Track Cycling Events Vol. 4: The 6 Days

23 Sep

The 6 days is the one major track cycling event we haven’t been to. The 6 days is a track cycling race that lasts six days. Six-day races started in Britain, spread to many regions of the world, were brought to their modern style in the United States and are now mainly a European event. Initially, individuals competed alone, the winner being the individual who completed the most laps. However, the format was changed to allow teams (usually of two riders each), one rider racing while the other rested. The 24-hours a day regime has also been relaxed, so that most six-day races involve six nights of racing, typically from 6pm to 2am, on velodromes.

The overall winner is the team which completes most laps. In the event of teams completing the same number of laps, the winner is the team with most points won in intermediate competitions (see points race). As well as the ‘chase’ to gain laps over competitors, a typical six-day programme will include time trials, motor-paced, intermediate sprint and elimination races. In the main ‘chase’ or madison events (so-called after Madison Square Garden in New York where the two-man format was devised), both riders may be on the track at the same time, taking it in turns to race, hand-slinging each other back into action.

The first six-day event was an individual time trial at the Agricultural Hall in Islington, London in 1878 when a professional called David Stanton sought a bet that he could ride 1,000 miles in six successive days, riding 18 hours a day. A Mr Davis put up £100 and the stake was held by the Sporting Life newspaper. Stanton started at 6am on 25 February and won the bet in 73 hours, riding on a high-wheeled machine at an average speed of 13.5 mph.

Six-day cycle races involving more than one rider grew out of the 19th-century enthusiasm for endurance and other novelty competitions. A promoter at the Agricultural Hall held a six-day walking contest in April 1877. It was enough of a success for another to be held the following year. That inspired another organiser, name no longer known, to organise a six-day race in the same hall but for cyclists, also in 1878. He hoped to attract the crowd of 20,000 a day that had turned out for the walkers.

However, the event did not become popular until 1891 when six-day races were held in Madison Square Garden in New York City. Initially, these races were contests of raw endurance, with a single rider completing as many laps as possible. At first, races were over less than 24 hours a day. Riders slept at night and were free to join in in the morning when they chose. Faster riders would start later than the slower ones, who would sacrifice sleep to make up for lack of pace. Quickly, riders began competing 24 hours a day, limited only by their ability to stay awake. Many employed seconds, as in boxing, to keep them going. The seconds, known by their French name soigneurs, were said to have used doping to keep their riders circling the track. Riders became desperately tired.

The condition included delusions and hallucinations. Riders wobbled and fell. But they were often well paid, especially since more people came to watch as their condition worsened. Promoters in New York paid Teddy Hale $5,000 when he won in 1896 and he won “like a ghost, his face as white as a corpse, his eyes no longer visible because they’d retreated into his skull,” as one report had it.

Six-day racing remained popular in the USA, even though the states of New York and Illinois led in 1898 in limiting races to 12 or 24 hours. The intention was to allow riders to rest half the day, but promoters realised that teams of two, with only one rider on the track at a time, would give each the 12 hours’ rest the law intended while making the race still last 24 hours. Races lasted six days rather than a week to avoid racing on Sunday. Speeds rose, distances grew, crowds increased, money poured in. Where Charlie Miller rode 2,088 miles alone, Alf Goullet and a decent partner could ride 2,790. The first such race was at Madison Square Garden and two-man tag racing has become known in English as a madison and to the French as l’américaine.

In the main ‘chase’ or madison sessions, both riders may be on the track at the same time, taking it in turns to race, hand-slinging each other back into action. The non-racing rider will circle the track slowly at the top of the banking until ‘slung’ back into the race. The hand-sling is an advanced skill that, in some countries, is only allowed for professional riders. The racing rider may also propel a team-mate into the race by pushing the seat of the rider’s racing shorts.

The success of madisons in America led to their introduction in Europe. The first was at Toulouse in 1906, although it was abandoned after three days because of lack of interest. Berlin tried, three years later, with success. Five races were held in Germany in 1911-12. Brussels followed in 1912 and Paris in 1913.

Six-day racing is now predominantly a European phenomenon, particularly in Belgium and Germany. Spectators may also be entertained by live music, and have access to restaurants and bars. The Munich race featured a funfair around the outside of the track, and a night-club in the cellar that opened at 2am when the racing finished. The start money for 24 riders at theGhent six in 2000 came to £333,000, although the organiser, Patrick Sercu, said he was contractually bound not to say what individual riders earned. The magazine Vélo, however, said the specialists collected €5,000 in 2002 and star riders more. The German rider, Erik Zabel, asked €75,000, which Sercu said was beyond his budget. There are prizes as the race goes on – and sometimes more unusual ways to earn money.

(snipped from wikipedia)

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