The story of La Ocho

14 - La Ocho CMWC

by Colleen Kirley
designs by Dieter Janssen

Dieter Janssen, architect and former professor at the University of Toronto, wanted a custom bike and went to La Carrera Cycles. One day, while he was in the shop, he overheard owner Nadir Olivet talking about having the Cycle Messenger World Championships (CMWC) in Guatemala. Janssen had recently taken interest in racing tracks – he visited the 333-metre outdoor velodrome in Cuba and has ridden the Forest City velodrome in London, Ontario – and when Nadir mentioned the figure 8 track, he was immediately interested in being involved.

Janssen was up for the challenge. He enlisted some students and created a work-study program out of the track. “It’s a complex geometry,” Janssen said. “Because of the physics of that geometry – we really needed to get right in terms of making this track function properly.” On Janssen’s website, you can view just how complex this work was – pages and pages of diagrams and equations map out what will ultimately become the track. “We worked with a mathematician who recommended some people who were also interested in the project. Very quickly, we had a team together.”

05 - La Ocho CMWC

Janssen’s team began sketching some ideas out and talked to Nadir about what he had in mind. They ended up finding out that they would be able to build the track in a soccer field in Panajachel, Guatemala.

Nadir was impressed by how they were able to manage designing a track in Toronto that would be built over 3,000 km away. He said, “They used topographic maps of the area to lay out the track. Without even having to go to Guatemala, they were able to make the track fit the area perfectly.”

La Ocho CMWC

After the schematics were figured out, it was time to build. Based on the Human Powered Roller Coaster (HPR) – designed by Toronto architect John Consolati and used for allycat races in the 90s – the track would have steep banked turns and a bridge that crossed over the middle.

La Ocho differed from the HPR in building technology. The HPR was made of solid plywood: La Ocho would be made out of dirt and plywood. Rammed dirt – densely compacted earth – became the foundation for the track. “It’s an interesting technology that’s common as a building practice in that part of the world.” Janssen said that the interesting thing for the team was that they were working so precisely with mathematics and high-tech models, yet using “a really low-tech process to realize it.” Nadir was extremely adamant on the track being ecologically sound, sourced from the earth and good for the community. Even the wood from the bridge was sourced out to members of the community after CMWC.

La Ocho CMWC 02

Once everything was calculated and the models were perfectly scaled, it seemed as if La Ocho would finally be a reality. The track was fast and challenging. If messengers had the chance to ride it for CMWC, they would have competed in heats of four for two days of preliminary racing, accumulating victories until the final day of elimination rounds. Unfortunately, no one got to race on La Ocho.

As the messengers were making their way from all corners of the world to Guatemala, so was a major tropical storm. Hurricane Agatha brought heavy rain and flooding to the city in Panajachel, wiping away homes, roads and bridges in the community. The rain washed away the polo court and swept La Ocho into the river.

“It was disappointing because we had almost realized it, but it’s never been ridden,” Janssen said. But he wants to see it in use – and is eager to work with someone to put the plans in motion. He said that the track can be made anywhere and that everyone is ready to start the project up again. “I think the team that we have was also excited to see this thing come together…a lot of us would love still see it happen.”

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If you like unusual racing tracks you can check out the Red Bull Mini Drome at Evergreen Brick Works on October 8, 2011.

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