(originally published in Velo News 2008)
This winter I was launched headfirst into the world of European Six Day racing. One of the last old school pillars of bicycle racing, the Sixes are a microscopic universe trapped in time and filled with ancient traditions, rich culture and a strong sense of fraternity. I learned more about what it means to be a professional in the four Sixes I have done than in the rest of my 20-year career.
My partner Daniel Holloway and I were the first American team to be offered contracts in the pro Sixes since 2001. We had the onus of proving ourselves to the skeptics and measuring up to the high physical and technical standards of these events.
To get a Six contract, a rider must either be of high pedigree — usually a world champion or Olympic medalist — or know someone in the right place who can make a recommendation. Recently, there has been a demand for an American team. After all, Six Days did originate in Madison Square Garden at the beginning of the 20th century, and it is in the promoters’ best interests to line up an international field.
However, promoters are skeptical of anyone new, and even though I had earned a dozen World Cup medals in my career, it took some convincing to give us a shot. It was here American velodrome builder Dale Hughes came to our aid. Dale’s company, Velo Track, built the portable velodrome used in the Zuidlaren Six Day. Dale contact Wim Jansen, the promoter of Zuidlaren, who on our behalf negotiated some contracts for other Sixes.
For me, after nine years learning track cycling on the World Cup circuit, competing in world championships and other big events, it was time for a change. Six Days were the final missing piece in my track racing puzzle.
As for the other 50 percent of the team, Holloway proved himself ready for a winter of strenuous racing after stepping it up this summer on the road and track. We raced the Madison Cup in Trexlertown and won by a large margin; at the Tour of Missouri he rode as a stagiaire for Garmin-Chipotle he helped Christian Vande Velde defend his jersey against an onslaught by Columbia; and at track nationals we won every event we entered.
It was an odd pairing. I’m 36 and in the twilight of my career, and Dan is 21 and just beginning the real substance of his. But we proved ourselves to be a solid team.
Traveling to our first event in Dortmund, Germany, I expected to be challenged – and to discover unkempt corners of the basement of track cycling. I was not disappointed. On our first training ride in Dortmund on the newly assembled track, I was shocked at how bad the track surface was. Some tracks are permanent fixtures (such as Copenhagen), and some are completely portable (such as Milan or Zuidlaren). This track was in between; it has permanent corners, but removable straights, so that the facility may be converted to use for other events. The resultant gaps between the removable sections are about one inch deep, which may not sound so big, but with 170psi in your tires at 60kmh, they are pretty much like an inverted speed bump in the world’s fastest criterium. Riders told me that their seasons had been ruined from racing at Dortmund, because they left the event with open saddle sores from the track, which are really difficult to heal in a continuous season of Six Day racing.
INSIDE THE CIRCUS
The atmosphere of a Six Day is a must-see experience for any true cycling fan. The color changes from city to city, but the palate is the same; the racing is fast, the crowds are large, cycling savvy, and inebriated. The entertainment between races varies. Shows we have seen include a Blues Brothers tribute band, a Robbie Williams tribute band, a bicycle trials riding show with some guys riding their bikes up staircases and jumping over crowd volunteers (always female), a stunt motorcycle rider who was doing one-handed wheelies at 40mph through the banking, women’s racing, U23 racing, a laser show, and a 15-minute film about Erik Zabel and his career, complete with pictures of him riding his BMX bike in an East German neighborhood as a kid. In Dortmund, we also witnessed a marriage proposal in front of 10,000 people. (She said yes.)
The format of the racing at Six Days is a mystery to most people. It was to me until I actually raced my first Six. Most evenings consist of about three hours of competition spread out over five or six hours, including the entertainment. Typically our evening begins with rider introductions. All the teams ride around the track slowly in a double paceline, starting with the last team and descending numerically. There are usually about 14 teams on a 200-meter track. The announcer reads the palmares of each rider as the spotlight follows the team, the DJ plays the appropriate music, and then the team pulls off and goes to the back. This ritual also serves as the entire warm up. Warming up in the traditional sense does not exist in the world of the Six Day pro. Being professional in this context means waiting until the last possible minute to put on your kit and show up trackside. By last possible minute, I mean literally less than five minutes before introductions begin riders appear, put on their shoes and helmet, look at the schedule for the night, and then ride off on their bikes. The last few minutes of massage, cabin coffee talk and joke telling are always preferred to making an early appearance.
After the introductions, one rider from each team stays on the track and contests three sprints with perhaps 10 laps in between. Typically, these laps are spent in an orderly paceline without attacking or aggression. The riders simply ride on the blue line, taking one lap pulls until its time for the sprint to begin, and then the lead rider (who is leading by a subtle combination of chance and design) drops into the pole lane and begins the sprint. The top five riders will usually sprint for the points, which go four places deep. When the sprint is finished the leaders swing up and the group reassembles, and the process happens again. You can’t really call this a points race, at least not in the American sense. It is really three sprints separated by some slow laps. Of course, just when I thought I had the system figured out, one of the star riders would take off without warning at four laps to go, throwing a wrench in the whole thing. After the three sprints, your partner comes in, you do a slow-speed Madison exchange, and then he contests the final three sprints. The team with the most points wins.
