Six Days & Six Nights
By Gary Graham
Photographs by Maria Laub
The idea of a Six-Day race originated in England in 1878, and was held over six days, as racing was not permitted on the Sabbath. The first Six-days in America took place a year later in Chicago but the idea really took off in 1891 in New York at Madison Square Gardens. Cycling at the Garden was a big social event with American presidents, Broadway stars and notorious gangsters among the audience; in 1925 the winners were even received at the White House by President Coolidge...
Back then track racing was as popular as baseball in the States, the top riders recieving 'film star' pay checks. The first races were torturous marathon endurance tests, with individual riders racing 24-hours for six days, the winner being the one to cover the most distance over the six days. The races were often held in cold smoke-filled velodromes, the racers using alcohol, amphetamines and cocaine to help take the strain of 144 hours on the track. In 1914 a new format was adopted to allow teams of two riders to compete, one rider racing while the other rested, the birth of the track discipline that is to this day known as Madison. By the Fifties Six day racing had disappeared in America, but Europe kept them going.
2009 marked the 100th anniversary of the Berlin Six-Days, making it the longest-running event in the history of Six-Day races, and one of the oldest cycling events in the world. The race is held on a 250m track made of Siberian Spruce built in 1997 as part of the cities bid for the 2000 Olympic games. The event still retains much of the social character of years-gone-by, with sausage stalls, bars and live music attracting spectators not usually seen at cycling events. Berlin's velodrome hosts 75,000 spectators from all walks of life over the 6 days. There's a festival atmosphere where the beer, sausage, cheerleaders, "Schlager Musik' and the sound of thousands of plastic whistles given out by sponsors is just as much an integral part of the event as the race itself.
Today's races are still held over six days, but are only a few hours long per day. Rather than one race lasting all night an evening's racing typically includes a few Madison sessions interspersed with sprints, motor paced races, fastest flying lap and more recently Keirin to break up the monotony of what was once known as "the elliptical rat race".
During the Madison, or points race, both riders may be on the track, taking turns to race. The non-racing rider circles the track slowly at the top of the banking until he is 'slung' or pushed back into the race by his team mate. With more than 30 racers on the track at one time it looks like chaos on wheels, you can feel the wind as the peloton passes and you can almost touch the riders passing high on the banks. It's sometimes hard to tell just who's actually in front, especially when some teams have started to lap the others. The aim is to go 'off the front' and lap the field, if no team gains laps the result is decided on points scored in the intermediate sprints held every 20 laps over the course of the 160 lap race. Lap gains take priority over points, so if a team with no points gains a lap on a team with a lot of points, the team with no points still win the event. In between races the riders relax or get a massage from the signouers in the cabins, a relic of the days when one member of the team would sleep until his turn came to go to work lapping the track.
One of the most fascinating and unusual events of the Six-Days is the 'Steher' race, where the racers ride behind specially constructed Motorcycles with a roller mounted behind the back wheel. The bikes themselves are also special constructions sporting a smaller front wheel and a trailing front fork, to allow the rider to get as close as possible and 'draft' behind the motorcycle at speeds of up to 70 mph. If the rider hits the roller it spins without causing the rider to crash, and strengthening struts on the saddle and handlebar stem help to stabilize the bike and cope with the extreme G force. The bike has a huge chainring, something between 66 - 69 teeth and a small cog, 13-16 teeth so the rider has to be pushed into the race and then 'find' his partner on the motorcycle.
A 'Steher' race is all about teamwork, the cyclist communicating with his partner by shouting one of two words; "Allez" (faster) and "Haut" (too fast). The motorcyclist is only able to hear this because of the special helmet with rearward facing openings at the ears. The driver stands rather than sits hence the name 'Steher', the special leather suit which is closed at the back, helps to create as much slipstream possible. The most difficult part for the cyclist is not to 'lose' the roller as the motorcycle drops down out of the curves, and not to hit the roller hard as they lose speed entering the curve. The high speed, the roar of the 650cc BMW machines and the smell of petrol fumes make for a uniquely exciting atmosphere during the race, which is a favourite among the Six Days crowd.
This years Steher event was won by reigning European Champion Timo Scholz with partner Peter Bäuerlein.
The big attraction at this year's event was Eric Zabel, one of the most successful road racers of all time, who made the Berlin Six the last race of his professional career. The team to beat was the Swiss duo of Bruno Risi and Franco Marvulli, Madison World Champions in 2003 and 2007, and winners of the previous year's race in Berlin. The atmosphere was charged on the final night,in a tight run race. Decided only in the final sprint, Zabel won by a nose from Risi, bringing the capacity crowd to its feet.
Other Stars on the track this year were sprinter and 44 time Italian Champion Roberto Chiappa, lining up for the sprint races against German big guns Stefan Nimke, Maximillian Levy and Rene Enders.