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Inside the secretive world of the derny pacer

Josh Cunningham
23 Oct 2019

Cyclist dives deep into the London Six Day to get a flavour of what it means to be a derny pacer

The London Six Day is currently taking place at the Lee Valley Velodrome in London. Famed for banging beats and beautiful bikes, the Six Day is a bike race for the senses and nothing typifies is more than the infamous Derny pacers.

For many people new to cycling, their first encounter with a derny was probably at the Rio Olympics. The men’s keirin final made headlines when it was forced to restart on three occasions, apparently due to the fault of a man perched on some sort of two-wheeled motorised contraption behind which the riders were jostling. 

Who was this imposter? Why was he on that strange machine instead of a bicycle? Why did he stick out his knees like that?

Questions, it must be said, that those unfamiliar with cycling – and particularly track racing – can be forgiven for asking.

New and unfamiliar

Indeed, even those familiar with the role of the derny rider were a little perplexed by this new and unfamiliar version of one of cycling’s oldest and most fabled roles.

Where was the engine? The helmet and goggles? The portly midriff and moustachioed upper lip? This wasn’t the derny pacer of cycling lore and tradition. 

The idea of motorpacing in bike races has been around almost as long as bicycle races themselves.

From the late 19th century, people had cottoned onto the fact that it was possible to ride faster and conserve more energy while in the slipstream of another rider, so speed record attempts often employed the use of a pacer. 

In the early days this was simply a tandem (or a tandem-esque bike with two or more positions to pedal from), but as paced events at velodromes and closed circuits proved a popular spectator sport, it was only natural that speeds grew and engines were added. 

Before the century was out, iconic races such as Paris-Roubaix and the now-defunct Bordeaux-Paris were being thrashed out behind motorbikes, all in the pursuit of maximising what was possible on a bicycle.

Engine sizes grew, and the dangers of motorpacing rose as a result, with primitive early 20th century bicycles unable to withstand the rigours of the required speed, until the UCI stepped in to regulate the type of vehicle used in 1920. 

A short period later and the now-familiar ‘derny’ was born, when Roger Derny et Fils began building machines with pedals, handlebars, saddle and the rough frame of a bicycle, but with a small kick-starting engine placed between the rider’s legs and a petrol tank wedged between the handlebars.

It was a formula that – with a few amendments along the way – would stand the test of time.

‘Now the bikes are all made in Belgium by a guy who used to be a pacer himself,’ says Peter Bauerlein, an esteemed pacer who is speaking to Cyclist at the London Six Day in October. ‘Arie Simon is his name, like you can see written on the dernys.’ 

Into the den of the dernys

A glance around at the bikes indeed reveals the name Simon emblazoned across the top tubes, and I nod in appreciation, before returning to sit beneath Bauerlein’s gaze in a little room reserved for the pacers, beneath the boards of the Olympic velodrome. 

Bauerlein sits in the middle of a ring of 45 to 65-year-old men, each perched forward in their chairs, cross-armed and cross-legged, listening thoughtfully to the questions I’m aiming in their general direction.

It’s like I’ve gained entry into a secret Masons-esque lodge, where its members are suspicious of me and my motives but are willing to humour me and my enquiries for a while. 

‘Are you the ringleader then?’ I ask Bauerlein after a few more questions, and an eruption of laughter fills the poky room, momentarily replacing the thumping sound of Europop and echoey commentary from the velodrome outside.

‘Yes,’ he replies, to my surprise. ‘I have to discuss with the organisation everything to do with the derny pacers and what they need from us. We are really a team. Actually we have a name – the Derny Team Europe. 

‘I started pacing in 1986, when Joop Zijlaard was in charge,’ says Bauerlein after I ask about his history as a pacer.

‘Joop is his father,’ someone says, pointing to a colleague, who duly nods in response. ‘Joop was the greatest, and Ron here is on his way to being the greatest.’

Secret name

‘What do they call you then, Peter?’ I venture, having heard that there’s a special name for the derny MC, but I’m only met with another wave of chuckles.

If there is a secret name for the derny ringleader, it seems I am not to know it, and for now will have to do with the nicknames that each of the pacers are given. Bauerlein’s, I discover, is no less than Der Kaiser, which translates as ‘The Emperor’ – but back to the bikes.

