In Ghent, Belgium, the low thunder of the cyclists racing into the wooden banking of the velodrome is unheard over the festivities in the track center. A DJ spins a classic Flemish hit as the spectators, dressed in their best clothes, eat, dance and mingle. Few of the spectators hear the yells of the riders as they bump elbows and maneuver into position before the final sprint to the line. These events, the six-day track races, are orchestrated spectacles.
When the 19th century neared, cycling was America’s sport. The country’s sporting icons were track cyclists and the arenas now known for their hockey and basketball teams were packed with cycling fans cheering for the earlier sports heroes racing around steeply banked wooden tracks.
It was an era when endurance events intrigued the population. So the bicycle races ran for six days (races weren’t held on Sundays to avoid violating local religious laws) with the cycling continuing around the clock, 24 hours a day. The riders never stopped pedaling as the spectators witnessed the riders become gaunt, deluded and barely able to pedal. Like endurance dance competitions where the last couple standing won, riders were expected to ride until they fell over.
Time and the law brought some humanity. By 1898, the New York State legislature banned riding for more than 12 hours a day.
At the same time, new rules brought excitement to six day racing. The races now take place only in the late afternoon and continue late into the night. There are also a variety of events– some mass start and others individual timed races—to boost audience interest. But in contrast most Olympic track events, where sprinting strategies include the dead stop of the track stand, the action at a six-day relentless. Two man teams were also introduced to replace concoctions of drugs previously used to achieve the inhumane.
The Madison (known in France as “l’Amèricaine”) is now the main event of a modern six-day race. Named after Madison Square Gardens, where the first races took place in the 1900s, it is a mass start event in which 12 to 18 teams of two riders race each other for points through sprints on selected laps.
The riders take turns working. That is, one rider races while the other circles the top of the track, taking a break at a less strenuous pace, away from the action. When his teammate tires, a quick hand-sling brings the rested rider up to speed and into the race. Like a Nascar pit change, the exchange must be quick and efficient.
Six-day racing slowly died in the United States as cars replaced the bicycle as transport and the next sporting craze. But in Europe where bikes remain commonly used vehicles and bicycle racing is still part of the culture, track races draw crowds of spectators, are covered by the daily media and have their champions who are professionals. Crowds, it should be noted, pay to watch the action, unlike the fans at the Tour de France. In an arena, insulated from the wet and cold northern European winter, the velodrome provides a warm venue for the spectators and the cyclists.
The current series that takes place through the autumn and winter is 14 races long and is centered in Germany, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands. Cultural influences mold the ambiance in each venue where the bike race becomes and excuse to celebrate and, for some fans, to drink.
In Ghent, the tunnel under the track used to access the center becomes slick with deep pools of beer which have accumulated through the night from spilled cups in the grandstands.
The grand spectacle of the evening is often the motorpaced race. The crowd rises to its feet when the specially designed motorbikes roll onto the velodrome, their engines revving and spewing clouds of exhaust.
The slipstream created by the motorbikes allows the cyclists to achieve otherwise impossible speed. But the cyclists remain in charge. Yelling over the roar of the motor, they tell the motorcyclists when to accelerate and when to slow down. At any given time, there can be six to ten motorcycles roaring around the velodrome.
The motorpacing aside, track racing is the purest form of cycling. Its variables are limited to the rider, the track and the competition. As a young cyclist, on the track I learned how to pedal efficiently, keeping my upper body motionless while my legs turned in potent circles. The confined and controlled environment of the now defunct Montreal Olympic velodrome made mistakes more apparent and gave me confidence, bike handling skills and tactical knowledge. Continue reading.