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Between tradition and future: The state of Six Day Racing

Lukas Knöfler
7 Feb 2019

We take a look at the state of Six Day events and wonder where the future of this area of cycling might lie

In the beginning, back in the 1890s, Six Day races were just that, six days or 144 hours of continuous racing, with the rider who completed most laps of the velodrome track winning.

Eventually, riders were put together in teams (usually a pair, but occasionally teams of three), with only one rider in the race at the same time, and exchanges being done by hand-slinging the teammate into the race.

This was first practised in New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1899, and the new discipline acquired the name ‘Madison’ from that venue.

During the heyday of the sport, from the 1950s to the 1980s, there were 30 or more Six Day races each year. Today, only seven remain – London, Gent, Rotterdam, Bremen, Berlin, and Copenhagen - as well as the summer Six Day event in Fiorenzuola.

Three of these - London, Berlin and Copenhagen - are part of the British-owned Six Day Series that started in the 2016/2017 track season.

For this year, the Six Day Series added four new three-day events in Melbourne, Hong Kong, Manchester and Brisbane, in an effort to open up new markets.

With input from riders and officials at Six Day Berlin, I analyse the Six Day Series concept meant to rejuvenate six day racing.

But first, I'll look at two track disciplines that were also on show in Berlin – one of them in dire straits, the other catching ever more wind.

Stayers on the way out? Women on the way in

Stayer races have a long tradition in track cycling. Riders on specially-built bicycles are paced by 750cc motorcycles to achieve higher speeds, with average speeds often exceeding 70kmh.

Once the most popular track discipline, stayer races have suffered a slow decline in recent decades. As the last Stayer World Championship was awarded in 1994, the European Championships are now the pinnacle of the discipline.

Of the few six day races left, Berlin is now the only one hosting stayer races. And even here, their place on the schedule was reduced from all six days of racing to only the final two days, a development bemoaned by the Berlin audience who love the loud and fast-paced action.

The stands often emptied considerably after the conclusion of the stayer race even if there were other competitions still to come – it was the stayers that people literally stayed in their seats for.

Active as a stayer himself in his younger years, Mario Vonhof is now the German cycling federation’s commissioner for stayer and derny racing and a pacer for both disciplines.

He emphasises the huge difference between riding behind a light derny machine and the big motorcycles used in stayer races.

'You have to practise a lot in order to stay close to the roller without touching it,' Vonhof explains. 'It is a very specialised discipline, and since the number of competitions is ever-decreasing, there aren’t many new riders willing to commit to it.'

The role of pacer is arguably even more specialised, and many of the pacers are nearing retirement age. 'This is a big problem,' Vonhof agrees.

'Very few younger people want to become pacers. The quality of riders is actually improving at the moment, and we have good talent coming up through the ranks, but without pacers there are no stayer races.'

Vonhof finishes by adding: 'It is a shame that our event was cut to two days. The audience in Berlin is great, and it is special to race here.

'On the other hand, we almost have to be grateful we are not cut entirely. All told, stayer racing is threatened, but I wouldn’t say it is close to extinction yet.'

According to the organisers, time constraints are a main reason for the cut in stayer races: They wanted to give more space to the youth, junior, and U23 categories, but most importantly women’s cycling is making inroads into what used to be an event dominated by men.

There have been women’s races at six day events for some years now, but until very recently the Madison discipline that so epitomises six day racing was male-only.

The women’s Madison made it onto the programme of the UCI Track World Championships for the first time in 2017, and it will be an Olympic discipline for men and women from 2020.

Danish pair Julie Leth and Trine Schmidt dominated the women’s racing in Berlin, winning seven of the eight races between them, including both Madisons.

'It was a mixed bag of disciplines,' says Schmidt. 'We had Madisons, but also scratch and points races with UCI points on the line for World Cup or World Championship qualification.

'The standard of racing was good, but there are still differences between the top and also-rans.

'There were Track World Cups scheduled for the same time, and many of the best riders are racing there, so it was impossible to get the strongest possible peloton for this event,' explains Leth.

