By Nick Christian
On the crest of the British cycling popularity wave, the classic continental track format Six Day Racing returned to London last week after a 35-year hiatus. Despite missing Mark Cavendish – still recovering from shoulder surgery following a crash at last month’s Tour of Britain – the event nevertheless reunited a bunch of Olympic medallists with the 2012 track. They were joined on the bill by a bunch of young British riders, determined to show the crowd they weren’t just here to make up the numbers.
So, how best to explain six day racing? Over the course of six nights, eighteen teams of two riders race to see who can complete the most laps of the velodrome. And in the end the Belgians win. Were it that simple….
Here are six things we learned from six nights of bike racing.
- There are loads of different types of race, and some of them are bonkers
Within the overall aim of “taking laps” – when a team launches an attack off the front of the pack, then catches and rejoins the main bunch from the back – is the points race. Should teams be level in terms of laps it’s points that separates them, but it’s also what the riders are competing for most of the time.
The final night’s program lists no fewer than seventeen separate events, including women’s omnium and sprinters’ races (more on those later), of which the most bizarre is The Longest Lap. Riders set off round the track as slowly as possible, in order to avoid crossing the start line before the bell rings (which could happen at any time). Any that does slip over it – or puts a foot down, touches a competitor, leans on the rail, or rides backwards – is eliminated.
Once they hear the bell, those still standing set off for one more lap, with the winner the first to cross the finish. Even cricket looks like a game of tiddlywinks by comparison.
- Within the chaos and confusion lies real beauty
In terms of the six day competition, the most important races are those in the madison format. For a set number of laps both riders from every team circle the track, with only one participating in the race itself at any given time, while the other takes a rest and the competition continues at a ferocious pace.
Not only do you have to know which half of the field to be paying attention to, at any point (in time and on the track) a rider might be tagging in his teammate. All of a sudden you have to start ignoring the one you were watching before: it’s exactly the same race but entirely different.
It’s like trying to follow water in a river.
Once you get the hang of it, however, the artistry begins to emerge. The exchange itself is (depending on the pairs’ combined competency) an elegant gesture, as the incoming rider descends from the top to the bottom of the track, reaches out an arm and is slung into the action. This all happens at full speed, meaning their competitors must make way and maneuver themselves around to accommodate. That in a week of racing we only saw a single “slap” (crash) reflects the riders’ immense skill and control amidst the chaos.
- The sprinters are a completely different breed
At once hapless court jesters and gallant knights, the sprinters provide both the light entertainment and brute strength throughout the week, competing in a separate competition of their own. The always-grinning, immensely likeable American, Nate Koch (ahem, it’s pronounced “Cook”) describes himself and his cohort as “gladiators” and with caricatured muscularity, they indeed seem like CGI wizardry made flesh.
Skill and tactics being much less important to these guys than raw power means sprinting is inherently less exciting as a spectacle. The riders themselves certainly make up for it.
When not on the track they roam its centre – awkwardly encumbered by their own gargantuan thighs – chatting to the crowd and popping up in the DJ booth wearing giant foam fingers. Far more than the riders in the event proper, you get the sense that they’re here to have fun.
- You can’t manufacture atmosphere (and shouldn’t need to)
… but at Six Day London, they do try.
By starting at half past five and with a 10.30pm curfew, even with Ministry of Sound’s Martin 2 Smoove on the decks, a late night party vibe was always going to be hard to create. In Holland and Belgium the racing frequently goes on ‘til 2am and, as cyclist/author/whatever Michael Hutchinson tells us, “the beer’s a lot cheaper”.
The announcer, frequently reminding the crowd that “the more noise you make, the faster they ride” comes cringingly close to “scream if you wanna go faster” and wouldn’t sound out of place coming out of the PA at a travelling fairground.
Ultimately, nothing gets the crowd on their feet like the excitement of the racing itself. The final run of Friday’s 500m team time trial sees Britain’s Ollie Wood and Chris Latham turn into the home straight in sight of victory. When their names appear on the big screen with “1st” beneath them, the velodrome erupts.
- Empty seats tell their own story
Apart from the first and last days, the stands never seem particularly full. For this you can’t help but blame the prices, with even the cheapest adult ticket for any of the last three days going for a wallet-busting £36. Mark Darbon, CEO of organisers Madison Sports Group, denies making a misstep with the high entry fee, attributing the empty seats not to “a challenge of pricing but of a new proposition and story to tell”.
Another mistake is allowing the hospitality and VIP sections to take up half the centre of the track. At the Ghent Six, the middle is the party section and the most inexpensive place to be. This makes sense, as the vantage point makes it much harder to follow the action. It might well be, as Darbon says, that licensing restrictions at Lee Valley Velodrome wouldn’t permit something similar, but reserving such a conspicuous space for those who both pay the most and have the least interest in the sport itself, only serves to highlight the elitist side of cycling.
- British Cycling’s next superstar may be coming down the track
Wiggo is a year (albeit an Olympic one) away from retirement, Cav’s career appears to be winding down and the Great British Public are reluctant to revere Chris Froome. In order to maintain its momentum, British Cycling desperately needs someone that a wider audience will warm to.
Germain Burton could well be the one.
Burton possesses extraordinary ability on the bike but, that aside, he looks and sounds like a normal kid from South London. Unlike some of the experienced professionals at Six Day London he also seems to be enjoying himself and generously gives up his time between races to chat.
Whether you would wish the weight of pressure that Bradley et al have carried on such a nice guy is a different matter. With a year left in the Olympic Development Programme Germain has plenty of time to decide what to do next, but his talent and temperament certainly make him one to watch.