CYCLING NOTEBOOK Houston’s leading lady of cycling moving on
Velodrome icon steps down after decades of service
The calls kept coming. In order to host the 1986 U.S. Olympic Festival, Houston had to build a cycling track, or velodrome. However, once those aspiring Olympians completed their last laps, city officials didn’t quite know what to do with the concrete oval designed for bikes without brakes.
They turned to Kathy Volski.
“The parks department called to ask me about coming up with a strategy for the velodrome,” said Volski, who lived in Austin at the time and served on USA Cycling’s Board of Directors. “And they kept calling. I told them I couldn’t manage the track from long distance and told them they should hire me.”
It was good advice. Volski joined the parks department in 1988 with a vision of turning the Alkek Velodrome in Cullen Park in west Houston into a training and racing hub.
She opened up the track for training, stocked the facility with loaner bikes, and launched the popular Friday Night Racing Series, which began drawing cyclists from around Texas during the spring and fall racing seasons.
Volski also worked to keep the track — one of 22 U.S. velodromes — relevant on the national cycling scene. The track hosted the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1988 and has been the site of seven nationalchampionship events and training camps for several national teams.
Legend also has it that seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong took a spin there.
“Lance’s people called and wanted to use the facility for Lance to test some wheels,” said Volski. “They asked me to keep it a secret because they didn’t want it to turn into a big media event.”
While the November 2002 training session was successfully kept under wraps, Volski made no secret of the autographed yellow jersey Armstrong left behind to say thanks. Velodrome brethren were disappointed that they missed a chance to meet cycling royalty but were in awe of the parting gift.
Meeting Armstrong is just one of the myriad memories Volski has revisited in recent weeks as she reached a decision to step down as manager of the velodrome.
“I thought it was the right time,” she said. “With the new organization (the Greater Houston Cycling Foundation) coming in to run the track, I wanted to give those guys the flexibility to come in with new and different ideas. It was time for me to turn over this child that I’ve nurtured for 18 years.”
During her stint at the velodrome, Volski has had the best seat in the house. From her vantage point on the track infield, she’s seen champions like Garth Blackburn, Ryan Nelman, and Al Whaley blaze around the oval; 5,000 fans turn out for the Olympic Trials; and cyclists from as far away as Australia use the facility to hone their track skills.
However, for Volski, the track’s junior cycling program will always have a special place at the front of the pack.
“Starting from absolute scratch and growing that program to the point where we’ve been recognized by USA Cycling as club of the year is something I’m very proud of,” Volski said.
The junior program was created in 1999 as a way to introduce cycling to youngsters, ages 10 to 18, and provide an athletic alternative to soccer and baseball. The program was meant for all comers, regardless of whether they wanted to simply spin around the track or strive for the victory stand.
Interest was tepid at first, with only five youngsters participating in the first year. Each year, however, the program grew both in numbers and stature. Medals and outstanding performances started to mount. The track’s team won 15 medals at this year’s national championships in July and while that hardware is one measure of the success of the program, Volski believes the impact goes beyond winning and losing.
“Because of our programs, for example, children have learned the importance of wearing a bicycle helmet,” she said. “And who knows? Maybe they wore a helmet, fell and didn’t hurt themselves because of what they learned at the track. You never really know how far-reaching that touch is.”
“I’m going to miss her,” said Cristin Walker, 18, who’s raced in national championship events for the past six years with Volski by her side. “She was always there to encourage me and help calm my nerves before a race. It’s going to be really different not having her there.”
Volski is calling her departure from the velodrome a retirement, but she won’t be sitting still. She’s consulting on the construction of a cycling track in Spain and planning to relocate to Europe early next year.
In the meantime, Volski’s looking forward to something she hasn’t had much time to do the past 18 years — ride her bike. Steve Sievert covers cycling for the Chronicle. firstname.lastname@example.org.