facility. The consequence of expenditures of this large amount for cycle racing relative to other amateur sport groups, which have thousands of participants, is not justified.”
The Last Race: 1980
On the evening of September 3rd, 1980 in front of a solemn crowd and under rainy skies, the last race at the China Creek Velodrome was cancelled. In true fashion, local newspapers flocked to the facility with a zeal that had only been surpassed by the track’s initial opening in 1954 and reopening in 1973. The reporters alluded to the sad state of affairs that had precipitated this tragedy but ultimately it would be years before significant traction for a new facility would begin. In 1997, the doors of the Harry Jerome Sports Center would officially revolve for the first time as the Burnaby Velodrome was christened.
Tragic as it was, the untimely demise of the Empire Oval should teach us the importance of innovation and sustainability within our track programs. As untouchable as we may think our facilities are, we need to recognize their frailty and appreciate their existence as well as the dedicated individuals who work to preserve them. Together, as a community, we need to take stock of our priorities and sharpen our collective focus on the work that needs to be done to help grow the sport now, and for years to come.
Special thanks to: Jim Davies Jr., John Gadsby, Tony Hoar, Bas Lysette, Jan Atkinson, Luis Bernhardt, Robert Schalstraete, the Vancouver Public Library, the Vancouver City Archives, the Vancouver Heritage Foundation, Randy Cunningham, John G, and the City of Burnaby. Your efforts to progress the sport are inspiring and your contributions to the track community are truly appreciated!