The history of sports at Cooks Gardens is a long and illustrious one, ranging from Peter Snell’s breaking of the world mile record in 1962 to inter-school athletics events, and from rugby to cycling. Similarly, the proposed Cycling Centre of Excellence, which includes track and road cycling, mountainbiking and BMX, is about more than just providing a roof to improve the velodrome facility for our competitive cycling community. Instead, the planned facility (previously referred to as the Wanganui Events Centre) will include a multi-purpose venue capable of staging events as diverse as concerts, boat shows, cooking demonstrations and international skating competitions.
The first cycling track at Cooks Gardens was a quarter mile asphalt track, purpose-built during the Depression of the early 1930s. The New Zealand Cycling National Track Championships were first held there shortly before WWII in 1936, a year after the inaugural champs at Petone. They were last held at the track nearly 60 years later in 1994.
Soon after, the old track was torn up so construction of a new wooden velodrome could begin. Designed and built in 1995 by Ron Webb, a former cycling champion originally from Australia and now based in the UK, the new (now existing) track is a standard 250m track, constructed to international standards. It was the first wooden track in New Zealand (the only other is in Invercargill), and was regarded as the fastest track in the country in its first years of use. “Wanganui is one of the track designs I am really proud of,” Ron Webb said to local cycling identity Ron Cheatley. “I went away from the old-fashioned long straights/tight curves and produced a design with long sweeping curves. It was a break with the past.” Ron Webb’s own practical experience in track racing was applied to the Wanganui design, and the success of our local track led him to then incorporate similar design features in his later velodrome projects.
The Wanganui velodrome track is constructed from tropical hardwood, and is supported by 374 radiata pine trusses connected to the track with specialist French-made metal plates. Ron Webb also designed the track for the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games in 1986, and record-breaking tracks in Seoul, Athens, Sydney, Manchester and recently the new London Olympic track. When the Wanganui track was officially opened in August 1995, the Canadian ex-world champion, Curt Harnett, told Ron Webb that Wanganui was the best track he had raced on.
Velodromes designed from the beginning as indoor facilities often use cheaper wood such as pine for the track but, although the plan was always to eventually cover the Wanganui track, the hardwood meant that it would weather the elements in the interim. However, the track is now reaching the point where it needs to be covered, or it will degrade to the extent it will need to be resurfaced. Add to this that the facility as it is now cannot stage some of the more prestigious events due to the possibility of rain or wind on the day, and the need to roof the track is clear.
More broadly, if Wanganui is to attract high-profile events of interest to both locals and out-of-town visitors – which in turn will have flow-on benefits to local tourist operators, transport agencies and potential new residents, among others – we need to see the facility built sooner rather than later. What we know for sure is that if Wanganui doesn’t build itself a covered velodrome facility, it is certain that another lower North Island centre will. Roofing the Velodrome In 1997, when the Malaysian-owned company Kinta Kellas purchased Works Consultancy Services, the new company, Opus International Consultants, was keen to develop its New Zealand base by helping the community develop high profile projects on a philanthropic basis.
One project that met the criteria was roofing the Wanganui velodrome to provide a multi-purpose events centre to enhance the existing athletics and grandstand facilities. The proposal involved roofing the velodrome and surrounds to provide seating for an additional 2500 people, flooring the interior paved area, and constructing support facilities for media and competitors. Some 26 sporting codes could be accommodated in the roofed facility, along with improved public facilities, including catering.
In 2000, Opus submitted a proposal to the Cooks Gardens Trust Board to roof the velodrome and transform it into a multi-purpose events centre. Although the proposal was not deemed a priority by the Board at that time, the public subsequently voiced their approval for development of the facility in some form when the project received the most votes from members of the public in the 2008 referendum.
In 2005 the project was revisited, and Cooks Gardens stakeholders confirmed that the proposed facility still met the needs of the Wanganui community and those likely to utilise the facility from within New Zealand and overseas. Bike New Zealand has put its support behind the project, as has the local speed and figure skating fraternity, and the Invercargill Velodrome’s management. There is a need for a North Island covered cycling facility to cater for international-level cycling events on alternate years from those held in Southland, enabling junior competitors to attend without incurring large travel expenses.
In June, the Government announced a major reshaping and expansion of high performance sport, with the aim of making New Zealand consistently one of the most successful sporting nations in the world. This will be the most significant funding injection into high performance sport in New Zealand, with new budget funding of $10M in 2010/2011, $15M in 2011/2012, and $20M annually after that.
“If we’re successful in securing the National Cycling High Performance Centre, there will be significant economic and growth spin-offs for Wanganui”, Wanganui District Council sport and recreation spokesperson Cr Philippa Baker-Hogan said.