'But the discipline is very new, and the only way for less experienced riders to get better is to race as many Madisons as possible. The progression is there, and maybe in 10 years’ time there will be women’s six day races comparable to the men’s.'

The Six Day Series

The Track World Cups mentioned by Leth had an influence on the men’s peloton at Six Day Berlin as well. Yoeri Havik won Six Day London together with Wim Stroetinga, and the two were the defending champions in Berlin – but Havik nevertheless opted for the New Zealand and Hong Kong Track World Cups.

The Dutchman returned to the Six Day Series in Copenhagen; in turn, Roger Kluge, Madison World Champion and part of the winning team in Berlin, has to forgo the later rounds of the series because of his road racing commitments with Lotto Soudal.

Valts Miltovics, CEO of Six Day Berlin, acknowledges this. 'He who pays the piper calls the tune,' he says.

'If a rider’s pro team wants him at a road race, that is where he goes. Our long-term objective is to develop six day racing into a product that is attractive enough for riders to make a career out of it on its own. Ideally, we will have 15-20 events in our series.'

If they succeed, the Six Day Series could field the same teams in all its events, presenting a more streamlined series to spectators, sponsors and TV channels.

This year, teams received the same start numbers in London in October and in Berlin in January, and eight of the 16 teams from Six Day London entered Six Day Berlin in the same composition.

However, Six Day Copenhagen chose to split up some of these teams, e.g. the Danish pair of Marc Hester and Jesper Mørkøv, to get a more even field at their race.

Andreas Muller is a veteran of track cycling. At 39-years-old, Berlin was his 100th six day race. 'I like the idea of having the same teams throughout the whole series. It is a modern approach. Six day racing doesn’t have the same success as in past decades, but in the last couple of years, things have been looking up again.

'Now the sport is in the foreground again, not the show. And the three-day events with more compressed racing could be just what is needed to give six day racing a new boost,' Muller says.

'The idea of a series is great,' Jesper Mørkøv concurs. 'Previously, there were stand-alone races, but now the race is not just about the top spots. Because of the overall classification, it makes a difference whether you finish fifth or seventh.

'The new races are only three days, but I would rather have several three-day races than no new races at all. And the organisers deserve credit for having the courage to set up these races, it is expensive to do that for the first time.

'But I also think it is important that the established six day races remain at six days, that is a tradition you cannot change.'

Miltovics was satisfied with the new sponsorships Six Day Berlin had secured for this year, saying that the race had made progress in this area compared to the previous two years.

The total attendance figures in Berlin surpassed last year’s – but this was after several years of falling attendance. The days of a velodrome filled to the brim every night appear to be over: In 2016, only three years ago, this reporter had trouble finding a seat from which to watch the final Madison.

This year, the stands felt half-empty while local heroes Roger Kluge and Theo Reinhardt raced to victory in the final 20 laps.

To some extent, this is a conscious decision by the Six Day Series organisers who put emphasis on TV over the trackside crowd.

'It is key to our concept that the Six Days are broadcast on TV,' said Miltovics. 'The contract with Eurosport is up for renewal, and we are in negotiations.

'We want our races to be on TV, the bigger the channel, the better. If people can watch 15-20 of our races on TV throughout the year, the product will have a much larger reach.'

The goal of the Six Day Series is to bring events back to cities that used to host six day races in the past and therefore have a track cycling tradition.

Often, this would be done by using mobile tracks specially erected in multifunctional arenas. The jewel in the crown would be a return to where it all started, Madison Square Garden in New York. According to Miltovics, talks with prospective New York organisers are ongoing, but still far from a conclusion.

However, at this point in time it is unclear if the Six Day Series can accomplish its goals. The calendar overlap with the UCI’s Track World Cups and World Championships is a problem already, and this will only be exacerbated if the series consists of 15-20 events instead of three to seven.

There is an influx of new audiences from new demographics, but it remains to be seen if this can offset losing some of the traditional spectators.

Launching new events in new markets, even ones that have seen six day racing in the past, is a risky endeavour. In an age of on-demand streaming and changing viewer habits, developing the Six Day Series as an event for live TV could turn out to be a dead end.

For the sake of an intriguing and exciting cycling discipline, I hope that my fears are unfounded.