Rotterdam was the location of the Tour de France’s Grand Départ in 2010 and it’s also been host to some pretty exciting track racing as well over the years. The Six Day Race (Zesdaagse in Dutch) has been a tradition since 1936 and all the Big Names in this sport have won: banners around the Ahoy arena marked the post-1971 wins by Patrick Sercu, Rene Pijnen, Francesco Moser, Danny Clark and other notables.
This past week the crowd was roaring for defending champions Niki Terpstra of the Netherlands and Iljo Keisse of Belgium in the latest edition of the Six Days in the great port city on the North Sea.
Although Rotterdam, which was heavily bombed in 1940, is not the most picturesque city in Holland but has been attempting to make its mark with rather startling modern architecture, it does boast the fantastic kind of cycling infrastructure for which the country is so lauded. Wide bike paths are everywhere and coupled with a comprehensive public transit scheme it makes getting to Rotterdam Ahoy, the Six Days venue, a snap.
The arena, which can seat up to 14,000 for sporting events, was first constructed in 1950, very extensively renovated in 1971 and rebuilt to its current high standard in 1998. It offers ample parking, easy crowd movement and excellent facilities overall.
We easily found our seats on Saturday evening as Day 3 of the event began with some junior races but then came the introduction of the elite racers, with all 15 teams of two riders on the track, each pair moving to the front and in the spotlight as their names were called. Half of the riders were from the Netherlands, with other nations represented including Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium, France, Australia, Germany, South Africa and a pair of riders from the USA, Guy East and Daniel Holloway, competing in their second Six Days of the season.
The entertainment began with the “Small Chase,” a madison for 100 circuits on the 200 m track, which allowed the teams in the lower half of the leader board a chance to move up in rankings and the winning team of Barry Markus of the Netherlands and Germany’s Leif Lampater then stood in fifth place overall. The next race was an elimination event and saw the top two teams eyeing each other carefully until the final sprint, in which crowd favourite Iljo Keisse edged out fellow-Belgian Jasper de Buyst by millimetres after de Buyst had started his sprint with a full lap to go. Noise levels in the capacity-filled arena were pretty high.
Racing for six days is pretty difficult and the riders are given break opportunities when the sprint specialists come onto the track and entertain. On Day 3 we enjoyed the Sprint Masters, each of whom came onto the track in a great dry-ice cloud like King Kong emerging from the jungle, for three rounds of racing. There were three Dutch riders (Teun Mulder, Jeffrey Hoogland and Bart Hommes) and Frenchman Mickaël Bourgain (who looked petite compared to the others) as the sole foreigner. In addition to the semi-final and final sprint events, eventually taken by Mulder, there was a handicap sprint as well where Bart Hommes enjoyed victory.
Of course, a Six Day Race is Party Time as much as a sports event and in between races entertainment was provided by retro-group “the Kik,” who conjured up images of the mop-top Beatles and the Monkees (if they would have sung in Dutch) with their very enjoyable “Nederbeat” music. And while dancing away, you could have enjoyed some good food, including fresh oysters and the excellent Dutch french fries whose mayonnaise topping was designed to wreck any good New Year’s Resolutions.
The next event was a very exciting two circuit time trial event in which the racers rode as a pair until the last lap, when one of the riders was slung forward to contest the final 200 m. The course record was held by Theo Bos and with teammate Graeme Brown he fought hard to beat his best time but in the end Swiss veteran Franco Marvulli (33 Six Day wins and in his last season) launched his partner and fellow-countryman Tristan Marguet to the win, breaking the course record and setting a new one of 21.258 seconds, averaging nearly 68 km/h.
The evening continued with two 40 round derny-paced races, the first of which was won with an impressive attack by Dane Michael Mørkøv, whose derny driver led him along the top of the track to outpace the field, while Iljo Keisse was edged out in the second race by Wim Stroetinga. The evening ended with “the Big Chase,” a madison event of 200 circuits. The team of De Ketele/De Buyst were still in the overall lead for the day but Keisse/Terpstra were only a lap down and five points behind. By the end of this race they moved into first place with an explosive finale from Niki Terpstra, who dropped Jasper de Buyst as the pair attempted to lap the field with 250 m to go, taking an impressive win and restoring the pair’s overall standing.
Day 4 of the Six Days began early at 11:00 and as usual on Sundays did not offer any musical entertainment. It did offer some excellent racing again, however, beginning with some excellent U-23/Juniors racing, including a 30 circuit points race, a 150 circuit madison and an elimination race for racers in the 8-14 age group. There was a lot less crashing than one would have expected, although one boy simply slid out and off the track. The Netherlands seems well-prepared in developing its next generation of racers and the competition among the amateurs was fierce and fun to watch. And for the Juniors, the chance to stand on the track surrounded by very very tall glamourous podium girls (can you call them that if there is no podium?) must have been a thrill.
The podium girls were kept occupied, constantly trooping out to smile for the cameras not only for the winners of every event (around twelve daily!) but also to pose for every celebrity or VIP who would join them. Their height was accentuated by the very high heels they wore, which must have made walking up and down the steep track nearly as hazardous as the racing!
Once the amateurs were gone the pro racing began again in earnest, with another “Small Chase” of 100 circuits, more from the Sprint Masters, an elimination race, more derny racing and again ending with the “Big Chase” of 200 laps. As was the case during Day 3, the final race saw the teams of Terpstra/Keisse and De Buyst/De Ketele fighting for the overall, with the latter moving into first place by only seven points with two other teams right behind.
Not only was all this interspersed with some more racing by children but an interesting demonstration event took place, with two rounds of racing on tandems by four pairs, followed by a final. The teams paired a strong sprinter as the captain with a blind stoker and in the final we had the stoker who had won the 1000 m event at the London Paralympics with the stoker who had won the sprint event there. Impressive speed and excellent racing.
The Six Day Race is a wonderful cycling event which, unfortunately, continues to lose audience appeal, although you would never know it from the spectators jamming the seats at Ahoy. The Grenoble and Zurich races have been cut back to four days and in Germany, once a hotbed of Six Day racing, there only remain events in Bremen and Berlin. The United States, which had a great Six Days tradition, has nothing comparable although attempts are being made for a revival, with modifications.
At the end of the six days, Iljo Keisse and Niki Terpstra had reestablished themselves at the top of the rankings for a second straight victory in Rotterdam. The atmosphere is really something out of the past, a salute to the tradition of bike racing but the riding is hard, fast and thrilling and completing an entire event is an impressive athletic accomplishment. The season’s final Six Days will be in Berlin at the end of January and Pezcyclingnews will be there at this legendary event. Catch a Six Days if you can!
In a new innovation for the Six Days a live broadcast feed of the races in Rotterdam was made available during the race and here’s an excellent English-language summary of the week.
When not contemplating his own track experience, which involved the realization that you cannot coast on a fixed gear bike through a corner, Leslie Reissner may be found sliding off course at www.tindonkey.com