Words by Amy Sedghi
Photos by Andy Thornley
With the music in full swing and some of the world’s best female track riders flying past, the cheering of the crowd becomes a roar as we enter the penultimate lap of the women’s elimination race at the Six Day London Cycling Event.
Katie Archibald is whizzing through to victory, nailing her second win of the evening, giving a bold declaration that she - the reigning women’s Six-Day London champion - means business.
But this is not your typical track racing event, for the spectators or the riders. A DJ is positioned in the centre of the track, mixing tunes on a rotating booth and purple light bathes the cyclists as they roll around the boards. Welcome to Six Day London, where the beer flows, the racing is fast and the music never ends.
“It’s odd because in terms of the field of the competition, [it’s] one of the hardest that I expect I’ll get all season," says Archibald, having finished the first evening of the women’s event winning two out of three of the races. “In terms of the atmosphere and the between-race vibe, it’s like being on holiday."
Six-day racing is one of the oldest forms of track racing, having its roots in late 19th century Britain before becoming popular in the US and Europe. Early events at Madison Square Garden gave birth to the Madison race, and the gruelling competition was once one of the most popular spectator's sports in the US.
A clear attempt at a modern and exciting re-invention, Six Day London returned to the capital in 2015 - the first time since 1980 - to become a fixture in the winter track racing calendar.
It may not be as brutal as it once was, where pairs of riders would compete for 24 hours at a time, but it’s still undeniably tough. The male riders compete in teams of two over a variety of disciplines including the Madison, derny racing, elimination race, time trials and an hour-long chase on the sixth day - the winners being those that complete the most laps overall. Mark Cavendish has compared it to the Tour on the track. The women’s racing takes place over three days and includes an omnium and Madison among other events.
Starting at 6 pm, the racing is pretty much non-stop until late in the evening as several different races take place for the sprinters, male duos and women. With an eclectic mix of music ranging from Queen to Pharrell Williams and the theatrics from the sprinters donning foam fingers and high fiving fans on warm-up laps, you’ve got an event where it’s not just the racing that takes centre stage.
“It’s my first ever Six Day and I didn’t know what to expect," explains Canada’s Jasmin Duehring who takes the win in the women’s 10km scratch race. “But it’s just a ton of fun. It’s great to get the crowd going like that, it gets the riders really excited too."
Olympic gold medalist Elinor Barker insists that one day she’d like to see the event from the stands. “I’d really, really like to go as a spectator one day. That’d be really fun. Yeah, I think I’m going to do a little Six Day tour," she says laughing.
Talking to the riders as they move around track centre, a common sentiment is how different the event feels to the “clinical" atmosphere of a World Cup or a World Championships. “It’s so much fun. I did it [Six Day London] last year and it was one of the highlights of the year," says Scottish rider, Neah Evans. “It’s not like any other event that you do."
Don’t let it fool you into thinking the racing takes second place though. “We’re all here to win," declares Emily Nelson, who took home a silver medal with Elinor Barker in the Madison at the World Championships in Hong Kong earlier this year. It is a sentiment that Archibald agrees with, explaining that the addition of races with UCI ranking points to the women’s schedule this year has attracted a strong field of competitors. “There’s definitely a different dynamic with the women’s racing to the men’s," she says.
“From a selfish perspective, I really enjoy a three-day race," says Archibald when asked whether she thinks the women’s racing should span the full six days. “It means that we can actually take each day quite seriously."
In the stands, a real mixture of people with varying degrees of cycling knowledge make up the crowd, but the combination of racing and entertainment means there’s something for everyone.
For friends Ellie and Hannah, who are attending the event for a friend’s birthday, the racing has given them an opportunity to see the sport from a different perspective. They fondly recall following the track racing during London 2012 but excitedly tell me of the speed, the angles and the noise they’re experiencing: “You don’t get the full atmosphere [on the TV] like you do here. It’s really different. Everyone’s here to have a good time."
As well as those out to have a good night and a few drinks whilst watching the racing, there are families with children eagerly peering down at the action on the wooden track while groups of cycling fans wearing local club jerseys mingle with those in fancy dress.
Down in the track centre, it is a hive of activity. From warming up to warming down, there’s always someone on the rollers. Riders go up to chat with the DJ Martin 2 Smoove, adding in their song requests and interviews are inevitably conducted over the noisy background of cheers, chatter and music.
“Cav comes up pretty much every day," explains Martin before adding with a laugh: “We were going to meet and cycle in together yesterday but it never happened so I’m going to make him DJ for a little bit sometime." A global DJ for the Ministry of Sound, this is not his usual kind of gig but it is one he relishes, giving each race a musical theme.
For Archibald though the music is not really her cup of tea. “I’m not a big clubber myself if I’m honest," she says loudly over the music. What would she rather listen to then? “A nice bit of Kate Bush. We’ll all just relax," she laughs.
Day two of the women’s racing sees a crash in the omnium, meaning Ireland’s Lydia Gurley is taken straight to A&E for x-rays - although thankfully, all is well - and on the final day Elinor Barker announces she is to give the rest of the event a miss so as to recover from a cold ahead of the World Cup races.
That means Archibald, who was to partner with Barker and give us a glimpse into a possible Tokyo 2020 pairing, ends up teaming up with Irish rider - and fellow WNT teammate - Lydia Boylan.
Although only having raced the Madison twice before, Neah Evans along with partner Emily Nelson is victorious, triumphantly grinning from ear to ear as they take their lap of honour. Later both, along with reigning champion Katie Archibald will celebrate by dousing each other in Champagne, as the women's racing finishes with an all GB podium.
The male riders have cabins arranged in a semi-circle, facing the crowd. The cabins are supposed to replicate those used back in the day when riders would find shelter from the brutality of the Madison by grabbing what rest they could. Now, however, the riders use them as a hub for conducting interviews, chatting with family and friends or preparing with their team for upcoming races.
I suggest that it would be nice for the women to get cabins too but Katie Archibald and Emily Nelson are in agreement that they like their more basic set-up. “We’re too hard for that," jokes Archibald. Having watched them race night after night, I believe it.