International Cycle Sport | October 1973 | Issue No 65 | Page 25
Skol 6 1973
by Peter Kent
CRITICS of six-day racing have often compared it with professional wrestling, a -sport- in which showmanship counts for more than athletic endeavour. As far as the 1973 Skol Six goes however, showmanship notwithstanding, the racing was for real with the field regularly blown apart by the wide-open nature of the competition.
Much of the jealousy is over the financial aspect of the Skol event but, as Webb points out, he doesn't have a vast and limitless budget, nor does he personally make a fortune from the promotion.
With Peter Post now retired - though his presence is still felt as race director - and such members of the old guard as Ericke Severeyns, and Fritz Pfenninger following him, the six scene is wide open for fresh masters, hence the new (to six-day racing) spectacle of absolute no-quarter competition with the excitement provided not by spectacular party-pieces (like riding the vertical wall at the top of the banking or swooping from the back in a devil) but by the all-out pace of the thing.
Of course, the shortened madison sessions - pioneered by Skol promotor Ron Webb - have helped but, above all, it's the absence of any one man who can rule the field with his own brand of discipline which has wrought the change.
Even Sercu, the acknowledged current "king" has to fight all the way to maintain his position, a position which the others aren't scared to challenge as Leo Duyndam and Gerben Karstens proved with their victory at Wembley.
This six then was something special. As one who has seen enough sixes at home and abroad to regard it all as -old hat" I suddenly found myself interested again, enthralled even, by the racing and a glance at the race averages proves it was no mere illusion of sheer speed.
What's more the Six gave us British someone new to cheer for with spirited Nigel Dean, though he tragically failed to compete the final night's session, suffering from a shoulder injury sustained the previous evening. We even had a new TV commentator too when Hugh Porter, invalided out of participating in the actual racing, helped David Saunders out with the ITV "World Of Sport" commentary and proved himself the most natural and adept exponent of this art yet to fill this role in our sport - and all at his first attempt!
Sadly though the race saw the exit of fiery Tony Gowland from the six-day scene, at least for a while.
We were holding a post-mortem on the Skol event in Ron Webb's small but efficient London office a couple of days after the race when Tony revealed his difficult decision to me.
"I shan't be riding any more sixes this season, maybe no more at any time, except perhaps the Skol. You see I have a terrible problem sleeping during a six, I just don't seem able to turn off. I'm just living on my nerves all the time and the strain is affecting my health. I've been seeing the doctor on and off for months but he hasn't been able to help.
"People just don't realise the tension in a six.
When you're going badly you suffer physical agonies, when you're going well you're on edge all the time, you have to keep going to the toilet. You're racing against the best men in the world and a moment's weakness can lose you a lap.
"One of the worse things I ever did was to ride three sixes in a row, 21 days of racing with flat-out drives in between.
"After Munster I had to shoot down the autobahn and get to Zurich. I was so tired I was falling asleep at the wheel, so my wife had to take over and she'd never ever driven a car before. Can you imagine it at night with all those lorries belting past, headlamp dazzle and what have you, it was a nightmare. When I came out of that racing my life had changed - the nights had become my days."
"To be honest, I've got to the point where the strain is too much. If I don't stop now then I'll simply end up freaking out.
"I'll concentrate on the road next season and get myself sorted out. I wasn't properly myself at Wembley this year.
"People came to see me being aggressive, being Tony Gowland, not riding round like a cabbage. The crowds are there to be entertained and if you can't provide that entertainment by being on top of it all then you get no satisfaction from it and that to me is important in any job, cycling included.
"The racing this year was tremendous, a lot harder than ever before. The pressure was on all the time. In the past, there's be a big attack then the top teams would rub their supremacy in and it would all settle down again but this time the pressure was on constantly. It was two days before any kind of pattern emerged, up till then it was just one big free-for-all - the amount of laps Bull and Barnett lost shows how vicious it was. It wasn't until the Saturday that the strong men started to get on top of the others. It was a race made for Leo Duyndam. He doesn't really impress in terms of sheer speed it's just that he never lets up. Now Sercu can shut a gap down much quicker, but Duyndam can keep the pressure going for six times longer.
