6 Day London
After six days of gruelling and exquisite racing, it all comes down to the final lap. A young British duo challenging the experienced Belgians. We were promised Ben Hur on bicycles and here it is. Shoulder to shoulder round the final bend they gallop. And in a stadium designed for acoustics, the roar is deafening. Come on! The riders strain for one last charge. Could this be it, after 35 years could cycling really be coming home?
I’d never been to a Six Day event before, but then neither had most of the crowd. We were in this together, united in our excited idiocy, learning as the week went along and pulled by the promise of what it could deliver. And we were back where it all began. Six Day cycling started in London in 1898 with a Penny Farthing and a 1000-mile bet. It then went around the world and now European sixes have an established tradition, and their own particular quirks. The bikes and the races may have changed, but endurance and competition is still at its heart. The last Six to be held in London was in 1980 but since then we’ve had Wiggins, Hoy, Cavendish and many others. The fans are hungry for a return, and the organisers of the new Six Day London at the Lee Valley VeloPark, used for the 2012 Olympics, have promised us ‘cycling is coming home’. I’d heard great stories of the atmosphere and mayhem of the European Sixes; the crappy bands and dodgy beer all part of the character of the event. How could we really create a great Six from scratch that people would love?
To help prepare us for the event, Cavendish was doing the publicity rounds. In one interview he tries to explain why the Six is a great spectacle. “Imagine the Tour de France indoors”, we’re told and I see mountains and castles and a dancing devil and I like it very much but I don’t think he’s quite got it. He goes on: “You know you get these nightclubs in London, you can go out, go dancing but you have the places that have got entertainment going on, you know, um…”, and then he looks confused, trying to find the right word for a state of the art stadium filled with track stars from around the world, competing at speeds in excess of 40 mph, overlaid with tunes from a live DJ. And he looks at the interviewer for help and he says, “Um, not strip clubs”, waving his hands as if trying to back away from his own words. I laugh out loud when I see this but I also feel sorry for him. So much of his personal passion has gone into helping bring the Six back and he’s talking to the BBC about strip clubs. He doesn’t mean that, no, but what is this thing he finds so hard to describe?
From the outside, the velodrome has the pleasing shape and colour of a Pringle crisp, which always makes me hungry. Inside, the constant curves and waved lines of the architecture give the impression of perpetual motion. It is beautiful and it inspires speed. This is where the gladiators do battle and I arrive as the challengers are presented. To settle in, I go in search of sustenance. There’s no bitterballen here though – it’s pulled pork buns and falafel wraps, fancy stuff from pristine eateries, accessed by neat queues. There’s no mayhem. The music is provided by a DJ from the Ministry of Sound called ‘Martin 2 Smooth’. His name reminds me of a school disco. “Everyone in the velodrome screeeaaammmmm!” I have a bad feeling about this. But maybe I’m trying too hard to find the cracks. The crowd seems to be loving it. When the riders pass at the top of the bend, they whip past like sharks in an aquarium and the crowd gasps. Martin 2 Smooth hits us with some Mark Ronson and even early in the night there’s some dancing in the seats. I grab a beer and sit with them. Before the 20 km Madison starts, Cav’s head appears on a giant screen to explain how it works, appearing like a giant club-loving god amongst us. Then, through the event, every time a British rider gets ahead, the crowd cheer at full volume. It’s building up.
Paris-Roubaix winner Niki Terpstra is making early progress so I find him in the middle. The riders’ cubicles face out to the crowd. It’s intimate: a public window on their private world. As we meet, a young British sprinter, Matthew Rotherham, takes the lead in the 200 m Flying TT and the crowd tries to lift off the roof with its elation. I can barely hear Terpstra as he attempts to answer my ironically timed question about the atmosphere. “The crowd here is really good”, he says. “It is perhaps even more enthusiastic than in Europe where you have to sometimes work to get the cheers.” He then says something else but it’s lost in the swell of applause. I nod and back away.
When I find Rotherham he is beaming. “It’s fantastic”, he keeps repeating. “On home ground, it’s just fantastic. Fantastic atmosphere.” He seems a little star struck by the occasion so I turn attention to his nickname ‘Legs’, which measure 67 cm around. He tells me he’s chasing down Robert Förstemann whose own appendages have earned him the name Quadzilla. He flexes them for me and I resist the urge to pinch them. I ask the other media how they’re getting on. A photographer tells me she’s never done track cycling before. “I’m not totally sure what’s going on but I love it!” Another journalist tells me he’s never been to a velodrome before. “I’m a bit confused to be honest, but it’s awesome.” Everyone is finding their feet and clipping in. So far, so good.
