Riding is Life
Lights

Comments

Yoeri Havik and Jan-WIllem Van Schip exchange a handsling during one of the Madison races at the recent Gent Six Day event.

Six Days of Gent gallery: Echoes on the boards

Six Days events are a throwback to a time when bicycle racing was the most popular sport in the world.

Joe Lindsey
by Joe Lindsey 25.11.2023 Photography by
Cor Vos
More from Joe +

Winter is indoor track season. The UCI Track Champions League is in full swing, of course. But there’s also an echo of a time past, when track racing was bike racing, and on the boards indoors was the place to see and be seen. Last weekend was the Six Days of Gent, one of the oldest events in the sport that is still run today.

The inaugural Gent Six was held in 1922, won by Marcel Buysse and Oscar Egg, one of the earliest animators of the World Hour Record, a decade earlier. The event has seen several years-long periods where it wasn’t held but, excepting the 2020 edition, it’s been held every year since 1965 (the 2006 edition was cancelled after Isaac Galvez tragically died following a crash).

Six Days racing is far older than even Gent’s impressive history. The first event was almost 150 years ago, when David Stanton rode 1,000 miles in 73 hours to win a bet. They began to grow in popularity when New York City hosted its first Six, in 1891, and although the earliest events didn’t feature racing 24 hours a day, the format – where the rider who rode the most laps won – led quickly to that exact result. It also led to widespread drug use including of such baroque substances as cocaine, nitroglycerine (an ingredient of dynamite but also used to treat angina), and strychnine (aka rat poison).

The two-rider format that exists today was introduced around 1898, due to laws passed in New York and Illinois that were partly a response to the sport’s inhumane demands; essentially, each rider on a team was reduced to racing “only” 12 hours a day. The two-rider team system led also to the introduction of the sport’s signature session, the Madison, with the hand slings that mark one rider’s entry and another’s exit into the multi-lap race. As legend has it, the event got its name from the original Madison Square Garden, built in 1895 in part for bike racing.

Why six days and not a full week? That was due largely to observance of the Sabbath, and races would start with a Saturday night prologue before resuming again on Monday. Particularly in their heyday, Six Days were equal parts sport and spectacle. They attracted huge crowds, had a booming parimutuel business, and media and fans thrilled not just to the athletic feats but the gruesome crashes. Bobby Walthour, the American star of the 1920s, reportedly broke his left collarbone 18 times and his right 28 times and suffered 32 fractured ribs over the course of his career.

You’ve no doubt heard of the wild popularity of Six Days racing, but it bears a mention. In its day, in the 1900s through the 1920s, the riders were among the most highly paid athletes of the time, earning far more than even stars of sports like baseball. Top professionals like Walthour and Alf Goullet of Australia could make US $500-$1,000 a day to appear, or around $15,000-$30,000, adjusted for inflation. That didn’t include prize money. (Major Taylor, the iconic Black American racer, was primarily a sprinter and didn’t contest Six Days.) Races were a social scene; the NBA courtside cameo shots of today were replicated a century ago as actors, singers, and star athletes from other sports were regular attendees.

The format began to fade even before World War II, but many races never came back or faded shortly after the conflict – Chicago stopped in 1948, the iconic New York event ceased after 1950. European racing continued on but, by the end of the 1960s, the rise of road racing’s “golden age” and other sports – both football and American football especially – eclipsed bike racing with their shorter, TV-friendly formats. As Sixes’ prominence faded, so did their attraction to bike racing’s top stars. Most track racers today are far more focused on the Champions League and Olympic-level events. And road stars looking for a winter fitness boost are today more likely to simply train on the road, but Sixes do see competition from a number of names from the peloton that are recognizable to fans of road racing.

There have been short-lived attempts at revivals, including in the 1980s; in 2016 the current promoter, Madison Sports Group, initiated a series of Sixes at venues that largely stuck it out through the sport’s nadir: Gent, Berlin, Zurich, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen. But even there, interest flags: Copenhagen hasn’t had a Six since before the pandemic; Amsterdam stopped after just one round. It probably doesn’t help that MSG’s web site is slow to load and doesn’t even have complete information on the series, much less results (the next round is late January, in Berlin).

In a modern backdrop where 15 seconds is a standard video length on social media, the idea of a multi-day track race seems quaint, a relic of a time when the heroic worldbuilding of newspapers could condense hours of racing into a single narrative arc, and when our attention wasn’t pulled a thousand different directions. But a look at the Gent crowd, at least, shows that the faces are not all lined and top with white hair, and therein maybe lies a little hope that, if Sixes won’t ever regain their one-time glory, there may be enough redoubts that it will not fade forever.

