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Cycling’s Forrest Gump, Right Here in Chester County

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Most Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:30 a.m., you’ll find David Chauner at Vitesse Sport Performance, the indoor training studio in West Chester owned by his son, a fourth-year cycling pro. “Folks used to say to him, ‘Are you David Chauner’s son?’ Now, they ask me, ‘Are you Michael Chauner’s dad?’” says Chauner.

A two-time Olympic track cyclist who lives in rural Chester County, Chauner is arguably this country’s leading advocate for the sport. Still remarkably fit for 65, with a full head of hair, he continues his conditioning when he’s not traveling. “No one can ever accuse me of not being passionate,” he says. 

Chauner isn’t quite ready to hand over the reins, but he is willing to share them again. Devotion has carried him through cycling’s various incarnations on both track and road. His career, in fact, has been cyclic. An inductee into the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame in 1998, he freely admits that he’s been a visionary “for better or worse.” 

Chauner likes to call himself cycling’s Forrest Gump. He’s witnessed—daresay influenced—every significant modern-day U.S. cycling event, including his most successful endeavor, the Pro Cycling Tour between 2001 and 2005. These days, he’s getting set to add one last chapter to his cycling legacy: the international development of indoor racing venues and the World Cycling League. Think of the WCL as the potential NFL of the sport.

Now, if said sport could only get all its visionaries on the same track. At the moment, there is no defined season in track cycling, where the bikes have just one gear to work with and lack brakes and a freewheel. There are no play-offs, no standard playing field or statistics, not even a consistent Olympic format. A lone positive: a “clean slate,” says one insider.

And the sport must steer clear of the traditional European model, the Tour de France. This isn’t Europe, says Chauner. Cycling also needs to bury its ugliest period, and to sell itself without relying on one rider, the embattled Lance Armstrong. Many with a vested interest are dissatisfied with the Union Cycliste Internationale and USA Cycling—leadership that did too little, too late in combating the doping scandal that nearly killed cycling in its shell.

Chauner and others believe cycling needs to be reborn in a uniquely American, entrepreneurial way that allows it to grow so it’s not in lockstep with the UCI. This country watches its sports in arenas and stadiums—and cycling is a colorful, sleek sport that could be delivered that way. Insiders are predicting change—a new era—within five years and a
return to the track heyday from a century ago. Talk about cyclic.

But if that’s to happen, cycling has to have a sustainable, universal business model—something it has consistently sought but, thus far, sorely lacked. The call is for an innovative league, television contracts, websites, the incorporation of technology—and Chauner is the leader of the pack. 

But like any ambitious sort, Chauner also has his critics, who say he doesn’t pay his bills and rarely turns dreams into reality. (The same folks who wouldn’t go on the record for this story.)

Cycling’s initial resurgence here came in the late 1960s with the advent of the 10-speed bike. Chauner’s earliest cycling stories stem out of that do-your-own-thing decade and the old Ardmore Bike Shop. He grew up in Rosemont and graduated from Harriton High School in 1966.

When his older brother, Frank, founded  the Main Line Milers cycling club, Chauner was just 12. He formed a junior division of the Milers, spinning it off into the Lower Merion Cycling Association, which planned various day trips.

Fellow member Craig Currie grew up in Bryn Mawr and is now a Philadelphia attorney. He’d begun racing competitively and urged Chauner to do the same. “Racing? What’s that?” Chauner recalls saying. 

Struck by an early-’60s Tour de France feature in Sports Illustrated, Chauner cut out every picture. “It was so cool, so Continental, so European,” he says now. 

In three years of high-school French, there was always a chapter on the Tour. Chauner became the class expert.

Currie had Chauner attend one of his races, the Tour of Somerville (N.J.), a tradition since the 1940s. Chauner was enthralled by the colorful jerseys and the guys rubbing liniment on their shaved legs. “I’ll always remember my father (Milton) saying, ‘Do you think you’d like to do this?’” Chauner says. “Two years later, I won the junior race at Somerville.”

Soon enough, he was riding in races in New York’s Central Park, where European transplants ran cycling clubs. He went
to see the 1964 Olympic trials at the new Kissena track in New York, and fellow riders in the Century Road Club of America included some Olympic qualifiers. “There was a culture to it,” Chauner recalls. 

Chauner made the U.S. Olympic teams in 1968 and 1972; his specialty was team pursuit. Because so many medals were won by riders from the Dutch providence of Breda, Chauner bought a one-way plane ticket there in 1969. He dropped out of college and shook his father’s hand, thinking he’d never be back. He returned within a year, reenrolled in school, and made his second Olympic Team.

Over the years, Chauner has funneled that competitive spirit into developing and promoting the sport. “So many people have said that Chauner never quits,” says the man himself. “He keeps going until he falls off his bike and dies.”

Velodromes aren’t new. There are almost 30 in this country. But year-round indoor, 200-meter velodromes are new—at least in America. Chauner thought he’d launch his master plan by building one in Coatesville. He also looked in Montgomery County, Downingtown, everywhere really. And while there’s been interest, financial support has been hard to come by.

