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Michael Barry: The Six-Day Race

In Ghent, Belgium, the low thunder of the cyclists racing into the wooden banking of the velodrome is unheard over the festivities in the track center. A DJ spins a classic Flemish hit as the spectators, dressed in their best clothes, eat, dance and mingle. Few of the spectators hear the yells of the riders as they bump elbows and maneuver into position before the final sprint to the line. These events, the six-day track races, are orchestrated spectacles.

When the end of the 19th century neared, cycling was America’s sport. The country’s sporting icons were track cyclists and the arenas, now known for their hockey and basketball teams, were packed with cycling fans cheering for the earlier sports heroes racing around steeply banked wooden tracks.

It was an era when endurance events intrigued the population. So the bicycle races ran for six days (races weren’t held on Sundays to avoid violating local religious laws) with the cycling continuing around the clock, 24 hours a day. The riders never stopped pedaling as the spectators witnessed the riders become gaunt, deluded, and barely able to pedal. Like endurance dance competitions, where the last couple standing won, riders were expected to ride until they fell over.

Time and the law brought some humanity. By 1898, the New York State legislature banned riding for more than 12 hours a day.

At the same time, new rules brought excitement to six-day racing. The races now take place only in the late afternoon and continue late into the night. There are also a variety of events—some mass start and others are individual timed races—to boost audience interest. But in contrast to most Olympic track events, where sprinting strategies include the dead stop of the track stand, the action at a six-day is relentless. Two man teams were also introduced to replace concoctions of drugs previously used to achieve the inhuman.

The Madison (known in France as “l’Amèricaine”) is now the main event of a modern six-day race. Named after Madison Square Gardens, where the first races took place in the 1900s, it is a mass start event in which 12 to 18 teams of two riders race each other for points through sprints on selected laps.

The riders take turns working. That is, one rider races while the other circles the top of the track, taking a break at a less strenuous pace, away from the action. When his teammate tires, a quick hand-sling brings the rested rider up to speed and into the race. Like a Nascar pit change, the exchange must be quick and efficient.

Six-day racing slowly died in the United States as cars replaced the bicycle as transport and the next sporting craze. But in Europe, where bikes remain as commonly used vehicles and bicycle racing is still part of the culture, track races draw crowds of spectators, the daily media covers them, and they have their champions who are professionals. Crowds, it should be noted, pay to watch the action, unlike the fans at the Tour de France. In an arena, insulated from the wet and cold of the northern European winter, the velodrome provides a warm venue for the spectators and the cyclists.

The current series that takes place through the autumn and winter is roughly 14 races long and is centered in Germany, Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands. Cultural influences mold the ambiance in each venue, where the bike race becomes an excuse to celebrate, and for some fans, to drink.

In Ghent, the tunnel under the track that’s used to access the center becomes slick with deep pools of beer that have accumulated through the night from spilled cups in the grandstands.

The grand spectacle of the evening is often the motorpaced race. The crowd rises to its feet when the specially designed motorbikes roll onto the velodrome, their engines revving and spewing clouds of exhaust.

The slipstream created by the motorbikes allows the cyclists to achieve otherwise impossible speed. But the cyclists remain in charge. Yelling over the roar of the motor, they tell the motorcyclists when to accelerate and when to slow down. At any given time, there can be 6 to 10 motorcycles roaring around the velodrome.

The motorpacing aside, track racing is the purest form of cycling. Its variables are limited to the rider, the bike, the track, and the competition. As a young cyclist on the track, I learned how to pedal efficiently, keeping my upper body motionless while my legs turned in potent circles. The confined and controlled environment of the now defunct Montreal Olympic velodrome made my mistakes more apparent and it gave me confidence, bike handling skills, and tactical knowledge.

Although most professional road cyclists raced on the track as teenagers, few now make the transition to the six-day races in the off-season. The disciplines have both become too specific and contrasting. We lack a track rider’s skills and fail to find the quick pedaling rhythm needed to ride a fixed-wheel bike smoothly and efficiently, while they lack the endurance and climbing strength of roadmen.

The six-day velodromes—many put together in an arena for the event and taken down immediately after—are roughly 160-250 meters around. The short lap adds to the spectacle as the riders whirl around the oval reaching speeds of 60 kilometers an hour. Unlike a road race, where the spectators might only get a fleeting glimpse of the peloton as it speeds toward the finish, on the track, the fans see all the action.

The corners of the oval are banked at about 50-degrees. At speed, the riders loop around with ease, but as they slow, they must keep constant pressure on the pedals in order to maintain the traction necessary to ensure that they don’t suffer a slide down the banking. Riding a track is a skill and racing a six-day is art.

The peloton flows with beauty around the track. The unique, yet simple, bikes designed for the track, without brakes and with a single fixed sprocket, combined with the smooth wooden surface brings fluidity. Unlike a road bike that has gears, a freewheel, and brakes, a track bike is the simplest bicycle design. It’s built specifically for the velodrome where there are no corners, hills, or sudden changes in speed.

With the high speeds and confined space come horrific crashes. Riders pile into each other and tumble. Their bikes fly through the air, and their bodies skid across the track. Upon impact the wooden track sheds splinters. Unlike on the road where the grit from the tarmac rips the skin and dirties the wound, the wood burns and splinters pierce the skin.

The fans cheers amplify through the night with the beer, bratwurst, and fries, while the riders force their bodies to keep the pace until past midnight with sugary energy drinks and caffeine. Like a traveling circus moving from town to town, the six-day community is tight and insular. The riders travel with their mechanics and soigneurs (massage therapists who take care of their every need when they’re off the track) from race to race, sometimes only returning home for a night or two.

The ringmaster of the show is a legendary rider from the sixties and seventies, Patrick Sercu, who won a total of 88 six-days in his career. Sercu now manages the events, determining who he wants to have race the events, and how much they will be paid for their appearance and performance. On the track, seniority reigns. Veteran riders orchestrate the races (one long time leader of the riders, the Australian, Danny Clark, also offered the crowds his vocal renderings of “My Way”). A rookie track racer knows his place in the peloton, and all of the riders seem to know who the crowd wants to see win. The champions rarely lose.

Like greyhounds in dog races, six-day cyclists are bet on, cheered for (or against), and pushed to their physical limit. But beyond smoke, the noise, the bookmakers, and the spilled beer, there is art in the riders’ styles and the deep emotions that they provoke from the crowd.