MILAN (VN) — Six-day racing was once an off-season must for road stars in search of money and fitness, but it has been forgotten due to longer road seasons, winter training camps, and the “dangerous” label.
Mark Cavendish, winner of 25 Tour de France stages, began the Gent Six-Day track cycling event Tuesday night with partner and Belgian Iljo Keisse, but it took some persuading for Omega Pharma-Quick step team boss Patrick Lefevere to say “yes.”
For six consecutive nights, sometimes lasting until 2 a.m., two-man teams race in various events. But the Madison is the main focus. Cyclists sling their partners into action and try to gain points in sprints, or better yet, a lap on their rivals.
As with road cycling, crashes happen. One happened in the opening night of the Gent Six-Day last year. Last month, derny bike driver Cees Stam suffered a heart problem and fell into cyclist Nick Stöpler in the Amsterdam Six-Day.
Lefevere last year said the racing is too risky for Cavendish and he banned the Brit from racing. He said the six-day season intrudes on his preparations for the upcoming road season.
“Nothing’s changed,” Lefevere told Belgium’s Het Nieuwsblad newspaper recently. “It’s not about the risk of a crash or about the event itself. We just faced the question: How do we keep him fit? Because Mark also likes doing it, we allowed it. But I’m still not in favor of it.”
Cavendish spent many of his early years on the track. He won the Madison world title with Rob Hayles in 2005 and with Bradley Wiggins in 2008. He is reportedly considering a return to the track to represent Great Britain in the Omnium at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Six-day racing was favored by many in the past, including road stars Eddy Merckx, Francesco Moser, and Erik Zabel.
“The big names raced the six-days to make money,” Patrick Sercu told Cycle Sport magazine last winter. “When I was a pro, there was more money on the track than the road. Rick Van Looy won two road world titles and raced the six-days those winters. That wasn’t to prepare for the road season! Life is money.”
The Belgian Sercu won the most six-days, 88, and was paired for many of those with Merckx. The six-day races — from Milan to Paris, Berlin to Rotterdam — provided a steady flow of winter training and income. Now, the road season stretches from January to October, riders earn more on average, and team managers require more in return.
“Road racing dominates TV, where sponsors want to be seen,” Sercu added. “It combines with a longer and more demanding schedule, which prohibits many stars from attending sixes.”
The biggest road stars racing this winter are all Omega Pharma cyclists: Cavendish, Keisse, and Dutchman Niki Terpstra. Terpstra, the 2014 Paris-Roubaix winner, won the Amsterdam Six-Day last month with Yoeri Havik.
Lefevere and other team managers may be against their riders hand-slinging around a track filled with disco music, but the six-day races have their appeal.
“This time of year there’s snow in The Netherlands, or it’s just nasty out,” Terpstra told VeloNews last year. “If you’re on the track for six or seven days, it’s good for the road season.”
Keisse, who is from Gent, is more of a star on the track than on the road. He races many events in the winter and in the road season, he leads Cavendish’s sprint train or Tom Boonen in the classics.
“I understand, the team pays Mark a big contract and they want him to win races in the grand tours and other big races,” Keisse said last year. “For the team, six-days are less important than victories in grand tours or elsewhere.
“It’s always good when one of the big road riders come to a six-day because they bring a lot of fans and more interest from the press. For six-day riders, it’s good.”
Cavendish and Keisse sit fourth overall going into the second night of racing behind leaders and Belgian locals Jasper de Buyst and Kenny De Ketele. Judging by the attention on the race, Cavendish’s participation has been beneficial.