From Canadian Cycling magazine
From Canadian Cycling magazine, the story of 6 day bike racing
Thundering like a drum roll, followed by a blast from the tannoy and a rolling round of applause from the crowd. The music kicks in and bell sounds; it’s the Wembley Six Day race in London, sometime in the late seventies. I wasn’t even a teenager yet, and I was witnessing history – the staging of the last ever London Six Day bike race, and the last to be held in Britain. It would be 20 years until I got to see my next “six”, yet the bewildering and exciting experience was still the same.
It was like stepping into a Saturday night cabaret show, yet the racing was clearly for real. You could see it on the faces of the riders as they gritted their teeth for the 4th night in a row of racing hours on end around this smoke filled, sweaty, yet chilled velodrome.
There was money at stake, and if someone wanted to lay it on the line they would race for it, like performing seals. I’d been to all kinds of bike races (Even at such a tender age), yet this was something else. I’d never seen anything quite like this, it was surreal, mesmerising and fascinating.
One of the riders was playing to the crowd, gesturing and calling for applause, and playing with a couple of the lesser riders. His name was Willy DeBosscher, a great Belgian six-day star. It was an electrically charged display of bike racing, and Willy was without doubt the star of the show – you just could not help but get drawn into his gladiatorial like showmanship.
I really had little idea of what was actually happening as regards the competition. Racers were hand slinging and chasing dernys while the lights dimmed down low, like a sleazy nightclub. The spotlight followed the stars performers around as they danced and sprinted to the tune of the jazz band in the central arena. It was confusing yet captivating, and this whole performance was cheered on by thousands of beer swilling fans. This surely was the greatest show on two wheels?
The exact origins of six day racing (And even latter day details) are somewhat shrouded in the late night smoky atmosphere, much as the track centres of the old six day’s once where – when cigarette manufacturers were amongst the major race sponsors. But, what is clear is that is all started out in the late 1800’s in Britain. There were reports of a small band of “professional” riders racing each other none stop for six days around a track in Birmingham, a marathon race that was won by Charles Walker – the countries top rider of that century.
Others report its origins as a solo sport, first recorded in London in 1878, when professional rider Dave Stanton wagered that he could ride 1000 miles solo in six days. The bet was taken up for GBP100, and the attempt was recorded nationwide. Stanton completed the distance in just 73 hours on his penny-farthing, creating something of a stir in the sporting world.
Not long after this the same venue grasped the commercial potential and organised a mass start six-day race, where 12 men lined up to ride none stop (Or as much as possible) for six days; the seventh day was of course Sunday, the Sabbath, so out of respect they avoided racing during the day (But they don’t observe this these days).
Within no time the word had crossed the ocean, and the sport took off in a huge way in North America, and then spread to Australia and also started to boom in mainland Europe, a reversal of the road racing path.
The original races followed the multi-day endurance format, where riders had six days to cover as many laps as possible. Sure riders would sleep whenever they could – but they were races, with huge prize bonuses on offer. A good rider could earn US$5,000 in start money alone, while even neo-pro’s would get paid US$100 a day to perform.
The crowds loved the spectacle; that being of men suffering like dogs, powered by strychnine and other concoctions just to try and stay awake and suffer their way through the six long days. A top rider would cover around 2100 miles during the race – the same as the total distance in the average Tour de France.
The events were drawing huge crowds, and although it was also big business in Europe and Canada, the US was where it was at, and many Australians and European pro’s began to make the long ocean journey to race the North American winter six-day circuit, often riding 5 or 6 events during a season.
The bigger the crowds the harder the racing, the riders were there to entertain and draw in the punters – and it sure was a tough way to earn a crust, but when you consider the average wage at that time was around US$5 a day, these guys were certainly not poor.
After a while the New York state decided that the non-stop format was inhuman, and ruled that riders could only race for 12 hours at a time. It took no time for the promoters to realise that they could put 2 man teams on the track, racing the full 24-hours between them, relay style. This also made the racing much faster, and more exciting for the crowds. The first of these races was held in Madison Square Garden in 1891, hence the birth of the Madison, which is still the backbone of modern six-day racing.
This 2-rider none-stop relay racing was huge in the US until the mid thirties. Riders were paid almost ten times as much as the top baseball players of the time, and a six-day race was the place to be seen. Bing Crosby and other major jazz stars of the era would perform in track centres, and every northern city had its own six-day.
After the weekend baseball matches hundreds of carpenters would build fresh boarded indoor tracks – which would cost the promoter around US$5,000 a time, and take just 10 hours or so to construct. The night after the race they were stripped and sold as firewood, with all concerned making a pretty penny or two along the way.
Prohibition helped some too, with no legal drinking options the six provided a great evening of entertainment; but then came the great depression and the arrival of the motor-car for the masses, and six- day racing in the US slid into decline, and by 1950 it was all but over. In Europe the boom was halted by Nazi anti-stadium rulings, and then by World War 2.
