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Matt Maher: Velodrome would leave a lasting Commonwealth Games legacy

On Wednesday, Birmingham’s Centenary Square was a hive of activity as the city staged an event to mark one year until the start of the Commonwealth Games.

Next week, meanwhile, is likely to be important in efforts to ensure the region receives the best possible legacy from the biggest sporting extravaganza it has ever staged.

Members of the campaign to build a velodrome in the West Midlands are due to meet with Andy Street to discuss the next steps, after the Mayor pledged to back their efforts in the manifesto on which he was re-elected earlier this year.

That was a particularly significant moment, giving another layer of legitimacy to a campaign which has been driven chiefly by just a handful of cycling enthusiasts.

Calls for a velodrome in the Midlands have always been there but became louder four years ago when, after Birmingham had been chosen as host, it emerged no facility would be built for the 2022 Games. Instead, next year’s track cycling competition will be staged more than 100 miles away, at London’s Lee Valley.

Though calls for Birmingham 2022 organisers to reconsider were unsuccessful, over time the campaign has switched focus and is now aimed at securing the construction of a low-cost training velodrome as a legacy to the Games.

For Dave Viner, a former amateur cyclist and chairman at Halesowen Cycling Club, it has become close to a full-time job.

“There isn’t a day that goes by when I’m not making phone calls or sending emails,” he explains. “It does take up a lot of time but it is something I am extremely passionate about.”

The case Viner and his colleagues have compiled is impressive. An initial petition which gained more than 8,000 signatures has been followed by an 110-page document setting out their argument in detail.

They have spoken to the region’s council chiefs, universities and sporting institutions, while the list of high-profile figures to have given the campaign their backing include the former head of cycling’s world governing body, Brian Cookson, and Great Britain Paralympic legend Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson.

Grey-Thompson was contacted to discuss the issue of accessibility, which together with affordability, inclusion and diversity, the latter in particular being an area where cycling has often fallen short, make up what Viner describes as the ‘four pillars’ of the campaign.

Action from the Women's Point Race during the UCI Track Cycling World Cup at the Lee Valley Velopark, London.

Rather than simply focus on the cost of construction (though that would likely be one-eighth of the £40million first claimed when it was decided not to build a full-sized competition facility for the Games), he and his team have sought to prove why a velodrome would be viable in the long-term.

In addition to being a training centre for the area’s professionals more accessible than Derby or Newport (the two closest indoor velodromes at present), they argue it would also have significant health benefits for the wider community. With a large infield track area, neither would the facility be only used for cycling. It is believed the team held talks with UK Badminton to explore their interest in a multi-purpose venue.

The campaign certainly caught the eye of Street, whose influence is now likely to be key in securing funding.

“Here in the West Midlands we have some fantastic sporting venues but we’re lacking a velodrome and I am committed to changing that,” he said earlier this year. “It’ll be a clear sign that our region is investing in cycling not only as a form of green transport but as a top-class sport too.”

More puzzling has been the reticence of British Cycling to back the campaign. Though regular conversations have been held with officers from the national governing body since 2017, recent correspondence from Brian Facer, its new chief executive, is thought to have been less than positive.

Meanwhile, a technical review into the building of low-cost velodromes, commissioned by British Cycling, is four months overdue. For Viner, who believes the report will back up the research of his team, the delay is a source of frustration.

Of course, British Cycling is required to take a national view. A needs analysis published early last year found ‘no strong strategic or business case’ for building an indoor velodrome in the Midlands.

Yet the campaign team argue the report overlooked much of their evidence and believe a more focused feasibility study would provide a more favourable outlook.

There is also, surely, the broader argument that as a group of volunteers who have worked tirelessly to make the case for building a major cycling facility, they are precisely the people the organisation responsible for promoting the sport in the UK should be trying to support?

Regardless, Viner and his team have come too far to give up now.

“I think it is fair to say with all the hard work we have put in we are going to keep pushing this all the way,” he says. “I see this as an obligation to future generations of cyclists in the West Midlands. This is the time. If we don’t do it now, it is never going to happen.”

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