This is one of many smaller races that happen before, after and between the two big Madisons, or chases. At a 200-meter track, the long chase might be 250 laps (50km) and the short chase might be 125 laps. There are sprints for points, but not until the final 30 laps of the event. So for the first 200 laps of a long chase, the objective is to take as many laps as you can on the field, and then if you are on the lead lap in the final 50 laps, you have the right to contest the sprints.
This brings me to a finer point of European bike racing. Compared to Americans, most Europeans seem to have a greater awareness for their place in the pecking order. In Europe you don’t see a Category 2 rider fighting for the wheel of Tom Boonen. This is because the average Cat. 2 in Europe understands that even if he feels great that day, and even if he has survived the world’s hardest road race for the first time in his life, it is not his place to head butt Boonen’s leadout man. He has not earned it yet. An American, in contrast, would argue that it is his right to do exactly this.
At the Sixes, riders who are not on the same lap as the leaders simply will not sprint for points. The Sixes are an expression of the caste system, and a rider or team is only permitted to achieve a certain level of success when they have earned that level. There are times when you are given chances to prove yourself, and other times in which the big boys are playing and you have to take a back seat.
The art of being a Six Day rider lies in knowing and respecting the system. It may seem archaic and unfair to the outside observer, but the riders who are at the top are extremely skilled, hard workers who have been doing it for years. They fought long and hard to climb the ladder, and so shall you. If you go against the grain in this type of environment, you will encounter a caustic friction that will work against your progress. Six Day racing is a type of fraternity in this sense, a European Good Old Boys’ club. When you respect the system, work hard, and put your balls on the line, you will gain the respect of the established riders. If you race hard at the wrong time, screw up too much by being unaware or crashing, or fail to understand the way things work, you will be chased down, and will have painful bruises on your thighs from being flicked, literally, by the other riders.
Racing six consecutive nights on the track is very fatiguing, but not in the same way as on the road. The cog and chainring are chosen so that the legs will not be cooked after a few nights. The gear size, typically 88 or 89 inches (53 x 16), is balanced between being big enough so that you can race au bloc when you need to, but small enough that heavy quads will not limit your performance after multiple efforts. As Roger Young says, trackies “live and die in an 88.” Perhaps Lance was not the originator of the concept of spinning to save the legs after all.
Fatigue comes in the form of central nervous system overload. The extremely high cadence demands (maximum cadences recorded for me nightly were consistently 158-160 rpm, with many sections of 140-145 rpm average for a few minutes) combined with the intense levels of concentration necessary to handle the bike precisely in technical situations, and the rock show environment of the Six Day (loud music, screaming fans and crazy lighting) leave the riders toasted at the end of every night, which is usually about 3:00 a.m. Riders sleep between nine and twelve hours a night just to recharge. The riders stumble about in a fatigue–induced state, and it takes real will power at times to turn the legs quickly. Days blend together into a Euro-pop-infused blur. Add in two meals, a massage, and some Internet time, and the result is a Six Day sarcophagus once the racing begins. Every day is consumed by the competition.
The repetitive nature of the event can be a mind job; when you roll up to the start line and see 300 on the lap counter, and its 1:15 a.m., reflection on the wisdom of your chosen profession is not recommended. Just focus on the moment at hand and absorb yourself in the effort. If that does not work, check out the podium girls.
On a positive note: most Sixes have finally banned smoking, which is nothing short of miraculous. Europe is way ahead of us in many, many ways, but not in the department of smoking; it seems that almost everyone in Europe over the age of 14 smokes like a chimney.
Sixes are part race, and part show. When it is time to race, we haul ass. The fifth night of Zurich this year we averaged 55.6 kmh for the 50km chase. But there are times when the crowd must be engaged with more than athleticism, even if it is at the highest level. Jokes are played, rules are broken, and occasionally creative license is invoked while on the bike. For example, a guy disguised as a woman jumped into a women’s race in Zuidlaren. The next night, two of the female racers appeared on the track dressed in referee’s gear during one of our events and gave the offending rider a “red card.”
ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS PEDAL
I was struck by how ritualized and systematic everything is at the Sixes. The mechanics and soigneurs do everything you can imagine for the riders, and it has been this way since the beginning of time. An athlete never touches his bike once during the evening except to race it. The mechanics change the gears, swap wheels, glue tires, inflate tires, shine top tubes, change handlebar tape, and even hand the bikes to the riders for each event. When the riders return to the cabins after each race, the mechanics wait by the apron until the rider approaches, slowing the riders with a firm grip so the rider does not back pedal and strain his legs to stop the bike. Then the mechanic racks the bike until the next event, at which point it will be waiting for the rider, trackside, and after he mounts his machine he even gets a push to help his momentum. Every effort is made so that all the rider needs to do is rest and race.
The soigneurs give hour-long massages every day, hand wash all the cycling clothes, supply and administer creams and ointments for rashes, saddle sores, cuts or scrapes from crashes, and even apply chamois cream to the clean shorts with a spoon before the riders put them on. I learned to put my shorts on inside out to avoid smearing my legs with pre-applied chamois cream.
Walking from the massage rooms to the track, riders carry nothing except mobile phones. Everything is brought to the track center by an assistant, including helmets, shoes, eyewear, extra shorts, undershirts and tricots. A tricot is what you wear on the upper hemisphere during a Six Day; it is supplied by the race organizer and bears the logos of your sponsors. It resembles a jersey except the fabric has a much higher Lycra content than anything anyone would normally wear, and there are no pockets. The riders all wear specially made Six Day shorts, which are non-bib style and have double-reinforced fabric on the waistline to prevent them from falling down, and extra thick chamois with no sculptured patterns. The tricots are tucked into the shorts to prevent them from flapping at speed and for a tidy look.
After each race, the soigneur removes the rider’s tricot and undershirt, wipes him down with alcohol, and then puts a new undershirt and tricot on him. The only thing they don’t do is tuck it in. The old undershirt and tricot are washed right there, trackside, and put into mini high-speed dryer, so they can be reused later in the night. The soigneurs will change tricots for the riders between six and nine times every evening. This is done so a rider is not sitting in a sweaty jersey between events, when he might catch a chill and become ill. It also helps riders smell a lot better.
In between events, the riders consume hot tea with lemon and honey, race drink, cookies and a gruel-like substance, which is made from rice and milk. Each rider has his own drinking cup, tea cup, chamois cream container, sponge and water tub, and alcohol washcloth. Because the schedule involves many hard efforts that are spread out over several hours, it is critical for riders to snack regularly to keep blood sugar from dropping. It’s a dentist’s nightmare.
A BLUR OF RACES
Besides the Madisons, an evening of racing might also include a team elimination (a “miss-n-out” in the U.S.), short time trials (always performed as a team and including at least one exchange), derny racing (motorpaced events) and the balustrade sprint (a 20-lap event that is like an audience participation dance party until about 3 to go).
The team elimination is the most technically demanding event, as teams are constantly sprinting into the back of the field to avoid being eliminated while negotiating exchanges. It’s also highly entertaining to watch. The time trials can be held over one lap or one kilometer. Each team starts together at the rail, and the first rider builds the speed, then throws his partner into the race. They do another exchange if the race distance allows it, and the timing and technique of this effort is critical. Usually you do this effort after sitting on your ass for at least 20 minutes, and the mechanic puts on a bigger gear for the timed events (53 x 15, or 95 inches). The combination of these two factors has a tendency to make your legs explode about halfway through the event. Why don’t riders warm up on rollers before this event to ease the impact of the intense effort, you ask? I wanted to ask that question all year, but there is a point when you stop asking questions and just do whatever Bruno Risi does.
GOODBYE SIX DAYS, HELLO HOLLOWAY
My teammate Daniel had the honor of leading a few balustrade sprints in Zurich, when the usual rider in charge of this department was called away when his wife went into labor. The Waveman leads the peloton, with all the riders in one long line at the rail, and engages the crowd with various antics, such as starting the wave (all the riders do the wave as well as the crowd in a coordinated effort). Being The Waveman is a big honor and responsibility in the Six Day world. The last Waveman, Gerd Dorich, had his job for 10 years! For his first time, Holloway proved to be a quick study and has already been working to refine his technique. My prediction is that he will add an American twist to the role (he has already added some air guitar to the routine).
The camaraderie of the veteran riders is obvious. They greet each other with a friendly “Hello” or “Ciao” and a look that indicates both respect and calculation in the same moment. Stories are told in the massage rooms over coffee, and riders who live locally are quick to invite you for training or to help with the types of questions foreigners always have. The riders, soigneurs and mechanics are all familiar after a short time and it resembles one big happy (slightly dysfunctional) family.
Racing the Six Days was an invaluable experience. Hopefully it will enable to me to expand my level of instruction as I pass my knowledge on to future trackies. I have no doubt that Holloway will benefit from his winter of hard racing. As Mark Cavendish said after racing some Sixes, “field sprints on the road are in slow motion.” After watching Holloway negotiate 14 teams on a 178-meter velodrome this winter, I can hardly wait to see him in action on the road this summer.