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Six Day London

Jordan Gibbons
23 Nov 2015

It's been 137 years since London first hosted a six-day cycling event. Now it's back with a bang.

You’d be forgiven if you’ve never attended a six-day race before. In fact you’d be forgiven if you’ve never even heard of the format, because six-day racing has been missing from the UK cycling calendar for 35 years until its recent return. The roots of the format, however, are very firmly based in London.

‘The first six-day event was in Islington in 1878 and was the result of a bet,’ says David Harmon, head of communications for Six Day London, the new track event that took place in October at the Lee Valley Olympic Velodrome. A cyclist called David Stanton wagered that he could ride 1,000 miles over a period of six days. He won the bet, and a new spectacle was born.

‘It transferred across the Atlantic very quickly, and in a pre-television, pre-cinema age it was an extremely popular sport,’ says Harmon. ‘There was a six-day at Madison Square Gardens, where the madison race was invented. It used to draw in big film stars and gangsters like Al Capone. They used to throw money onto the track, which is where the sprint primes [money prizes] come from.

Derny heat at Six Day London

‘At the time in America, more spectators went to six-day racing than baseball, basketball and football combined,’ Harmon continues. ‘It was the biggest sport in the USA before the war. After the war, TV and cars took off and it died away. People simply didn’t relate to the bicycle as much as they used to.’

Big in Belgium

These days, six-day racing is still hugely popular in Europe. The biggest fanbase is Belgium, where the Ghent Six-Day is famous for its huge crowds, fug of cigarette smoke and boozy atmosphere. 

‘Unlike in the USA, on the Continent people needed something to rally to after the war. It was cheap entertainment. You could go to a hall, drink a few cheap beers, smoke a few cheap cigarettes and have a good time. That’s what six-day racing is all about,’ says Harmon.

While Britain was still riding the wave of cycling excitement generated by the Olympics, the Tour de France successes and the Grand Départ in Yorkshire, Harmon and a team of like-minded cycling aficionados thought it was time six-day track racing returned to the UK: ‘People have seen Olympic track cycling and World Cup track racing. They’ve seen Revolution. This is something a little bit different. The cycling public is becoming more and more sophisticated. Six-day is still a concept that people need to get to grips with.’

Sprint Final at Six Day London

When a round of the Cyclocross World Cup came to Milton Keynes last year, the organisers were keen that it had its own feel and wasn’t just a cheap imitation of a Belgian cross race. Harmon felt the same about Six Day London, although he admitted it would be impossible to completely diverge.

‘We didn’t want to divorce six-day from electric entertainment,’ he says. ‘You want people to enjoy their night out. We wanted to update the partygoer atmosphere, which is why we got a DJ from Ministry Of Sound. He even got the sprinters dancing in the middle with giant foam fingers on.’

Electric entertainment is certainly one way of describing the event. In Ghent, it’s more like a mass drinking competition, and in the middle of it all a bike race breaks out. Six Day London is far more about the racing, it just feels like it happens to be taking place during a deep house set in an east London nightclub, not the Olympic velodrome.

Dancing on the pedals

Mark Cavendish gives advice to Germain Burton at Six Day London

The racing is exactly what the organisers promised: fast and furious. At a six-day event, each race has its own winners and a points value. The points are totted up over the course of six days to come up with an overall winner at the end. This means that as a spectator you’re guaranteed at least 10 races per night, including the madison, keirin, omnium, sprints, elimination and lots more. For the athletes it means they need to pick their races carefully.

Dotted around the inside of the track are numerous wooden cabins where the riders rest, keep up with the evening’s results and plan their efforts. At one point, we catch Mark Cavendish giving tips to young British star Germain Burton and his partner Mark Stewart. Are the tips useful? ‘Well, yes,’ replies Burton. ‘I mean, it’s not every day you get tips off a former World Champion.’

Not all riders are here for the full six days of racing. Former GB rider Matt Rotherham has come to race the sprint on the Friday night. ‘I’ve raced the last couple of years at the Bremen Six-Day in January, which is a fantastic event that they’ve replicated here,’ he says. ‘Tonight, the capacity crowd is unbelievable. Six-day is more about the entertainment value. The spectators can come to any old track race and watch everyone be serious. This is a little more of a party atmosphere. People can see a lighter side of the sport.’ And with that, Rotherham removes his helmet, dons a foam finger and takes to the stage to dance to the Vengaboys.

Sprinters dancing at Six Day London

When we suggest it’s all a big party to Dutch pro Niki Terpstra he seems a little surprised. ‘Relaxed? Have you seen the racing? This is totally different to the normal events. It’s very intensive.’

Brit Adam Blythe echoes his sentiments, albeit for different reasons. ‘I guess it’s relaxing for the riders with their own space in the middle of the track, but the racing isn’t relaxed. London is different because it’s a long old track. In Europe, the tracks are much shorter so it looks like they’re going much faster. They’re 166m compared to 250m here.’

He doesn’t seem to be in end-of-season party mood either: ‘End of season? No, it’s the start of winter training for me, which is probably the wrong way to go about it.’

Iljo Keisse receiving a massage at Six Day London

Not long passes before the music is drowned out by the fans. GB duo Latham and Wood snatch the madison TT by a few tenths, to the delight of the crowd. Then, in turn, the fans are drowned out by the screaming engines of the derny races. In the end, the British pair are edged out of the overall win by Belgians Kenny De Ketele and Moreno De Pauw. 

As the crowds disperse, Cyclist catches up with Harmon, who seems delighted with how the event had unfolded. ‘Every six-day has its own character, but Ghent is the one everyone wants to win,’ he says. ‘It’s the Wimbledon of six-day racing. But London has been a huge success. We want this to be an annual thing, not just a flash in the pan. We want it to develop its own atmosphere and become a calendar event equal to Ghent.’ 

The details

What - Six Day London 

Where - Lee Valley Velodrome, London

When - 18-23rd October 2015

Next one - TBC

More info - sixday.com

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