Pan Am Games: For elite cyclists, the wood’s the thing

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

In a move that will make the buy-Canadian folks cringe, the wood for the new Pan Am Games velodrome in Milton will come all the way from Siberia, Russia.

Canada’s forests extend far north but not far enough it seems to grow the particular trees most prized by elite cyclists.

In a move that will make the buy-Canadian folks cringe, the wood for the new Pan Am Games velodrome in Milton will come all the way from Siberia, Russia.

Siberia, thanks to its short growing season and wretched climate, produces a strong yet pliable and durable wood. That’s why Siberian wood, generally spruce or pine, is the go-to wood for tracks in many top velodromes around the world, including the 2012 London Olympic track.

Still, paying an estimated $1 million to $1.5 million for a cycling track made of Siberian spruce, when forests cover good chunks of Canada, has raised some eyebrows.

“It does strike me as kind of strange,” said Milton Councillor Rick Malboeuf, who voiced concerns about the flooring at June’s council meeting.

“It’s one of the issues I raised about future maintenance costs and upkeep when these things have to be replaced. Do we have to bring in wood from Siberia or do we have maple here we can use?”

Wednesday marks the two-year countdown to the 2015 Pan Am Games, when 10,000 athletes and officials from 41 countries will descend on the GTA and beyond for three weeks of sporting events.

“It’s expensive but it’s part of the cost of building a world-class velodrome,” says Howard Chang, chair of the community fundraising committee tasked with raising $14 million of the $56 million total cost for the velodrome and community centre.

“We actually looked into (using local wood) because one of the mandates we have is to try and use as many Canadian suppliers and vendors as possible, but the track designers basically said it was impossible if you want to fulfil the mandate of building one of the fastest tracks in the world.”

Siberian spruce has the strength and flexibility required to shape curved indoor cycling tracks, said Arash Farbahi, designer for Bouygues Building Canada, builder of the velodrome.

“Its proven durability and reliability is well recognized by UCI (cycling’s international governing body), track designers and track builders around the world,” he said.

A tree’s species and the length of its growing season, climate and soil all contribute to the type of wood it will produce, said biology professor Malcolm Campbell of the University of Toronto Scarborough.

The climate and very short growth season of trees in Siberia creates dense, straight wood with tight growth rings, he added.

“From a pragmatic perspective, that means if you’re going to lay it (Siberian spruce) down in a velodrome it’s going to be very firm … and less susceptible to things like humidity and heat.”

Canada does have northern forests but not in abundance quite as far north as Siberia does, he said.

“We are captive to history when 10,000 years ago there was an ice sheet covering the northern hemisphere. Whatever that left behind, that’s what you’re stuck with today. We have the Canadian Shield that sits there and there’s not a whole heck of a lot of soil that sits on top of it.”

Milton’s facility – with a 250-metre track and two 42-degree banks – is being built as one of only two velodromes in North America able to meet the UCI requirements to host international events.

That’s because, in addition to hosting 2015 Pan Am Games, the community is hoping to use the facility to develop up-and-coming cyclists, host international events and allow Canada’s elite track cyclists – who train in California – to come home.

The facility also expands community recreation space with three multi-use courts for basketball or volleyball, a running track and fitness centre.

Greg Mathieu, CEO of Cycling Canada is pleased the Milton velodrome will be built with Siberian spruce.

Cycling’s international governing body sets requirements including track exactness, performance and weight bearing, which are best met with Siberian spruce, he said.

“We have encouraged the consortium that’s building the velodrome to use the international standard because we want to make sure this track is given the highest level of approval so we can use it for international events.”

Without UCI sanction, it would be a velodrome with little future.

Trying unproven Canadian wood would “boil down to a science experiment,” Mathieu said.

That’s not something anyone wants to take on.

“Considering the previous attempts on other velodromes to use other sources of wood … and failure of the material within two years of use, selection of new sources is a sensitive topic to UCI and building owners,” designer Farbahi said.

Toronto Star - Kerry Gillespie, Sports Reporter

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