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The 2019-20 Six Day Series begins in London on October 22 at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The event will feature WorldTour stars Mark Cavendish, Caleb Ewan, and Elia Viviani, Olympic gold medalist Laura Kenny, and Americans Daniel Holloway and Adrian Hegyvary.
Here’s what you need to know about the fantastical world of six day track racing.
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Al Capone Used To Watch Six Day Racing
The heritage of six day track racing dates back to the turn of the 20th century, and ranked amongst the most popular sports in the world during the early 1900s.
Smoked-filled velodromes in New York and Chicago rocked around the clock with packed stands. Socialites clad in fur coats dined at track center on white linen tablecloths, and Al Capone’s posse could be seen strutting through the crowds.
Major Taylor, the African American prodigy who would become a world champion track racer, competed in his first six day race at the age of 18, held in 1896 at New York’s Madison Square Gardens velodrome. Over 142 continuous hours of competition, Taylor rode 1,732 miles — the distance between New York and Houston.
Eventually, common sense (and the New York state legislature) intervened on behalf of the athletes, who frequently came clamoring down upon the boards in a sleep-deprived stupor. Athletes would only be allowed to compete 12 hours per day, which led to the invention of two-man teams and an event dubbed the madison after New York’s popular racing venue.
It’s All About The Madison
Though the modern-day madison is no longer an all-day and night affair, the event remains the cornerstone of the Six Day Series. Two-person teams compete over 40 to 60 minutes, with the win going to the team that completes the most laps.
One rider races, while their teammate rests by riding easily at the top of the track. An exchange occurs when the resting rider drops down the track, and is slung into the action by their teammate. Each team must determine when to make exchanges, leading to a chaotic and tactical competition.
The way to win a madison is by attacking and taking a lap on the chasing field. But points sprints throughout the race create a tiebreaker for teams locked on laps.
Because the madison requires both endurance and speed, teams are generally comprised of a sprinter and a time trialist. At the London Six Day, Mark Cavendish will partner with Ineos strong man Owain Doull, who won a gold medal in the team pursuit at the Rio Olympics.
The Sprinters Are Here To Entertain
Between endurance events, the sprinters roll out onto the track for events including the 200m flying time trial and keirin. These muscle-bound bike racers are purpose-built for one task: To propel a bike as fast as possible over just 200 meters.
A fan favorite, the sprint action is blink-of-an-eye fast and full of showmanship. In a keirin final, the sprinters will work the crowd for cheers, talk trash on the track and throw an elbow or two.
Derny Racing Is Ridiculous And Awe Inducing
First developed by Frenchman Roger Derny et Fils in the 1930s, the Derny is a motorized bike purpose-built for motorpacing. In a Derny race, the riders draft behind expert Derny drivers at an average speed of roughly 40 miles per hour.
Often former track racers, the gray-haired Derny drivers splay their legs to optimize the draft and sport unflappable expressions while driving their vintage-looking motorized bikes.
Rider and driver must work in tandem to coordinate pacing and launch attacks. Yet, riders are paired with a driver at random, by drawing a name from a hat just prior to the race start.
The Six Day Series Is Growing
Launched in 2015 by the Madison Sports Group, the Six Day Series (comprised of four events in London, Berlin, Manchester, and Brisbane) has re-imagined the six day racing format of the 19th century. Each night of the Six Day Series brings a fast-paced sequence of races, with events for riders under-21, a UCI sanctioned women’s omnium and even Zwift racing.
Since its inception, the Six Day Series has drawn some of pro cycling’s biggest stars, such as Olympic track champion Elia Viviani, and eyed further international expansion.
“We’ve had serious discussions with cities all over the world,” says Lucien Gollner, marketing manager for the Six Day Series. “But bringing six day racing back to the U.S. would be a dream come true.”