It’s a term bandied around a lot; ‘legend’, too often in fact, in a world where superlatives fly around – but this gentleman really does deserve the title. Robert Bartko has been at the top of his trade for two decades and on Tuesday night in Copenhagen’s Ballerup Super Arena he went out in style with his 21st Six Day win off 79 starts.
It was just a matter of hours before the Copenhagen finale when his big frame filled the doorway of the VeloVeritas cabin before he sat down to chat to us about his career.
At this stage we usually take you through a rider’s palmares, “Big Bob’s” would take us all day to list, the summary is:
- Olympic Individual Pursuit Champion 2000.
- Olympic Team Pursuit Champion 2000.
- World Individual Pursuit Champion – three times.
- World Team Pursuit Champion.
- European Madison Champion.
- German Champion 18 times across pursuit, team pursuit, madison, Derny and points race.
- Multiple World Cup wins in the pursuit, team pursuit and madison.
- And a plethora of podium places from national to Worlds level.
Your Six Day stats, Robert; 21 wins off 79 starts?
“I don’t know about the starts, you’d have to check that – but 20 wins, yes.”
How did you get in to cycling?
“I rode a bike before I could walk and at 14 became part of the sports training centre in Potsdam before going to Sports School in Berlin.
“I never felt that the discipline in the system was too hard; it’s what I always wanted to do – live the life of a professional athlete.”
You were German Team Pursuit Champion for the first time in 1994 and the last in 2010.
“Yes, I rode with a lot of different riders along the way.
“Germany has a great tradition of individual and team pursuiting – and I always wanted to be part of that.
“The British guys were the ones who really changed the team pursuit – it was them who started to ride the bigger gears and go really fast.”
How did you prepare for pursuiting?
“I did a lot of road work and only at the last minute went to the track for my short, hard work.
“I did all of that preparation on the Frankfurt Oder training track.”
In 2002 you rode and finished the Vuelta.
“Ha! Yes, with Telekom, that was crazy but a nice experience.
“I only rode that one Grand Tour but I am happy that I did – it was very hard but a special memory.”
And you won the Three Days of West Flanders in 2004.
“Yes, that was with Rabobank; it starts with a short prologue – which I won and then the rest of the stages were in the cross winds but no hills.
“With my team pursuit experience I know how to position myself in those conditions so the stages suited me.
“That I was my third year full professional, I rode really strongly, that year.”
But no contract for 2005?
“That was the year the UCI changed the points system and didn’t have the points to get a good contract.
“I made the decision to go back to the track – and I’m happy that I did.”
Your first Six Day season, how many did you ride?
“I only rode three but I have ridden as many as 10 in the one winter – Amsterdam, Ghent, Zürich, Dortmund, Munich, Rotterdam, Bremen, Berlin, Copenhagen…
“It’s hard but good for the bank balance, in three months you can do well financially.”
What do you put the decline of the Six Days down to?
“The 2006 doping crisis with Ulrich was very bad, we lost three races immediately.
“And then came the world financial crisis; no money, no Six Days!
“I think the situation is now stable, not the best, not the worst and we must hope for things to improve.
“It’s still a great concept with the sport, the shows, the restaurants, the bars…”
Who’s your favourite partner?
“Iljo Keisse, he’s the perfect partner; fast and strong – and a nice guy.
“But I’ve been enjoying riding with Marcel Kalz, he’s the same big build as I am – this means I get good hand slings.
“Usually it’s my partner who gets the good sling – but I don’t get such a good one!”
The wins you are proudest of?
“The two Olympic titles in Sydney; there’s nothing bigger in the world of sport.
“Six Day-wise it would be my home Six in Berlin.
“That’s a special race with the big crowds – and in my home town.”
How do you get in shape for the Sixes?
“Now I ride many kilometres on the road and I have a race programme with a German Continental team.
How many days racing?
“For the last two years I have been riding and training on feeling.”
You’re still at the very top, why quit now?
“This year I will have been competing on a bicycle for 30 years; I have the condition and the legs but not the motivation.
“I have my studies, my family and many other projects.
“It’s the end of an era for me and time to say; ‘good bye’ while I’m still at the top.
“No one needs to come to me and say; ‘stop now, Robert!'”
We hear that you are going in to sports administration?
“Yes, but a voluntary post as a sporting ambassador.
“I complete my studies for my degree in Sports Management in September and then will take up my post.”
When you’re not Terminating on the track, what do you like to do?
“It was the commentators who gave me that name – it’s not something I started.
“I have three children and I like to spend time with them – go out riding on the bike with them.
“I like to swim and I like to horse ride – cycling is not everything in my life.”
“No – I’m really happy with how the course of my sporting life has gone.”
The end of an era, indeed – but that must be one damn big horse he rides…