‘They are all exactly the same geometry and measurements – they have to be under regulations,’ Bauerlein adds. ‘But riders can change the motor manufacturer and other things on the bike, so they are actually quite personalised.’

‘Look at this one,’ pipes up Walter Huybrechts, another pacer, in an accent as thick as the frames of his glasses.

‘Look at the filter – it’s water resistant, isn’t it?’ I nod and try to act knowingly. ‘That must mean he rides his bike outside, in the criteriums,’ he says in reference to the city-centre crit races, run on a similar basis to the post-Tour crits, but as motorpaced events.

‘Most of the guys have Brooks saddles,’ Huybrechts adds. ‘But here you can see some guys are riding with the gel saddles too.

Everyone has their own idea of what makes a better derny bike. They make adjustments but don’t tell anyone, because everybody thinks they have the best bike – and the advantage.’

Asking about the electric bike used in Rio causes a minor fracas among the pacers, and prompts Huybrechts to start recalling an esoteric anecdote about a time he watched a game of football at Wembley as a boy.

I struggle to get the drift of his tale, but it seems his point is that motorpacing without screaming engines is the equivalent of Wembley without screaming fans.

Masters and servants 

The more time I spend with the riders, the more sensitive I become to the competition that wafts in the air between them, and how serious the derny race is for them.

As part of the London Six Day format the dernys feature once a day, in the last race of the evening, when one rider from each of the 16 teams is partnered with a derny pacer, and the pairs contest what is effectively a paced scratch race.

But the impression – no, assertion – given from the pacers around me is that this is their race.

‘We make the decisions in the derny race,’ gruffs Christian Dippel, a stolid, bespectacled man boasting a mean moustache.

‘The Metronome!’ one of the other riders exclaims upon Dippel’s contribution. ‘They call him The Metronome because he’s so steady,’ I hear chuckled through the laughs now surrounding us, and The Metronome grants his obvious admirers a faint smile. 

‘If you want to go faster then…’ Dippel pauses and draws our attention to an open palm down at his side, with fingers opening and closing, to illustrate the signal for more speed.

‘“Allez!”, you shout. But if the riders can’t follow then he shouts, “Ho!” It’s a universal language.’ 

Communication, it would appear, is paramount for a strong pairing between rider and pacer, but the nature of the Six Day format means effective communication isn’t easy to come by. 

‘Here in this competition we have a draw in advance of the race,’ says Bauerlein of the way the partnerships are settled.

‘We [dernys] are numbered and have our starting position on the track decided already, and then the riders go up on stage and pull numbers out of a hat. Those numbers correspond to one of us, and there you have a pair. It’s directly before the start of the race.’

‘We always like to talk to the riders before the start of the race, though,’ another voice says. ‘This drawing system is new – the last three years or so.

‘Before then it was always the same team combination, a partnership, but it’s only at some events you can still work like that. Like with Michaël and his partnership with Kenny de Ketele at the European Championships.’

A glance at Michaël Vaarten, the reigning European champion, is met with a Terminator-style glare.

All about trust 

‘It is a close partnership and he has to trust you,’ says Ron Zijlaard, son of the aforementioned Joop. ‘For sure, if you get paired with a big star then you feel it,’ says Zijlaard. ‘Like here with Wiggins and Cavendish.

‘But you must not show it – you cannot let the rider know you are feeling nervous because it is a close partnership and he has to trust you.’ 

Somebody else goes to speak, but Zijlaard is on a roll about the complex relationship between rider and derny pacer: ‘You have to feel it. You have to be something.

‘Derny partnerships are 80% trust and 20% focus. It’s about the connection when I turn my head, or when he makes a noise.’ 

 ‘I tell you what,’ butts in another voice from across the room. It’s the Dutchman Rene Kos. ‘The relationship is kind of like a horse and a jockey,’ he says in a conclusive tone, as he pulls his jersey out of the bag at his feet and begins to prepare for the biggest race of the night ahead. 

‘But which one is the horse?’ I ask. ‘Well, the rider, of course.’

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