An insider's account:
A mechanic's view of a 6-Day Bike Race

Kris Westwood has kindly sent Fat Nick an account of his recent experiences working as a mechanic at some of the European six-day cycle races:



"I am a Canadian cyclist, formerly a national team member and more recently manager and mechanic.  For me, the recent Munich six-day was a fascinating inside introduction to the bizarre world of the sixes.

When I first walked into the Olympiahalle in Munich I was briefly struck by the same feeling I had when, as a 16-year-old, I first walked into the Montreal Velodrome (now sadly demolished):  "This place is a Temple to Cycling!"  I was starting out a new and very interesting job as a six-day mechanic, and starting at the top:  I was to be working with Eddy d’Herde, the mechanic for Risi and Betschart. Eddy’s two decades of experience include working for some of the sport’s top names, like Patrick Sercu and Urs Freuler.

To the spectator, a six-day race is all flashy jersey colours and glittering equipment racing around the track at high speed.  The mechanics are rarely noticed, if at all, and only seem to be called into action when someone has a puncture or a crash.  We do have a lot to do, however, and our work day begins long before the race starts.

The biggest task for any race mechanic is cleaning the bicycles:  the riders are very exacting and the bikes must be absolutely spotless and gleaming.  Around 2 PM we arrive at the track and get to work.  The race wheels are taken off the bikes, the chain and chainring are cleaned with solvent and a rag, the frames washed with soap and water, rinsed, dried, sprayed with furniture polish and buffed.  The rims and spokes are cleaned, and the hubs and non-anodized rims are polished with paste if they need it (once or twice in a six-day).  Training wheels are pumped up and put on the bike, which is then placed by the track for the rider to use in the open training session.  Once that is over, any cotton handlebar tape is replaced, and cork tape is cleaned with a petrol solvent.  The race wheels are inflated, inspected for cuts in the tires and put back on the bike and the training wheels are checked and returned to their rack.  After we have our dinner, the spare wheels are also pumped up to full pressure (about 150 psi).  The race usually begins around 8 PM.

An evening’s program varies from event to event and from night to night. We must carefully check over the program and decide when any bike or gear changes need to be made.  The madisons are the most important races, and riders will usually choose a 52x16 (87.8") or a 49x15 (88.2"), though 53x16 (89.4") and 50x15 (90.0") are not unheard of.  The riders must be asked for their preferred gearing for each event.  For example, a rider who uses a 53x16 (89.4") in the madisons may prefer 51x15 (91.8) for sprints, or 52x15 (93.6) for a flying lap time trial.  A second bike is kept aside for the derny events, usually with a disc wheel set up with a 54x14 (104.1"), though a smaller gear will be used for a derny madison. These decisions are based on the rider's personal strengths and his chances in a particular event:  it makes no sense to put a special gear on for a sprint he has no possibility of winning.  The best riders fine-tune their gearing by having  several sets of wheels with different  tire diameters: choosing a bigger tire gives a slightly bigger gear.  Depending on the program we may have no gear changes or many.  The hard part is keeping track of who wants what gear when, especially when the events are split into heats of one rider per team, or just the first or second half of the overall standings.  In Zurich, Eddy and I took care of ten riders:  you can imagine how confusing that can be!

Once the race starts we have a lot to do.  Over six days the riders must conserve as much energy as possible.  Thus when they leave their cabins to start a race they are always given a push, and when they return after the finish someone has to bring them to a halt (slowing a fixed-gear bike to a stop takes a lot of effort).  The riders must be held at the start of each madison, and for the derny races they must be given a running push because of the big gear used.  We must also be at the track side at all times during the races in case of problems:  in Zurich, in one race we had two broken spokes on two different riders’ bikes!  Changing a back wheel quickly takes some practice, as the chain tension must be adjusted perfectly (there is always a tight spot) and the wheel must be centred in the frame.  While we wait for something to go wrong we are kept busy by gluing on tires (the current favorite glue is a product used to stick carpets down), fixing problems found earlier, polishing hubs, tying and soldering spokes on new wheels, and so on.