"In the last hour of the race though there were still five teams in with a chance of winning - now that's never happened before".
Anyone who watched it on telly can vouch for just how tough that final chase was, with the weak throughout all-British combo of Bull and Barnett pulled off the track simply because, in race director Post's view, their mere presence at slower speeds would constitute a danger to the others in such a hurly-burly,
Even road ace Gianni Motta, challenging to the end with partner Sercu, was so tired that he could barely raise a limp relay touch, let alone the kind of powerful hand-sling change necessary to keep Sercu in touch with the flying Dutchmen Duyndam and Karstens.
Motta's inclusion in the race had been a deliberate crowd-pulling move on the part of promoter Webb: "I'd hoped he might draw some London-domiciled Italians but in any case I think British enthusiasts like to see a top roadman in the six. That's why I brought Altig over the other year and next year I'll try for Gimondi. Yes, I was pleased with Motta, he rode well and the crowd appreciated it.''
Webb wasn't so happy though with the BCF 's pressure to include more Britons: "Let's face it, Bull and Barnett were quite simply out of their depth. What's the point of putting men in simply to be slaughtered?"
Nigel Dean though had exceeded expectations: "He rode brilliantly." said Webb, "because he didn't allow himself to be overawed. His morale was right, he wasn't scared of taking a hiding he just got in there and mixed it. It's one thing having riders losing lap after lap, you must expect that from newcomers, but at least they should play some attacking part in the race, win something - like Nigel did, but then he's got the aptitude for it.
"He'll be riding in Zurich next, with Reg Smith and then possibly Ghent and Amsterdam but it would be wrong to put him in too many sixes in his first season. If he doesn't overdo it then his eagerness should be enough to stop him feeling the pain. Too many rides too soon and he'll become cynical and depressed about it all."
Webb feels that the BCF work against him in other ways than their unthinking insistance on throwing British riders in at the deep end - even though those same riders don't show enough eagerness to get down to Calshot regularly and learn the ropes, despite the financial incentive of the rewards available in the Skol race.
"I'm sure there are BCF officials who would really like to see the end of this race. I even had a chap from the local division come down and drag me away from a party of the sponsors' executives to demand why I hadn't asked his permission to stage the race! I go direct to BCF headquarters for the permit - and pay handsomely too."
"I'm on a retainer from Allied Breweries, the sponsors, and even if a million people came to the race I wouldn't get paid a penny more. "What people don't realise is that though the race costs around £45,000 to stage, Allied Breweries only provide a portion of that. I have to raise the rest by finding advertisers and prize donors and that's nine months' hard work. This time around 20 firms put money into the race and we had a £5,000 prize list.
"Crowds were the same as last year but if it hadn't been for the disastrous first night when torrential rain storms meant a gate of less than a thousand, the figures would have been well up. The last night was a sell out as usual with 7,000 packed in and every other night bar the first, was up on last year.
"I'd definitely like to see the race better supported though. If every cycling enthusiast in the country came to just one session we'd have full houses all the time, even without the general public."
Some cyclists have opined that the ticket prices are too high. Webb is familiar with the argument but has rather pointed feelings in that direction. "It's a simple fact of life that Allied Breweries aren't picking up the total bill and I have to balance the budget.
"Now cyclist are notorious for not spending money. Most of them still wouldn't come if it was only 25p admission - but make it free and they'd be there in droves.
"As for the general public, well the Wembley box-office tell me that for every show they have there, and that includes the six, the tickets first sold are the most expensive ones and the slow ones stick.
"If someone's taking a girl out he wants the best, if he can't get it he'd rather go somewhere else. Even if I pulled the prices right down I still wouldn't be able to sell those acres of seats up the back."
