A track cycling event which originated in the late 19th century, contemporary with dance marathons and other endurance spectacles. The earliest races were exactly that - riders racing non-stop on an indoor track for six days (a length chosen to avoid the heinous possibility of there being entertainment on a Sunday). The first such race was held in Birmingham, England in 1875, won by Charles Waller, who was to become the leading rider of the time, and the format caught on in the USA and Australia a few years later, lasting until the turn of the century. These were endurance tests of a pretty inhuman nature, where the spectacle (for those of the crowds who had not come into the halls just for a cheap night's lodgings) was more akin to viewing sessions in the madhouse than to a sporting event; the racing was not always particularly competitive: in the 1898 New York race Charles Miller was so far in the lead that he had time to stop during the final day and get married in the track centre! The races were then, as they are now, a social event with restaurants in the track centre and secondary entertainment as well as the racing.

The human toll of these races - and the stories of riders hallucinating from lack of sleep and strychnine abuse which were spread about, not least by owners of rival attractions - led the powers that be to bring in regulations to limit the damage, and in 1899 the New York police introduced a law that no rider was to be permitted to race for more than 12 hours in a day, to which the organisers' reaction was to pair up the riders, with one rider in each pair riding at any one time in an endless relay; this type of racing was rapidly dubbed the madison after the venue where it was introduced, Madison Square Garden. The gaps between the teams narrowed, and the races became close enough that points systems based on intermediate sprints were introduced to separate the teams who had covered the same number of laps.

The two-rider team format was taken up in other events across the USA and Britain in the early years of the new century, and towards the end of the decade the first races of the type were run in continental Europe, particularly in Germany, where five events were held in the 1911-12 season. The indoor tracks meant that these races could be run during the winter, the off-season for most other forms of cycling, a chance for the riders who made their names on the road to pick up good appearance money. There was a fair amount of transatlantic traffic, with European riders being hired to ride in the States (to give the local heroes someone to beat) and vice versa. In the 1920s spectator sports in general boomed in popularity and the handful of races each year grew to more than thirty around the world. However, in Germany in 1934 the Nazis, who liked stadium events to be under their control, banned the Sixes, labelling them a hotbed of criminality. Elsewhere in Europe and across the States and Canada, the races continued to flourish, however. To keep the pace of the racing exciting, a four-hour neutralised period was introduced in the small hours of the morning, where the riders slowed to a crawl, one catching up on sleep in their track-centre cabins while the other pedalled around with one foot, steering with the other whilst reading the day's papers.

Following the hiatus caused by World War II, the six-day circuit made a halting recovery in Europe, but the American scene faded away almost entirely by the 1950s. The first races in Germany for seventeen years took place in 1950, however, and it is there that the Sechstagerennen remain the most popular to this day. The neutralised periods were extended, to focus the racing on the evening sessions when the crowds were likely to be there. By 1970, faced with flagging attendances, the organisers of the London event cut out the neutralised parts altogether and reduced the race to six evening sessions plus an afternoon, with a mixture of event types (but keeping the madison, now run as a one or two-hour fast and furious team relay points race, as the core of the event - laps gained and lost in the madisons are the most important factor in determining overall placings.) This arrangement was quickly taken up by the other fifteen or so events remaining on the calendar and is still in use.

A century after the madison was introduced, the six-day circuit is down to core of ten races - Dortmund, Munich, Berlin, Bremen and Stuttgart in Germany, Amsterdam (newly revived), Grenoble (France), Ghent, Zurich and Copenhagen, plus a couple of lower-profile outdoor summer events in Italy and New Caledonia, although there are hopes of reviving a few others. However, the madison is now an Olympic discipline, which may help. The German races - particularly Bremen and Munich - are massive manifestations of the deepest and weirdest of German beerhall culture, with bands in the track centre and elsewhere in the halls, casinos, strippers and plenty more tickets sold than seats available in the track itself. Beer is of course a central element in the proceedings. The racing mixes the madisons with exhibition events for guest riders as well as a range of generally crowd-pleasing races including sprints, devils, and motor-paced races for the riders in the 'Six' itself. The entertainment tends to run throughout the evening until 1 or 2 a.m, usually finishing off with a Sunday afternoon session (alas for the sabbath-honouring intentions of the first promoters) winding up to a big final madison. The general consensus is that the races are not rigged, although the profusion of supplementary events tends to allow the prize money to be spread around a bit. The choice of riders has always tended to favour showmanship above raw talent at least for part of the field; a rider who can take a solo with the band has always got a good chance of getting a ride. The core of specialist track riders tends to be supplemented by biggish-name road racers who are brought in to pull in the crowds, although the increase in riders' incomes means that the sixes are no longer a big attraction for road stars as they were up to the 1970s.

A few names:

  • The most successful six-day rider ever was Belgium's Patrick Sercu, who won no fewer than 88 sixes, inlcuding several paired up with Eddy Merckx, as well as having an honourable career on the road including a Tour de France green jersey; he is now the organiser of the Ghent and Amsterdam races.
  • Currently dominating the circuit are Australian Scott McGrory and Tasmanian-Belgian Matt Gilmore who also picked up gold and silver medals in the first Olympic madison at Sydney. They have picked up the crown from the Swiss pairing of childhood friends Bruno Risi and Kurt Betschart
  • The award for longevity goes to Danny Clark, another Tasmanian, who rode his first sixes in the early 1970s and his last in 1996, winning 73 out of 234, along with a good sideline in performing Eric Clapton covers in the intervals.
  • Other prolific winners: Rene Pijnen (72 wins, 1970-1985) and Peter Post (65 wins, 1960-1970), Rik Van Steenbergen (Belgium, "The Boss", 40 wins in the early 1960s as well as dominating the road classics of the time), Etienne de Wilde (Belgium, 38 wins, retiring this month), Willie Peden (Canada, 34 wins, one of the dominant figures in the interwar era, particularly in the American events), often riding against Gustav Kilian and Heinz Vopel (Germany, 34/32 wins, mainly together).

Roger de Maertelaere, De mannen van de nacht and Zesdaagsen

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