After each of the major races, the bikes are given a quick wash with a damp sponge and a dry rag.  The tires are also cleaned off so no bits of glass stick to them - the rubber is very soft and cuts easily.  At the end of the evening, which can be anything from midnight to 4 AM, we line the bikes up and lock them together with cable locks, let the air out of the tires on the race wheels and spares, put our tools away and lock our tool boxes, and sit down to drink a beer.  Then we go to bed - in a hotel if we’re lucky, otherwise in the basement at the track - and sleep until 11 AM.  Then we start again.

At the beginning of a six the riders are nervous and touchy, especially the newer ones, and they often can’t decide on a gear to use.  A mechanic with experience can help them with this decision, but sometimes the rider thinks he knows better and makes a wrong choice.  At Zurich two of our riders started the race with 50x15 (90.0").  Eddy laughed at them: "Even Sercu at his best couldn’t turn that gear", but they remained adamant.  After the first two evenings they both realized that they couldn’t turn this gear over for six days and switched to 49x15 (88.2").  When a quick wheel change or gear change is necessary some of the riders are very anxious, so we must remain as calm and relaxed as possible.

It is interesting to look at the equipment the riders use.  Most of them are still on lugged steel frames, ideally with chromed rear stays and dropouts (this makes the back wheel easier to adjust because chrome doesn’t score like paint, and also keeps the chain from chipping the frame).  There are a few aluminum frames being used, such as the unfortunately named Soil frame made by Schauff, which Mario Vonhof and Jens Lehmann ride.  Mario Cipollini showed up in Munich with very nice Cannondale frames, though I don’t know whether they are one-offs or commercially available.  Carbon frames are virtually unseen outside the sprinter set.  In Zurich Franco Marvulli was using a very high tech carbon monocoque frame with very narrow hubs and bottom bracket, but he gave up on it after a couple nights because his position was not ideal for the madisons, because his chain kept smacking the disc wheel and scaring the hell out of everyone, and because Eddy wouldn’t stop giving him a hard time!  Campagnolo groupsets are the most common, though one sees a lot of DuraAce stuff too.  More and more riders are using AheadSets now, though this poses problems with adjusting bar height and removing the bars for transport.  Interestingly, a lot of old-style Campagnolo and Suntour large-flange hubs are still out there - track parts don’t really wear out.  The newer Campagnolo hubs are not too common, though the small flange versions on the Shamal wheels are quite popular.  Almost all the riders have some sort of aero wheels for the races, usually Shamals (despite spoke breakage) though quite a few Corima 4-spokes are to be seen despite their tendency to vibrate under side-loads. Cipo’ used Spinergys in Munich.  Quite often a rider suffering from saddle-soreness will switch from aero to traditional wheels because they give a slightly softer ride.  The most common pedal system is Look, though both the old and new DuraAce styles and Time can be seen.  The adjustable pedals are all set as tight as possible.  Nobody except the sprinters uses toe clips and straps.  The most common tires are Vittoria, though only the riders with the best financial resources use the yellow Pista Seis Giorni. Also common are Continental Tempo 19 and Tempo 22, as well as Sprinter 250’s.  Recently the Czech Tufo tires have been making a name for themselves.  As I mentioned, the biggest factor in tire choice is the size of the casing as that affects the gearing.  The most common saddles are TurboMatics.

The riders all make individual contracts with their mechanics, and pay a fixed sum per race for their service.  The riders must also pay for their masseurs and "runners", who do everything the mechanics and masseurs don’t do.  It’s a curiously archaic system that befits the six-day world as a whole.  It’s very difficult for someone to break into this inner circle, and I am very fortunate that I have been able to through my contacts. Nothing compares to the unique atmosphere and excitement of the six-days!"

Kris Westwood

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