Over the next few days, as I cycle to work, I find myself attempting track stands at traffic lights and one morning I pass a friend and I have a sudden urge to grab his hand and launch him ahead of me. The Six has taken over me. On Friday night, the last night, I am back. It’s packed and there’s a buzz; there’s a sense the crowd understands we’re building up to something special. I can’t believe they’ve been racing all week. An old guy at the bar in full lycra tells me he’s been every night. “I love cycling, I love riding, I love watching. But I never knew about Six Days before and it is epic. It’s brutal out there: head butts, shoulder bumps. Bloody brilliant.”
I start talking to another old dude wearing dark glasses, holding a cane. He surveys the stadium and just says, “It’s cool”. I ask him if he raced. He shakes his head. “My son and grandson”, he points with a smile. I make out the son as Maurice Burton, who rode that last London Six in 1980. The grandson is 20-year old Germain Burton, riding this event, and already hailed as a future British star. I find them as Germain has just set a new fastest lap. “My hand’s sore from all the high fives I got”, he laughs. Maurice looks on proudly and adds: “It’s a different format from when I was racing, it’s a much shorter, more compact form, which is good for the riders and for the public. The time when they watched riders ride round for hours and hours is past. There’s definitely a future here for this.”
There’s no riding through the night here. It all finishes at 10:30 pm. And for the last three days, there’s a Women’s Omnium too – there’s a massive reaction for British Paralympic goddess Dame Sarah Storey, competing for the first time in this discipline. We chat about her preparations for Rio but we get lost in the swell of the Derny, which from the centre is a pleasant sensory overload, like wearing a wasp nest helmet that stings you with serotonin.
It’s half time show time. The sprinters storm the DJ box with giant blue foam fingers. Dancing cyclists. Are they going to strip, I wonder? The team riders take to the track, the lights are dimmed, the music is loud. Martin 2 Smooth gets the crowd clapping along and then singing to We Will Rock You. The cyclists are strung out round the track and start a Mexican wave in their line. The crowd loves it. Even the security guards are dancing.
As the evening goes on, there’s a magical melee in the middle – riders warm up, cool down, they amble, pose for photos – and I can’t believe I am amongst it. I am close enough to ad- mire the incredible athleticism: the size, the sinews. In the Madison, I see the strength of the grip, the propulsion of the catapult. I try to understand how they flow through each other as if programmed by the laws of physics. I’m basking in this when I notice the sound of my summer, TV commentator Ned Boulting, is similarly smiling beside me. He agrees that the happy confusion of fans earlier in the week has grown into a mature appreciation. “The people who have come along tonight have obviously been watching on the TV for the last few days and they now know what to expect. They know all the pantomime elements of the Six Day show, so they know all the riders’ individual characteristics; they’ve got their villains, their heroes. It’s taken a while but I think we’ve got there.”
British pair Chris Latham and Ollie Wood take the 500 m Madison TT straight after winning the Team Eliminator and the atmosphere finds a new, unexpected level. I have run out of words for these noises. I’m in the centre next to Rotherham, surely a phenomenal future talent. I ask him how the week has gone. He’s beaming. “It’s fantastic, it’s fantastic”, he keeps repeating as he confidently signs autographs for inspired young kids. It feels like euphoria is permeating through everyone. What I first mistook for a too-clinical delivery of the event was in fact meticulous and perfect planning of an experience, laid out for the masses that want to access track cycling like never before. This is working.
Rotherham takes to the track and races the bearded American, Nate Koch. When they lock into a track stand, a fan grabs the selfie of the night. Koch slaps Rotherham on the butt and takes off. As he crosses the line, Koch rips open his shirt like the Hulk. But soon a photo of the finish flashes on screen and we see Rotherham has stolen it by an inch. There follows a violent eruption of delirious cheering. Even Martin 2 Smooth seems to have found his rhythm. He’s never deejayed a track cycle race before, but now, for the sprinters, he slows the beat so that when they stop on the pedals, it sounds like a heartbeat echoing through the velodrome, and when they roll on, the beat drops and they’re gone. It just remains for me to find Cav and ask him if it’s all worked out. “For the first time event, it’s superb”, he says. “I think the party vibe, the lighting, the music…”, go on say it, say it… “the whole set up is superb; it is absolutely what Six Day riding should be.” I say well done, but he stops me. “It’s not over yet – the last lap of the Final Chase, that’s when you really feel the crescendo build up.”
And as if he wrote the script, so it goes. It’s all down to this. Latham and Wood start in the lead but ping pong the top slot through the Final Chase with the experienced Kenny De Ketele and Moreno De Pauw. It’s close, so close. On the final lap, the crowd feels the Brits move forwards and urges them on, but De Ketele and De Pauw take it, just. After six days and hundreds of laps it comes down to the length of a wheel.
The crowd feels exhausted and leaves only wanting more. This has been ‘fantastic’. It will be back, of that I’m sure. Six Day cycling has found a new home.