Track cyclists warm up in pairs before the start of a Madison round at the Gent Six Day.
Six Days racing isn’t a single, long event; it’s a mashup of endurance and sprint competitions (scratch races, 250-meter sprints, etc.). But as a competition among two-person teams, the foundational event is the Madison.
Jan-Willem van Schip releases a handsling from teammate Yoeri Havik. Both are in a blur of speed - Van Schip focused on the track ahead as Havik looks over his shoulder to his left to exit the track.
Current Madison World Champions Jan-Willem van Schip (the big chap on the Koga) and Yoeri Havik demonstrate the signature sling of one of track cycling’s most treasured – and chaotic – events.
The interior of the Kuipke velodrome, showing a partly full house and the steeply banked 250 meter wooden track.
Six Days racing has gradually reduced from its original length of six full days to six days of mostly evening competitions, and now is smaller still, with most events featuring three nights of competition. And if you’ve got a date in Constantinople, she’ll be waiting in Istanbul.
A man dressed in a full-length yellow skinsuit with stylized wrist cuffs that have flames extending off one side. His face is obscured behind a balaclava, visor, and helmet.
Even today, Sixes are as much spectacle as sport, right down to a two-wheeled Stig.
Patrick Sercu and Gerrie Knetemann compete in a track race.
No discussion of Six Days racing is complete without a mention of Belgian track cycling legend Patrick Sercu, the winningest rider in the format’s history, with 88 victories, including 11 here in Gent. That’s him on the right, teamed with 1978 World Road Champion Gerrie Knetemann, but Sercu, know as the “Flemish Arrow,” often teamed with Eddy Merckx. Yes, we’re aware some of you have an allergic response to the word “winningest.” Have a Claritin; you’ll be fine.
Yoeri Havik and Jan-Willem van Schip are pictured onthe track alonside several dignitaries, including Christophe Sercu.
Sercu is a foundational name in Six Days racing, including his son Christophe, also the manager of the Flanders-Baloise team. That’s him in the blue suit and tie next to Van Schip.
Riders race behind motorized dernies on the track at Gent.
Again, Six Days are a mix of competitions, including much less-common ones like head-to-head derny-paced racing.
An old photo of Danny Clark and another racer in a similar derny-paced event from 50 years ago. The dernies look almsot identical to modern ones.
One thing that hasn’t changed much? The dernies (or their pilots).
Jan-Willem van Schip paces behind a derny. The photo has a slight blur to accentuate his speed.
One thing that has? The speeds.
The scoreboard for the U23 field at the Gent Six Day, showing which riders are 1, 2, and 8 laps down.
Six Days scoring is both simple and complicated. The basic currency is number of laps, with points deciding placings between teams that are on the same lap.
Nicky Delegrendele races hard at the Gent Six, her hands in the drops and face obscured by a large visor.
Six Days racing, like many formats, has long been focused on men, but women race as well, if not equally. January’s Six Days of Berlin features about half the events for woman as men. This is former Keirin World Champion Nicky Degrendele at work on the boards.
Racer Tuur Dens reclines in a small, spartan cabin in the infield. It has walls on three sides, a thin mattress, and a curtain, which is open. He's on his phone as a race happens on the track behind him.
Another long-held tradition of Six Days racing that continues: small cabins on the infield for riders to take a break between events. Here, Tuur Dens catches up on Taylor Swift’s latest Eras Tour news.
Four racers sit in a circle in an infield cabin, two on the bed and two on folding chairs. Behind them, the race continues with their teammates.
Not much time for socializing, but Jules Hester, Yoeri Havik, Fabio Van den Bossche, and Robbe Ceurens (clockwise from Hester, top right in purple) find a brief moment of respite as their teammates go at it behind them.
Lasse Norman Hansen looks up at the scoreboard while in the middle of a pack of riders.
Long gone are the days when top road pros like Merckx and Knetemann were fixtures of the circuit, but a number of dual-discipline riders like Lasse Norman Hansen still do both road and track.
Jules Hester leans his head against Gianluca Pollefliet's shoulder during a race as the two are in each other's space.
Much like NASCAR, rubbin’s racin’ in Six Days, as Jules Hester carves out a little space next to Gianluca Pollefliet.
Jan-Willem van Schip is helped to his unsteady feet by two race officials after a crash. He has a drawn, faraway expression on his face.
Sometimes that ends OK, other times not. Van Schip gets a little help after being slow getting up.
Six racers ride in a tight pack through one of the corners on the Gent track. The Coca-cola logo behind them is a blur, and the blurred infield is full of fans.
Six Days racing – even in its more condensed format – has struggled to survive in a modern era. How long it will last, or whether it will ever revive, no one knows. But while it does, it remains a true spectacle on wheels.

What did you think of this story?