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At 7:29 p.m. sharp on a January night, the lights go out in the circular-shaped stadium at Paul-Heyse-Straße, number 26, in Berlin. The sound of massive church bells fills the futuristic velodrome…and we identify the intro to AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells.” Soon after, laser beams of all colors cut through the weighty darkness. The city’s cycling parishioners are summoned here for prayer, worship and sacrifice on the wooden track of Das Berliner Sechstagerennen: the Berlin Six-Day Race. It’s show time!
Words & images: Kåre Dehlie Thorstad
The athletes make their appearance to a deafening beat amid sparkling pyrotechnics. The crowd roars in delight. Is this a modern take of Ancient Rome’s most notorious form of entertainment: the gladiator fights in the Coliseum, another circular arena? Beloved by the masses and sometimes scorned by the elites, Roman gladiators were slaves or working-class heroes; people flocked to watch these armed and highly trained warriors engage in a blood-soaked spectacle—equal parts sport, theatre and cold-blooded murder. Skip the last part and leave out some of the blood, and it’s just about the right comparison to today’s six-day bike racing!
Everything is rotating: disc wheels and chain wheels, the carousel on the inner lane, the lights and the mirror ball in the ceiling, and the deejay’s discs. On the track, riders eat up round after a round like small satellites in orbit around a microcosm of sound and light, while the audience’s attention drifts slowly away from bike racing to beer drinking. Glam rock bellows through the loudspeakers, but is abruptly zapped by a Tyrolean folk tune, only to be overpowered by the Spice Girls and glorious ’90s pop an instant later. We struggle to keep our heads straight, and try not to worry. After all, we are in Germany, and there must be a method to all this madness. It doesn’t fall into place until two or three evenings spent inside this funhouse, but it’s all the more welcome when confusion gently switches to fascination and admiration for what’s happening on the track.
The six-day racing phenomenon dates back to 1878 when English cycling champion David Stanton stubbornly claimed he could ride 1,000 miles in six consecutive days. Nobody knows exactly why, nor his motivation, but the challenge created a buzz in Victorian England, and the newspaper Sporting Life backed his bet with a £100 prize [about $12,000 in today’s currency]. In February that year, at London’s Agricultural Hall, Stanton set out on his solo effort and covered the 1,000 miles in less than five days—to the great despair of the newspaper, but to the audience’s great enthusiasm. Inspired by the publicity surrounding Stanton’s feat, a six-day race was hurriedly organized at the same venue for a mass field and, with that, six-day racing was born.
News of Stanton’s exploit spread rapidly and six-day racing soon became popular in England, but it wasn’t until the new race format reached America in the 1890s that it went through the roof. Races were held all over the country, the public’s enthusiasm was overwhelming, and money followed the way it often does where there is profit to be found. In the fight for victory, riders pushed their limits to the very edge. Deprived of sleep, many simply crashed out. Safety was jeopardized and racing got out of control. As a consequence, the Chicago and New York races enforced state rules limiting riders to a maximum of 12 hours of racing per day.
This proved to be the catalyst for the development of modern six-day racing in which two riders form teams, taking turns to keep them in the race through day and night. The new format was a tremendous success and by the 1920s track racing had become the most popular sport in the United States—larger than baseball, basketball and football combined. Most states had a velodrome, and tens of thousands of spectators thronged to witness international stars compete against local heroes.
Then came the Great Depression. On October 29, 1929, Black Tuesday hit Wall Street. Billions of dollars were lost, wiping out thousands of investors and sending the industrialized world into a downward spiral. Consumer spending and investment dropped to zero, causing sports to stagnate or, in the case of American six-day racing, to disappear. The six, however, started to grow in popularity in Europe—including the Berlin Six, which was first held in 1909.
World War II put a halt to anything resembling normal life but right after it, in 1947, the six-day phenomenon returned and continued it’s maturation process until the 1980s when a proper formula was established that took better care of the athletes and gave the crowds a good bang for their buck. Today, a typical six-day program includes one-lap time trials, motor-paced events, sprint competitions and elimination races. The main event is still the Madison—invented in New York’s Madison Square Garden—whereby both riders on a team are on the track at the same time, taking turns to race and handsling each other back into action. The overall winner is the team that completes most laps over the course of six days.
