Tales from the Six Day peloton, January 16, 2006
If you're a hard core cycling fan, a Six Day race has to be experienced at least once in your lifetime. The newly revived Rotterdam Six provided a perfect spectacle for Ben Atkins to get in amongst it.
Being a great fan of all things fixedwheelnobrakes, but not having seen any track racing so far this winter (too skint to go to Gent, too lazy to go to Manchester), the opportunity to go to watch the Rotterdam Six Days as a guest of Dutch bike makers Koga-Miyata was too good to turn down.
The Rotterdam Six was resurrected last year - and is billed as "Six Day Revival" - after a 16 year layoff (the last winners were Aussie/Brit duo Danny Clark and Tony Doyle) by former Dutch pro rider Michael Zijlaard - husband to Leontien Van Moorsel and son of derny legend Joop Zijlaard - and the king of Six Day racing, Patrick Sercu. A win by local Dutch heroes, and current Six Day supremos Robert Slippens and Danny Stam, ensured the first year's event was a success, and guaranteed the popularity of this year's event held at the rather camply named "Ahoy", not far from the Feyenoord football stadium.
The emphasis in Rotterdam - as with most of the modern Sixes - is on giving the people what they want, which in this case is entertainment. The racing is fast and competitive, but they have recognised the importance of keeping the crowd's attention as the evening becomes the night and the lateness of the hour combines with the beer and smoke and points them to their beds.
With this principle in mind, the thirteen koppels (pairs) are introduced in a rolling parade around the track, as the front pair is announced they peel off and drift to the back and the next pair takes its turn. All this is done to the throes of Robbie Williams' Let me entertain you. Each pair is greeted with a hearty - and already beer fuelled - cheer, the big stars like Bruno Risi and Kurt Betschart, and young local boys like Niki Terpstra and Wim Stroetinga, get a louder ovation than some others, but as team number one, Slippens and Stam is introduced, the roof nearly comes off. This is a knowledgeable and appreciative crowd, but they do love their local heroes.
Once the introductions are over, the racing starts with a vengeance, it's not the thirteen teams that we've just met though. Friday Night is Party Night in Rotterdam so they have a real treat for us, as well as the usual fantastic spectacle of Madisons, Points Races, Eliminations (Devils) and Derny racing, they've got some of the World's finest sprinters in to compete for the "White's Keirin Cup" and the "Koga-Miyata Sprint Cup". This should be a treat as riders like Theo Bos, Teun Mulder, René Wolff and Barry Forde battle it out in front of us.
The keirin racing starts and the sprinters jostle for position behind the derny bike. It's at this point that you realise the downside of the free beer schmooze that is the VIP area, you can't see the whole track from the track centre! At Gent, the middenplein, as they call it, is the cheap seats - actually no seats at all - generally filled with those large drunken Belgians wearing wool Molteni jerseys and caps. It gets the worst view so this is where they put the riffraff, but here - and at many other Sixes - the VIPs get the worst view!
This slight downside to an otherwise fantastic place to be, I guess, is inevitable. If you're going to have a VIP area, it has to go somewhere; they can't put us where we can't see the track at all. I do decide to myself, though, that at some point tonight I'm going to leave this cosseted existence and join the ranks of the great unwashed, where the beer comes in plastic glasses (and has to be paid for!) and the seats don't have upholstery, and I'll look down and see the whole race unfold.
The track centre does have considerable advantages, though, as I'm reaching for another free beer, Max van Heeswijk jokingly reaches for one too! At various points during the evening Theo Bos, the World Kilo champion, pops over to visit Koga - his sponsor - and is mobbed everywhere he goes, even from the safety of the other side of the track barriers. Theo is seriously big around here and enjoys recognition and adulation from the Dutch public that Chris Hoy can only dream of - or perhaps Chris wouldn't enjoy it... Theo takes it all in his stride and poses for photo after photo with increasingly drunken "VIPs". Perhaps they're not so very different from those big Belgians.
Meanwhile, back on the track, the racing is seriously intense. Laps are taken, sprints are won and lost and hand sling after hand sling propels each teammate into the action. Madisons are confusing at the best of times - which is why I love 'em - but when you can only see half the track it's hardly worth trying to follow the score at all. The constant spinning round it takes to try and follow the riders as they disappear around one bend, and trying to predict when they'll appear around the next, makes me feel quite dizzy, so I stop. Instead, I focus on observing what an extraordinary skill it takes to throw and be thrown at these speeds with 25 other riders only feet away. It amazes me every time I see a rider - following a man who's about to sling his partner into the race - switch his line from following the slinger to following the slingee without missing a stroke or letting a gap appear.
Derny racing, particularly on a track that's only 200m long, is a sublime skill that needs to be seen fully to be appreciated, so I creep away from the hustle of the track centre to join the bustle in the bar/balcony that sits two stories above the track. From up here I can fully appreciate the handling skill and courage of both the pacer and the rider as they perform what looks from up here like a wall of death display on the banking. Michael Zijlaard, the organiser of this event, is down there on one of the derny bikes - although from here it's difficult to tell which one. He's filling in for his father Joop - one of the most recognisable faces (and statures) in track racing. Joop had a heart attack over the Christmas period and is still in hospital. I sincerely wish him a speedy recovery and hope I'll see him next winter in his rightful place as the father of derny racing.
On the wall to my left is another reminder that the Zijlaards rule Rotterdam. It's very difficult to go anywhere around here without being reminded of the legend of Leontien Zijlaard-Van Moorsel (married to Michael). Up here, her last ever track bike overlooks the velodrome. They have a saying in Holland, that when you retire you hang your bike in the tree, well, as there are no trees in this particular velodrome, they invited her to hang her bike in the rafters instead when she finally retired last year - where it stayed for the whole event. The orange and white Koga has all her major victories printed on it in gold - they had to use very small letters! Dutch cycling seems to be a real family concern, down below Danny Stam is being paced by his father...
Inevitably as the time gets on, the crowd begins to thin and the atmosphere becomes quieter - the racing goes on until one am, which is too late for some. The action on the track though shows no signs of slowing as it enters its fifth hour of the evening. I'm disappointed that Gerd Dörich doesn't lead the scratch race like he does in Gent, where they ride in a line behind him messing about with their hands in the air, only racing the last few laps. Maybe it's just too early in the week, I usually see Gent on day five, this is only day two.
Finally the evening comes to an end and somehow - don't ask me where or when - Slippens and Stam have got themselves a lap ahead and so take the flowers and applause for a good evening's work. They wheel off to get some rest and prepare to do the whole thing again tomorrow night. I go back to my hotel, my head still buzzing and my clothes smelling of smoke (although considerably less so than when I've been to Gent).
It's going to take me ages to get to sleep tonight, especially as I have to concoct a plan to miss my flight tomorrow and go back to Ahoy instead. Six Day Racing in Rotterdam is well and truly revived!