Without a precedent, attracting a patron was tougher than climbing the Manayunk Wall, a name Chauner helped christen when it was the pinnacle point of the now-defunct Philadelphia International Cycling Championship. Once the nation’s most prestigious cycling event, the race was cofounded by Chauner and fellow Philadelphian Jerry Casale in 1985 to launch U.S. professional road racing. For 28 years, it ran every June. Then Casale died, and Chauner let it unceremoniously slip from his grip in 2013, when he and the city squabbled over money.

This year’s rebranded and revamped Philly Cycling Classic is June 1. Chauner won’t even be a spectator. His mind is on steep-banked, wooden indoor tracks. There’s only one of those in the country: a UCI-standard 250-meter track that opened 10 years ago in Los Angeles. Like those in Europe and Canada, it was built for one reason: to attract a World Cup or an Olympics, but not necessarily to sustain a competitive league.

A 200-meter velodrome—like the UCI’s own at its headquarters in Aigle, Switzerland—is more sustainable as a home for consistent training and programming, and as a place to host regular, season-long, fan-friendly league competition. The venue could also have concerts, community events and conventions. For cycling, the bells and whistles come in the form of unique technologies like onboard video cameras and the live streaming of rider data. Equate it to NASCAR on two wheels. 

Chauner is keenly aware of the number of times he’s championed the next big opportunity in cycling. But this tireless quest is different. “For me, the bigger hurdle has always been making it a business,” he says. “If you build it—and market it—they will come.”

Chauner’s new crew unveiled the World Cycling League in March. Its first velodrome, dubbed Island 200, should be completed in Western Pennsylvania by the end of the summer. It was spearheaded by Pittsburgh recycled-aluminum tycoon Bob Gottlieb, a bicycling enthusiast and one of Chauner’s new compatriots.

After a three-day pilot event in March 2015 and 12 USA East Conference meets through March 2016 in Pittsburgh, the five-year plan includes expanding to three conferences, each with its own indoor velodrome and four teams. The regular season would run October to March, so it doesn’t interfere with road season. 

The league would initially contract with 44 riders. Each of the four teams in the USA East (the first is the Pittsburgh Pacers; the others will be named in August) would have 11 riders: six men, three women and two alternates. Competition includes 12 three-day meets, or 36 “games” per season, featuring popular events like the madison, sprints and keirin races. Each event would count toward building team point totals in season-long standings. “Games are what the NFL does,” Chauner says. “Our game is Speedtrak Cycling. We have some big plans.”

For Chauner, it leaves his last claim to fame, the Philly race, in the dust. His proposed velodromes in Chester and Montgomery counties could’ve been the WCL’s first—one on an abandoned 22-acre industrial site known as the Flats in Coatesville, the other on a 14-acre parcel near Valley Forge National Historical Park. Chauner, meanwhile, has moved his vision west for the time being.

Aside from Gottlieb, Chauner’s partners are Chicago’s John Vande Velde, another two-time Olympian and the league’s commissioner; COO John Nelson, a New York-based “serial entrepreneur”; and Pittsburgh’s Mark Bombara, whose video-gaming and eSports background qualifies him as the league’s CTO. “I need others who are ethical, loyal, smart and devoid of ego,” says Chauner. “And I admit I haven’t been the best at [choosing partners] over the years.” 

As for Gottlieb, Chauner calls him a “modern-day Bob Rodale.” The visionary who transformed his father’s healthy-living interests into the Rodale press empire, Rodale was also the guy who, in 1974, set aside 25 acres for his own velodrome—now called the Valley Preferred Cycling Center—in Trexlertown, Pa. The 1968 Olympic skeet shooter tapped Chauner and Jack Simes III, a three-time U.S. Olympic cyclist and team coach, as its first directors. So, obviously, Chauner has been down this path before.

Rodale’s experiment was disparaged by naysayers as a “white elephant” and a “crater in a cornfield,” noted 2000 U.S. Olympic gold-medal sprinter Marty Nothstein in his 2012 autobiography. Chauner calls T-Town’s banked track the world’s best outdoor velodrome. But it can never be a year-round facility. High-profile cycling only runs June-August.

In 2011, Simes revived the National Cycling Association, the country’s only other pro league. Formed in 1898 and
incorporated a year later, it had been cycling’s NFL for half a century and the organizing body in track cycling’s heyday (1900-15). 

Six-day races were popular into the 1930s, before heading to Europe. Marshall “Major” Taylor broke the color barrier long before Jackie Robinson, winning a world championship in 1899. Three years earlier, at 18, he covered 1,732 miles at a six-day in Madison Square Garden. Back then, the winner completed the most round-the-clock laps, an inhumane format later outlawed in New York.
Promoters then adopted a two-person relay, aptly named the madison. Simes’ father competed there in the ’20s and ’30s.

In 1912, Frank Kramer was the last American to win a match-sprint world championship—becoming essentially the
world’s fastest bike racer—on a now-defunct velodrome in Newark, N.J. Nothstein—who learned to cycle in Chauner’s developmental programs—matched the feat 82 years later. 

