Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio were fans. Actress Barbara Stanwyck was regularly spotted in the crowd. Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne loved them. Bing Crosby was said to have paid injured racers’ hospital bills. The races were also the first televised sport in the United States. Chances are you’ve never heard of six-day bicycle racing. But back in the day, there wasn’t a much bigger event than a "six-day."
So what exactly is this unique experience? While the modern-day version of the sport differs slightly from the original, it’s essentially six days filled with ultracompetitive racing—seven or eight types of races per day: speed races, endurance races, single-lap elimination races, and more. With a two-man team, one racer rests while the other cycles around the track, and the goal is to gain laps. At the end of the six-day event, the team that has accumulated the most laps wins.
"You can’t help but walk away from a six-day race and be a better rider."
— Jackie Simes
The race, conceived in the late 1800s, was designed to test a man’s limits. At first, racers would stay on the track from early in the morning to late at night, and wake up the next day to compete again. Eventually the sport became more punishing when riders would complete laps for 24 hours a day, with one team member resting while the other stayed on the track. An 1897 New York Times article described the extreme nature of the sport: "[An athletic contest which will] strain their powers until their faces "become hideous with the tortures that rack them, is not sport. It is brutality. Days and weeks of recuperation will be needed to put the [Madison Square] Garden racers in condition, and it is likely that some of them will never recover from the strain."
"At its peak in the 1930s and ’40s, six-day bicycle races were incredibly popular," says Jack Simes, CEO of the National Cycling Association. "Madison Square Garden and other arenas around the country were packed, and the racers were some of the most famous athletes around."
While the sport has faded from the American landscape (Simes is hoping to change that), six-day races continue to thrive across Europe, playing to packed velodromes, or arenas with a racing track, in cities such as Rotterdam, Berlin, and Ghent, where fans enjoy a unique combination of grueling athleticism and a festival-like atmosphere. "If you’ve never seen a six-day, it’ll blow your mind," says John Wilcockson, a veteran cycling journalist.
"I love the competition," says pro Jackie Simes, (Jack’s 23-year-old son), a racer who’s taken on several European events. "Not only is the intensity of the racing at a very high level but the speed in which you have to react on the track helps in all aspects of my cycling." Indeed, some of today’s best road racers can be found at the velodromes, including the German Olympic champion Robert Bartko, Roger Kluge, and Danilo Hondo, as well as Danish stars Michael Mørkøv and Alex Rasmussen. "You can’t help but walk away from a six-day race and be a better rider," Simes says.
Today’s six-day races are far more humane (about eight hours’ worth of racing a day versus 24, and not continuous), though fans still enjoy the spectacle of watching cyclists fly around the track. And unlike road racing, it all unfolds right there in the arena. "Think about it like this," says Wilcockson. "At the Tour de France, people stand on the side of the mountain for hours, and then in seconds all the riders fly by, and you’re done. In a six-day race, you get to see it all."
"The roots of six-day racing are right here in the United States, and I really do believe there’s a place for it on our sports landscape."
— Jack Simes
The highlight of every six-day event is a race called the Madison, in honor of Madison Square Garden—the original epicenter of six-day bicycle racing. In the Madison, one teammate rides at full speed on the lower half of the track while the other paces slowly at the top of the bank. Suddenly, the racer up top drops down next to his partner, who literally grabs his hand and whips him forward with extra momentum in the hope of gaining a lap on the other teams. A human slingshot, if you will. "The Madison is the best," says Jackie Simes. "It’s so dramatic to watch—to ride in too. Timing is key on so many levels. It’s great."
The other unique aspect to the European six-day experience is that it truly is an experience. "Fans don’t sit passively watching riders go round and round," notes Jack Simes. "There’s food and beverages, and between races there’s usually some type of a show—a singer, a band. It’s so much more than a sporting event."
The elder Simes is currently working to bring the fun back to North America. Plans are under way to construct a temporary velodrome in New York City’s Kingsbridge Armory for a race tentatively scheduled for May 17–22. "The roots of six-day racing are right here in the United States, and I really do believe there’s a place for it on our sports landscape," says Simes. "It’s exciting. It’s dramatic. And it plays well on television."
And if Jack Simes has his way, the sport will eventually come full circle, to a TV near you. "My dream is to turn on my television and watch this kind of cycling again," he explains. "Six-day racing is a great event, and once people see it they’ll understand."
Lane Strauss is a freelance writer based in Cleveland. He has written for ESPN The Magazine, Cleveland Magazine, and Ohio Magazine. His new book, Extra Innings, can be found at amazon.com.