However, Ron feels he can improve attendances on the slow nights by providing extra attractions: "One idea might be to run each night as a separately sponsored race with a really worthwhile prize, then have an overall prize at the end - something like they do at the Horse of The Year Show where they have a different major event each night.
"I'm also hoping that maybe next year we can stage the European omnium championships on the opening night."
Ron feels better support from the media would be a big help too " On the Continent the press provide plenty of free publicity but here we have to buy most of it in the form of advertising and that, in London is very pricey.
"We spent E6,000 on publicity which may not sound a lot by London standards but it's a bill the Continental promoters don't have to face. "You see, we have to build up the image not only of our particular event but of the sport as well in order to attract public support. Football clubs only have to let people know when they are playing because everyone knows what it's all about but for cycling its no good just letting the the public know it's on, you've got to tell them exactly what it is! It's a minority sport, it's been kept as a secret society for too long."
Promoting a six in Britain is, Webb feels, a totally different matter from running one abroad Despite the Skol Six's beer garden, the consumption of that beverage is negligible compared with that at a German or Belgian event-280 hectolitres being downed in Bremen alone. What's more the Wembley franchise for all promotions in the hall goes to an outside firm who take all the profit whereas the Continental promoters raise most of their revenue from beer sales.
"You simply can't transfer an atmosphere or type of spectator simply by promoting a similar type of event," said Ron, "in Britain people want to sit in the stands and watch the racing. whether they are enthusiasts or the general public, but Continental people want a night out on the beer. with the racing as added entertainment.
"This has influenced the programme and the type of rider presented.
"In Belgium they make up a third of the field with local roadies who they know will pull in coachloads of beer-swilling supporters. But in London that wouldn't work. Here we owe our duty to the people up in the stands engrossed in the racing, that's why it must be the very best possible - and another good reason for not throwing in local novices because the paying customers want to see not their own riders but the best in the world.
"It's worked well for us. The first two nights racing this year were so good, so intense, that the intricacies of what was going on were oe yond the average spectator, everything was happening so fast.
"That's what comes of evening the teams out When you put two real stars together you get some spectacular moments but the racing is stop/go and there are a lot of lulls which the British crowds don't like."
Ron feels enough local interest is generated by the amateur events in which enthusiasts can watch home riders without seeing them humili ated "I can see that the BCF want to open up the six for British talent but this is the way to do it, so they can be groomed for the big lump into the professional event.
"I don't lust want to cater for the top amateurs either, they're looked after enough already - it's the kids I want to help, then someday we will have a real pool of class six-daymen.
"The hardest thing in putting on the amateur part of the six is the poor facilities at Wembley "It's dirty and scruffy and there isn't enough room for them to change without getting in the way of the pros.
"The whole place is depressing really. It's out-dated, big, cold and drab but where else can we go? I'd like to promote another British six, at the other end of the winter. take it up North, but there simply isn't a big enough venue and as far as London goes there isn't really anywhere we could move the Skol to."
Returning to the amateur involvement, Webb had a parting shot. "I really believe the BCF should let us put one amateur pair into the pro race as the answer to greater British participation because there we have men with experience of small steeply-banked tracks. so I'll be pressuring them for that next year. I'd like to include maybe Hallam and Bennett or Heffernan if he gets a bit more polished.
"We'll have to see what happens in Zurich in December when Kurmann and a few other amateurs are riding the pro event. I think the professionals will welcome it, they're only too aware of the need for new blood."
As for our own pro class furnishing new six-men, apart from the already emergent Nigel Dean. Ron has few hopes: "They just haven't got the interest to learn the ropes at Calshot and I can't take a chance and throw them straight in at Skol, it wouldn't be fair to the other riders. I had hopes of Sid Barras but he just doesn't have the knack of riding the track, he's even wary of Paddington. It's a pity".