I have completed my hat-trick of watching Flemish cycling. First the cobbled classic one day races. Then the muddy delights of winter cyclocross. Now I have completed a long held ambition to go to the Ghent 6 day cycle race, possibly the most celebrated track race in the world.
Modern 6 day racing is six hours of cycle racing per day on an indoor banked velodrome where teams of two riders compete to cover the most distance in a series of team races and other events. In between the elite races there is an undercard of promising under 23 riders and top women track riders, each with their own series. It is a spectacle that combines fast and furious bike racing with a touch of professional wrestling. Music, lights, colourful costumes, man to man combat, speed and risk. In short, cycle racing as a variety act, but with real speed and strength too. Not surprising that it is loved by the Flemish, cycling’s most passionate fans.
British fans have been starved of a home 6 day cycle race since 1980 so a weekend in Ghent has become a favourite weekend break for many club riders over the last 30 years, although as Ghent has been the spiritual home of British and Irish riders breaking into the continental scene since the 1950s there has been a British cycling presence at the racing for many years longer.
Today this is a European spectacle that provides winter entertainment for cycling fans in traditional cycle racing countries but its origins are largely American. A few individual six day challenge races took place in the 1870s in Britain. But the breakthrough was in 1891 when six day races were started in Madison Square Gardens in New York and became a big money spectacle that stayed popular right through to the Second World War. These also started as individual challenges with riders competing round the clock for six days, reducing them to shells by the final days. They would stop and sleep as little as they could to maximise distance, but apparently it wasn’t much of a spectacle towards the end. Organisers then realised that two man teams would enable the riders to be competitive for a whole week and the six day format was adopted to avoid racing in Sundays.
Within this format the unique spectacle of tag racing with both team members on the track at the same time was devised. While one races the second rests for a few moments, then when they catch each other the speeding rider transfers his momentum to his team-mate by means of the handsling, one of the most distinctive manoeuvres in cycling. It is made all the more amazing because the riders do it with up to 30 riders on the track, at 70kmph with riders going in all directions. It is difficult to describe in writing, trying to portray a manoeuvre like a bunch sprint in a road race, but just as half the field is going forwards at full speed the other half are slamming on the brakes – and they almost never crash.
This racing format has been known in English as the Madison ever since, or the American in French.
The format with racing round the clock continued until the seventies with riders getting up to all sorts of antics while the crowds were not watching. It is sure that this was also a hot-bed of drug assisted riding because the riders were expected to perform to demand no matter how they felt.
In the late sixties a rebellious organiser called Ron Webb started running the London Six Day race on a new format with just afternoon and evening racing in an entertaining format. The other organisers said it wasn’t a proper six day race but the formula was popular with riders and the public so it stuck and today the few remaining “sixes” all use the same format.
And that’s what I wanted to introduce my son to, just as my dad took me down to the London sixes in the 1970s. We decided to take in the final day of the six and the special atmosphere of the track centre where the racing swirls around a boisterous crowd who were hitting the bars with enthusiasm.
It is an intimate scene, the crowd and the bars are pressed right up against the riders and support staff. The elite riders get tiny cabins to hide in, but the staff, women and under 23s are forced to do everything in public.
As Brits we were especially spoiled because not only were we there to take in the atmosphere this year we had some British talent to support. Early in the evening we saw young riders Matthew Gibson and Christopher Lawless won the Under 23 continuing a tradition that includes a certain Bradley Wiggins.
But the star turn for me was Mark Cavendish. He is super popular in Belgium, not just because he rides for Belgian team Omega Pharma Quickstep but also because he respects the traditions of the sport and rides in a way the Flandrians can respect. Having an elite road rider of his reputation riding their six day was a huge coup for the organisers, a throwback to the sixties when riders like Eddie Merckx mixed it with the track specialists. Cav was paired with his Flemish team-mate Iljo Keisse, hugely popular himself with the Ghent crowd for his five previous wins in the event.
Great news for us was that as we came into the final day four teams were still in contention including Cavendish and Keisse, but they were up against wily local experts Kenny de Ketele and Jasper de Buyst. De Ketele and De Buyst had a strong lead in the points competition, scores picked up throughout the week in the supporting competitions. That meant Cavendish and Keisse could only win overall if they finished a lap ahead of their rivals, a result that could only be achieved by lapping the whole field more times than their opponents during the Madison races.
So the scene was set, and the racing was brilliant. All four leading teams went at it hammer and tongs in the two madisons of the evening, reducing the other seven teams to supporting roles. We stood in the middle as they swirled around us in dizzying flashes of lycra and chrome, trying to keep track on move and counter move.
When they were not doing the madisons they were battling it out in the other staples of six day racing, formats designed to entertain. Sprint races were accompanied by rock music countdowns that saw the teams race off against the clock for the fastest times. Only six teams at a time were allowed up on the track for the legendary denys, racing behind motorcycles, a scene that needed no musical accompaniment because the motors roar to a crescendo when the final laps hit full speed.
My personal track favourite has always been the elimination race. But who gave it the boring name? When I started going to grass track races as a kid it was always the “Devil”, or officially “Devil take the hindmost”. Who couldn’t love a race with such a great name, each lap the last rider across the line is eliminated until just two are left rolling. It was always a crowd pleaser, especially if at last one of the riders decides to play the crowd pleasing role of hanging around the back and sneaking up on the rest just as they cross the line.
In the end Cavendish and Keisse battled almost to a standstill taking lap after lap but at the very end they were marked out by De Ketele and De Buyst who sneaked away for the win by the narrowest of margins.
What a great day’s entertainment, we thoroughly enjoyed it from start to end. Flemish cycling delivered once again, there really cannot be a better a better place to be a bike fan.