Track racing is all about power, speed, adrenaline, brains and courage. With a top speed of nearly 50 miles per hour in the curves, the riders hold their bikes in an almost perpendicular state to the surface, just inches apart from each other; but to become a seasoned six-day racer it requires precision, fearlessness and many years of cycling repeatedly through left turns. An inexperienced racer often pairs up with a so-called “taxi driver”—an honorable title given to the very best six-day veterans, who know all the tricks of the trade.
One of today’s top “taxi drivers” is 36-year-old Christian Grasmann —the founder of the Maloja Pushbikers team—who happens to be one of the most competent six-day racers. Grasmann is also the world’s coolest German, with a headful of clever thoughts and ideas. After a long life as a roadie in various teams in the lower divisions, he knew it was time for a change in direction. At the defining moment of his career, he got his own peaceful revolution going. Rather than living by a cruel regimen of training and competition, “Grasi” embarked on a journey back in time to revive the youthful pleasure of cycling and the freedom of moving around on two wheels.
The outcome of it proved to be Maloja Pushbikers and, six years after it’s inception, this German team is now at a peak. Grasmann has attracted a bunch of strong riders who share the same philosophy. Gone are the days counting podium spots and UCI points. Now, it’s more about the joy of crossing the finish line in the company of your best friends to the crowd’s plaudits. The Pushbikers embrace the sweat on their foreheads and the burn in their legs. They know cycling will never be pain-free and easy, but for Grasmann & company there has to be fun involved.
However, the six-day season has been rough for Grasi. He fell sick with a wicked flu at the Bremen Six, forcing him to withdraw. Misfortune followed on the third evening in Berlin when he hit the deck after a touch of wheels. The sound of carbon bursting to pieces is a heinous one, and the German limped off the track with a gaping wound on his right leg, but the inner injuries were more severe. The knee joint was dislocated and the ligaments torn off.
To our great surprise and delight, the lone American rider in Berlin gets the loudest cheers from the crowd. Not German natives Robert Förstemann, Max Levy or Jo Eilers, but 30-year-old NATE KOCH from Long Beach, California. They call him the Showman! This guy alone can fire up a jam-packed velodrome. He loves to put on a good show. As a former track and field decathlete Koch is equally strong and fast, but with just a few years under his belt as a six-day racer, he normally takes a beating when lining up with the high priests of the track. However, he so poignantly tells us while warming up on the rollers, “every once in a while, a blind squirrel finds a nut.”
And so it happens, on the fifth night in Berlin, out of the blue, Koch snatches a sprint victory ahead of Olympic team sprint gold medalist Phil Hindes—and all hell breaks loose! The American catapults his bike over the finish line and, just like the Incredible Hulk, rips his jersey wide open to display his solid chest. The crowd goes berserk, and a leviathan “Naaaa-te” bellows through the PA system. Berlin just loves the underdog! And, right after the election of Donald Trump, we hear “Nate for president!” spouted out loudly and repeatedly to a frenzied roar back from the masses. Berliners believe that Nate Koch has done more for the German-American proximity than any U.S. President—including John F. Kennedy and his celebrated words of 1963.
“A six-day race isn’t just racing, it’s also a show, and I have other things that I can bring into it that people enjoy,” Koch says. “You sign autographs all day and people come up to you and want to take a selfie. It’s fun to enjoy yourself and try to embody the spirit of the culture and the energy of a six-day. Even when it’s day five and I’m really tired and it’s been long days…I always keep in mind that there are thousands of people here to watch us and have fun. And if I don’t smile and wave and interact with them, then I’m not doing my job as a racer and showman.”
Koch got into six-day racing after he contacted German Olympic team sprinter Levy before the 2015 Berlin Six. “I asked him if there was any room for another sprinter…simply because I’d seen them on YouTube and it looked like fun! It looked like a fine party and something that I really would like to do.” He was turned down at first, but an opening came up two weeks before the start, with Levy telling him: “You’re an American and we like that!”
Koch’s six-day debut went well. “I came to Berlin and I wasn’t the fastest racer by any means with Max Levy and other guys like that racing,” he says, “but they took a very strong liking for me, took me in and treated me extremely well. The beauty of six-day racing is the fun, the party, the music, the lights, and the entertainment. On top of that there is racing! It fits my personality to a T.”
