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THE HISTORY OF SIX DAY


London – The city that invented Six Day Racing

Like most good sporting events, Six Day racing began with a wager. When, in 1878, English cycling champion David Stanton threw down a gauntlet claiming...

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Like most good sporting events, Six Day racing began with a wager. When, in 1878, English cycling champion David Stanton threw down a gauntlet claiming to the sporting establishment that he could ride 1,000 miles over the course of 6 successive days, his challenge was picked up and backed by the Sporting Life newspaper with a purse of £100, a considerable sum in late Victorian England. In February of that year, at London’s Agricultural Hall in Islington, Stanton set out on his lone effort and handsomely won the bet, covering the distance in less than 5 days.

Inspired by the publicity surrounding Stanton’s feat, a six day race was hurriedly organized at the same venue for a mass field. This time £150 was offered in total prize money with £100 going to the victor. 12 men entered and after 6 days and nights of riding the Yorkshireman, Bill Cann walked away as victor of the world’s very first Six Day Race.

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America’s Jazz Age Sporting Sensation and the Birth of the Madison

Six Day racing had taken off in England but didn’t soar until the sport crossed the Atlantic to America in the 1890’s. Races sprang up...

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Six Day racing had taken off in England but didn’t soar until the sport crossed the Atlantic to America in the 1890’s. Races sprang up across the nation including Boston, Chicago, Memphis, Pittsburgh and most notably New York.

The American events, like those in England, were held for single riders and as competition became fierce and prize money increased, riders began competing for longer and longer without sleep to increase their chances of winning. Finally, in an attempt to control what was becoming a dangerous situation, the states of Illinois and New York decreed that a rider could only be on his machine for 12 out of every 24 hours. This proved unwittingly to be the catalyst to the development of the modern Six Day race as promoters realized that if teams of two competed, each could ride for a legal 12 hours, whilst allowing a full 24 hours of racing to continue.

The two-man format took off and within 30 years Six Day bicycle racing had evolved to become the most popular spectator sport in the US, more popular than baseball, basketball and football combined. Every county fair had a temporary track and in the cities tens of thousands of fans flocked to the races to see the domestic and foreign stars duel on the boards. The most celebrated venue for these epic battles was New York’s Madison Square Garden. Stars of the day including Mae West, Bing Crosby and George Raft would gather to be seen and enjoy the spectacle of the racing.

It was at Madison Square Garden in New York that a technique was invented to help ‘sling’ a teammate into the race in order to swap the racing rider and so the Madison event was born.

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European Heartland

In pre-war Europe the success of American Six Day Racing didn’t go unnoticed and across the continent races sprang up drawing stars from across the...

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In pre-war Europe the success of American Six Day Racing didn’t go unnoticed and across the continent races sprang up drawing stars from across the Atlantic to pit themselves against the elite of European racing. In an age suffering under the weight of depression, Six Day racing provided cheap, thrilling, mass spectator entertainment, nowhere more so than Germany where there were events in Bremen, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Hannover, Cologne and Berlin. The scale of Germany’s Six Day calendar was soon equaled by Belgium, Holland, Italy and France with just a single annual event taking place in the sports birthplace, Great Britain.

Whilst the Second World War temporarily halted the sport, Six Day events soon began to reappear. The formula of spectacular and affordable entertainment for the masses being just what war-ravaged Europe craved. America meanwhile had entered the more affluent age of the automobile and the sport failed to reignite, with Madison Square Garden finally closing its doors to Six Day racing in 1950.

Six Day events were organized in Brussels, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Grenoble, Ghent, Copenhagen and Milan, in addition to the raft in West Germany, and as the sport continued to mature through the 1960’s and 70’s it hosted many of the world’s top professional road stars including Britain’s Tom Simpson, Rudi Altig of Germany, the Dutchman Gerrie Knetemann and the greatest cyclist of all time, Eddy Merckx from Belgium, drawn by large sums offered as start money.

With more money available on the lucrative winter Six Day circuit than on the road during the summer, specialist Six Day riders began to dominate. The most successful of these was the great Belgian Patrick Sercu, although he was by no means the only rider to make a fine career as a Six Day racing expert.

In 1967 Six Day racing finally saw the reintroduction of a London Six Day at Earls Court, ushering in significant format changes. Racing deep into the night was scrapped and a shortened, more spectator friendly programme was favoured.

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Modern Six Day Racing

After a dip in popularity in the early 1980’s there was a groundswell of support that led to many Six Day races being relaunched at...

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After a dip in popularity in the early 1980’s there was a groundswell of support that led to many Six Day races being relaunched at the start of the 21st century. Events reappeared in Amsterdam (2001), Rotterdam (2005), Hasselt (2006) and Milan (2007) bolstering a calendar that still included events in Bremen, Zurich, Milan, Berlin and Grenoble. This rich European calendar allowed riders to once again specialise in the discipline and supplement their annual wage.

From the early 1990’s onwards the Swiss riders Bruno Risi and Franco Marvulli, Aussies Matthew Gilmore and the great Danny Clark, Etienne De Wilde of Belgium, Danny Stam, and Robert Slippens from the Netherlands and the Briton Tony Doyle became the big names of Six Day. The athletes would finish one race, pack up their bags and drive the day after to the next Six.

Like so many other sporting events the economic crunch of 2008 hit the sport hard resulting in a shortened calendar of events but the spectacular relaunch of the Six Day London in 2015 marked 137 years of the sport and brought a fresh new look to a discipline with a deep heritage and rich past. With more events being planned, Six Day Racing is back with a bang.

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