Despite several attempts a revival never came about in the US, although races continued in Canada until 1980, and there was a small revival a few years ago with London (Ontario) being its focal point.
In Europe the post war six-day scene continued to grow back slowly, and Germany once again entered the fray in 1950, and to this day remains perhaps the best place to witness a true six-day race.
In 1967 the London Six-Day made the rash decision to change the race format; cutting the racing down to split afternoon and evening sessions, with other disciplines and outside events being incorporated. This approach did not go down well at first, but in no time at all the other six-day promoters saw the appeal and followed suit. The 1967 Madrid Six-Day was the last of the all night races.
Today central Europe is the heartland of six-day racing, with the German races being the biggest shows, closely followed by the Belgian and Dutch races. The bike racing is just one part of the six experience; as is being the best racer. Riders earn good start money for the events, and the more they can perform the more likely they are to get invited to ride, and the more they will make.
Danny Clarke used to earn very good money by singing each night, a real crowd pleaser, Sixes really are amazing shows, but you have to keep reminding yourself that these riders are some of the best cyclists in the world too, and they are racing every evening for up to hours a time at 55kph in a smoky velodrome, crammed in to small cabins in the track centre for their recovery. Six-day racers are tough cookies, and these tough races; even if some of the bigger stars do get paid up to EU75, 000 for some races, they certainly hurt for it.
If you get the slightest chance to get to a six-day grab it with both hands, it’s an amazing experience, and a side of bike racing that you don’t see all too often.
Six of the greatest six-day riders//
Patrick Sercu – Belgian fast-man Sercu stands out as the greatest six-day winner of all time, with a staggering 88 victories to his name, most scored during the 70’s and 80’s.
Sercu was not only a formidable track racer – he also took the green jersey in the Tour de France and several other prominent road victories. He went on to become Belgian national track coach, and is one of the major forces in six-day race promotion these days.
Danny Clark –Tasmanian “devil” Danny Clark was a phenomenal bike rider, and during the 70’s and 80’s he was hard to beat on the six-day circuit, amassing some 74 victories during his long and flamboyant career.
The last few of victories these came in the mid 90’s, when he was 45 years old. Clark was also a great kermesse rider, and an Olympic silver medallist and 5 time World Track Champion.
Rene Pijnen – The Dutch all-rounder Pijnen was a pro with several major road teams (such as TI-Raleigh) right through form 1969-87, during the time he won numerous road races and several grand tour stages. Before this he was also Olympic TTT Champion, and was a great all-round track rider. His 72 six-day victories rank him the third greatest of all time.
Peter Post – Best known as the ultimate, and hardest, team manager of the 80’s Post was also a very accomplished bike rider – both on road and track. His 1964 winning ride in Paris-Roubaix was the first-ever Dutch win, and remains the fastest ever running of the race.
With 65 six-day wins between 1957-70 he ranks as the 4th all time great winner.
Bruno Risi – One of the latter day greats is Swiss track specialist Bruno Risi. Risi, who is credited with 62 six-day victories, which puts him into 5th spot on the all time winners list. Risi was a fair road rider too, and a 7-time World Champion on the track.
Rik Van Steenbergen – Van Steenbergen was one of the all time great Belgian bike racers. He rose to prominence in the late 40’s and stayed on top through the 50’s.
During his time he took 3 World Road Championship wins, plus a considerable number of classics and grand tour stage wins – and 40 six-day victories, earning him 6th place on the all time great six-day riders listing.
Canadian six-day racing
Back in the early part of the last century six-day racing was a huge part of the Canadian sporting scene, with several events taking place each winter season, and Canadian racers were very much at the top of the tree.
The first recorded six-day race in Canada took place in Toronto back in 1912, and some 59 major races took place in 7 different Canadian cities, with the last major six-day being the 1980 Montreal Six. Montreal was very much the centre for Canadian six-day racing, and hosted some 37 races in all.
A few years ago there was a revival of six-day racing in Canada, all be it on a smaller scale than it was during its golden era. Most of these races took place on the Forest City Velodrome in London, Ontario, although the resurgence only lasted a few years, with the last race being held in 2008.
Top three Canadian six-day racers
Canada had some of the worlds leading six-day racers during the “great era” of the sport. Here are three of the most successful.
William “Torchy” Peden
Peden had an amazing record in Canadian six-days. He rode a total of 126 races in all, and won 38 (Mostly during the 1930’s), which marks him as one of the greatest six-day racers of all time.
During the 1930’s Audy was one of the best Canadian six-day riders. He took 14 victories from his 108 race starts.
The thirties were without a doubt the “golden era” of Canadian six-day racing and racers. The third most successful Canadian of all time, LePage, rode 61 races and won 7.
One of the best historical six-day racing websites around is the Canadian www.6dayracing.ca site, which has some great historical further reading.
There is a great book, and DVD all about the early days and these ultra hard-men of cycling. The book is caller Sid Day Race; check out www.sixdaybicyclerace.com