Grasi was out of the race, but instead of returning home to his wife and newborn child, he stays in Berlin to help his teammate Maximilian Beyer, maneuvering his young comrade through the last nights in the velodrome. On a mobile cooktop he makes coffee for the team and, limping around with a busted knee, he serves homemade muffins to his competitors. It’s just nice to be around him, and we have no trouble understanding why he is so highly valued on and off the track. Grasi is the real deal, a true Pushbiker….
Amid the rumble of the 2017 Berlin Six, we stumble upon a gray-haired gentleman on the infield wearing a world champion’s jersey. Rainbow stripes just don’t pass unnoticed! His name is Werner Otto, now 70, who’s renowned for his commitment to the sport. He reached an absolute high in popularity during the Cold War when he won the 2,000-meter tandem sprint at the 1969 world track championships in the Slovak city of Brno with teammate Jürgen Geschke; they won gold again two years later in Varese, Italy. The tandem sprint discipline was eradicated after they took silver medals at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, but bringing back a world champion’s jersey, no matter what kind of sport, was enough to secure Otto status as a legend in the German Democratic Republic’s communist regime.
His life as a top athlete on the east side of the Berlin Wall—officially referred to as the “Anti-Fascist Protective Wall” by the communist state—is a different one from the tales of a brutal regime. “To be honest, I felt like a free man and could travel wherever I wanted.” Otto says. “And among us athletes there was always a pleasant tone, where sports was the topic, never politics.” He was never tempted to jump off to a life in the West.
As a sports star, he had a place under the government’s protective wing—though a high level of discipline and hard work was mandatory. A protected life didn’t mean that he was blind to what was going on, nor that he complied with the political system. Otto’s life story is a joyful one. Since the Berlin Wall was torn down in November 1989, he has continued to devote his life to cycling, first as a coach for the German national team, and now as a bike-shop owner and mentor for Berlin’s future track-racing talents. Some of them are on show at the six-day race.
On the sixth night, the battle for the general classification isn’t settled; the atmosphere inside the velodrome is tense. The riders keep their momentum at a high level. The mellow, laid-back spirit on the track is now gone, replaced by fierce rivalry. The hour is late, and every small sprint point counts in the fight for a place on the final podium. The Belgian duo of Kenny De Ketele and Moreno De Pauw launches a final, desperate attack in a bid for the overall honors, but the Dutchmen Yoeri Havik and Wim Stroetinga hit back and walk off victoriously with 470 points, one lap ahead of the Belgians. Confetti saturates the arena and DJ Tomekk goes ballistic on the turntables. Within 48 hours, the same riders will line up for another six-day battle, this time in Copenhagen, Denmark. We walk away punch-drunk from the Berlin velodrome, thankful for each and every minute spent inside: “Danke sehr, Berlin. Auf Wiedersehen!”
EINS> Get yourself a cultural alibi, visit Museum Island in Mitte. smb.museum/en/home.html
ZWEI> Take the elevator to the restaurant on top of the 147-meter (482-foot)-high Funkturm. funkturm-messeberlin.de/en/
DREI> Get behind the wheel of an East German-made Trabant, probably one of the worst cars in history. trabi-safari.de/
VIER> “Einen Döner, bitte!” Berlin is the city of Dönerkebab, originally a Turkish dish of meat roasted on a revolving spit, usually served in a sandwich with salad and sauce. If you are vegan, go for the Vöner at Ostkreuz.
FÜNF> “Ich möchte einen Kaffee, bitte!” Drink coffee at Oslo Café in Eichendorffstraße. oslokaffebar.com/
SECHS> Check out the best bike shops in town: Legendary Keirin (keirinberlin.de/) has the best vegan cake in town, but if you prefer coffee and cool bike-stuff, try Standert near the Nordbahnhof (standert.de/). And if you’re in the mood for spending money the guys at 8bar will set you up with a handsome fixie. 8bar-bikes.com/
SIEBEN> Spin your bike back in history on a guided tour around Berlin. fattiretours.com/berlin
ACHT> Dance the night away at Berghain, the mother of all nightclubs. berghain.de/
NEUN> If you like graffiti and scenic views, check out the Abhörstation, a Cold War relic abandoned on top of Teufelsberg, a manmade mountain that covers a former Nazi military-technical college.
ZEHN> Experience the 107th edition of the Berlin Six Days. sechstagerennen-berlin.de/
The unique demands of gravel riding have spawned few innovations... Read more →