Now, there are two cycling leagues. From none to two? “Well, I guess so,” Chauner admits. 

And could Chauner and Simes ever work together again? “Probably,” says Simes. “If we could get on the same track, we could be like two locomotives heading in the same direction.”

Chauner never spoke to Simes about his plans, which Simes says will create a “headwaters” and spark the need for a feeder system. Chauner hasn’t yet spoken with the folks in L.A., either—and he certainly hasn’t involved himself with the rumored velodrome in Philadelphia, an interest insiders say stems from Mayor Michael Nutter’s wife, Lisa, who’s a competitive cycling fan. Nutter spokesperson Mark McDonald won’t comment.

After a City Hall reception this past October, cycling websites and blogs lit up, purporting the plan for the Project 250 Philadelphia Indoor Cycling Center, a 250-meter public-use velodrome that will cover a full city block and cost $130 million. It’s worth noting that Philadelphia had a velodrome in the late 1880s.

Chauner says he’d have no problem working with the city again, but his focus is on Pittsburgh. Last year, however, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he had no intention of ever organizing another local event. “I loved the Philly race,” he says now. “It was part of my DNA. But when we began to create a legacy of debt, we couldn’t cover it. I kept it going way beyond what made business sense.”

It was a shell game, and when the city charges escalated from $100,000 to $300,000 and the TD Bank sponsorship was ending, Chauner couldn’t keep pace. He announced a year layoff, hoping to return healthier in 2014. In the interim, a firestorm ignited among stakeholders, who seized the remains, spiked it with political clout, and rolled it back out a year ago as the subpar Philly Cycling Classic. “From my racing career on, I’ve always felt committed to seeing things through, but you also have to know when to fold them,” says Chauner. “At the end of the day, the buck stopped with me, and I had to let it go. I prefer to look at what happened as a positive—an event so good for the city that no one wanted to lose it.”

According to McDonald, Chauner  owes the city exactly $320,761.90. Chauner had a “habit” of using previous monies
to satisfy some bills, then holding out hope of getting more cash from the city to pay off other debt. “We cut that off,” says McDonald.

 

Chauner’s attorney, Dan McElhatton, says city solicitors haven’t been in contact and that his client was forced to sign the final 2012 race contract under duress. He’s betting that officials probably figure that what Chauner gave Philadelphia in economic development over the years “far outweighs what the city says it’s owed.”

Chauner is also fighting a lawsuit brought by the family of Jerry Casale, who died in 2012. It claims Chauner agreed to buy Casale’s stake in their jointly owned race company, then didn’t. Chauner says he used the would-be money to pay his former partner’s medical expenses while battling prostate cancer. The two were like “brothers,” Chauner says.

McElhatton, also the WCL’s counsel, says the ball is in the Casales’ court. Chauner’s one regret is that he lacked the influence, the political clout, and the deep pockets to overcome the debacle. “But I remain confident in what I know will work for the sport,” he says.

Robin Morton, of G4 Productions in New Jersey, worked with Chauner and Casale for 17 years on the original race. She now heads operations for the new event. “He’s always been a visionary leader for professional racing in this country and knows what will work to make the sport appeal to an American audience,” says Morton. “It’s been his whole life, and if he can find a way to keep going, he will.”

David Chauner still dreams of a velodrome in his backyard. “I would love to see one in Chester County,” he says, referring to the still-available site along the Brandywine River at the junction of Route 82 and Lincoln Highway in Coatesville.

Chauner was never really interested in anything but cycling. He wrote about its history in Sports Illustrated’s 1985 swimsuit issue and in an opinion piece in the New York Times. After his racing career ended, he started announcing at cycling events. He worked in a bike shop in Vermont, helped out at a components company, and then reunited with Simes in Trexlertown.

For his part, Gary Smith, president and CEO of the Chester County Economic Development Council, says a velodrome has “tremendous merit” and would have “massive community support,” adding that the idea remains on the table. And local  interest has swelled again since word  got out about Pittsburgh’s $10 million velodrome, half the sum projected in
Coatesville. They’re OK with letting Pittsburgh vet the concept, but already Gottlieb is reporting that the cost will “easily exceed” $10 million. “Coatesville could become a center for cycling,” says Smith. “Dave hasn’t burned any bridges in this city or county.”

One certain beneficiary of Chauner’s work is his 27-year-old son, Michael. “He’s allowed me and my generation to have so much more opportunity,” he says of his father. “I’ve had the easiest channel into the sport, but it was real grassroots when he
began. It took a lot of guts to take it into his own hands and try to establish the sport.”

Right now, Michael is focused on road racing. Until the new long-season indoor-
track format takes hold, it’s where the action and attention are. He competed in the Philly race during his father’s final two years in charge. Then current organizers changed the format, and “it didn’t suit my interests,” Michael says.

The standard indoor track, he says, is what the sport needs. “But it takes a pioneer,” says Michael.

Visit www.island200.com/wcl.

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