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Then and Now – Wembley 1980 and London Six Day 2015, According to Top Soigneur Kris Tolmie

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Prior to the recent ‘five plus one’ it’s 35 years since a Six Day string made the London boards hum – albeit different times, riders and venue.

We thought it would be interesting to fire a few questions at a man who’s worked both races; 1980 AND 2015 – VeloVeritas’s ‘man on the inside’ and over the years soigneur to some of the biggest names in Six Day bike racing; Kris Tolmie.

London Six Day 2015
Kris and fellow soigneur Martyn follow the action. Photo©Ed Hood

When did you work your first London Six Day, Kris?

“I worked at the amateur Six Day in Wembley in 1972 with my first pro Six there in 1976.

“I worked the 1980 race which would have been around my 12th Six Day and the recent race is my 399th or 400th, I’ve lost count a wee bitty.”

Who did you work with then and now?

“In 1980 I was working with Maurice Burton – who’s son, Germain rode the recent Six – and the late Paul Medhurst.

“I knew Maurice from the British Track Champs – which were held at Leicester in those days – and from bringing him up to ride races which I organised at the Meadowbank track in Edinburgh.

“This time I was with the American riders Daniel Holloway and Jake Duehring, the Czech Denis Rugovac and the German Sebastian Wotschke – they’re all riders I’ve worked with in the past at other races.”

London Six Day 2015
Kris and Maurice have remained close for 35 years. Photo©Ed Hood

Coming back, 35 years on; climax or anticlimax?

“Well, it’s not really a Six Day, is it?

“With the one day event then five day format [which was originally put in place to suit Mark Cavendish’s participation, ed.] – but it’s good to see a big winter track race back in London.

“There’s been a huge gap in the culture of Six Day racing so it’s positive to see it back and starting to build again.”

London Six Day 2015
The velodrome in London is a big place. Photo©Ed Hood

How do the venues compare?

“Wembley was a much more intimate stadium with a ‘proper’ 160 metre Six Day track – you need the intimacy of the small track with fans banked up right from the rails to give you the right atmosphere.

“It’s difficult to get the right buzz on a big track in a big hall like the Olympic Velodrome – sure, when the Olympics were on and the place was sold out but you’re not going to get crowds like that on the first couple of nights of a new venture – not if you don’t have Cav and Wiggins to pull them in through the doors.

“In Berlin they get away with a 250 metre track because there are so many people in the hall and you get the crowd noise and atmosphere of a Six.

“And with the track being out in ‘the sticks’ a little they had to start and finish early to fit in with public transport – at Wembley you last chase finished at midnight and the atmosphere was fantastic.

“The last two nights the crowds were good but tickets were pricey; much more so than Gent or Berlin… maybe they should look at that for next year?

London Six Day 2015
The field for the Wembley Six in 1980. Photo©Ed Hood

What about the quality of the field?

“You can’t compare it to the 1980 race because back then the top road guys still rode the Six Days, Raas, Moser, De Vleminck and because there were so many Six Day races on the circuit – well into the teens – you had the real specialists like Clark, Sercu, Bugdahl, Fritz, Frank, Doyle…

“The London field was good though; Keisse, Mørkøv, De Ketele, Terpstra, Rasmussen, Mülller, Kneisky the two Spanish guys Muntaner and Torres (who are European Champions), so no complaints.

“And whilst I think that is Cav/Wiggo had ridden it would have sold out every night, their absence meant the young British lads came to the fore – Mark [Stewart] and Germain [Burton], Chris Latham and Ollie Woods, they all rode very well.

“If Cav/Wiggo had ridden then they’d have been over shadowed and maybe not as willing to ‘go for it’ as they were.

“They weren’t over-awed and I liked their attitude; whilst they’re part of the GB ‘system’ they’re not as regimented as say the Aussies are – they’re still free spirits and that’s nice to see.”

London Six Day 2015
Classiest rider on the circuit, Iljo Keisse. Photo©Ed Hood

London Six Day 2015
The track centre in London wasn’t typical of Sixes. Photo©Ed Hood

The track centre layout didn’t seem to work, somehow?

“The space could have been better used, they’ve gone down the Copenhagen/Grenoble route with ViP’s only in the track centre, but if you have a cheap bar in there it pulls in the fans and adds to the atmosphere.

“It’s also good if you can let the fans get closer to the bikes and mechanics like they do at Gent and used to do at Wembley – it’s all part of the show.”

London Six Day 2015
Germain Burton and Mark Stewart held their own against some of the best Six Day riders on the planet. Photo©Ed Hood

London Six Day 2015
Alex Rasmussen, one of the top stars on the track. Photo©Ed Hood

What did you think of the format?

“I think they got the timings wrong, they were always running over – the last chase was supposed to be 45 minutes but ended up 31 minutes.

“Call me old-fashioned but I wouldn’t have the riders back in to the track centre for the presentations after each race – do it on the finish line and keep things moving. It’s easier for the crowd to see and understand.

“And the chases were too short – obviously you can’t have 100 kilometre chases like you do in Copenhagen but 20 minutes is just too short. The short chases were good for the GB guys because it meant they could sustain the big gears – on a 160 track after an hour it’s a different story…

“And maybe they should consider having specific nights, like the family night in Berlin or the student night in Ghent?

“The sprinters put on a decent show – in Britain, France and Germany they like their sprint racing.

“It was good they had so many girls up and the field was cosmopolitan but it could have been snappier – split that big bunch and have shorter, faster races.

“It’s just a shame there are no ‘clowns’ or ‘showmen’ on the boards these days; Willy Debosscher and Gerben Karstens would almost always win their respective devils then when they met in the final one would ride round the track one way and one the other – crazy stuff but the fans loved it.”

London Six Day 2015
The young British riders Woods and Latham. Photo©Ed Hood

The deejay format didn’t seem right to me?

“They had a club deejay – who’d obviously never been to a Six Day – but that’s not right for a Six – you need music to suit what’s happening on the track.

“Say what you like about Dave Duffield but he was ‘speaker’ at the Wembley Sixes and did a good job with the right music to suit the racing.”

London Six Day 2015
Two of Kris’ “boys” in London, Holloway and Dehiring. Photo©Ed Hood

And what about the job of the soigneur?

“It’s basically the same and whilst technology is so much better these days the facilities at the Six Days are just the same as they were back then.

“It sounds simple – you need electricity and water close at hand; but many of the venues don’t have that – there’s no water at Gent for instance.

“The washing isn’t so difficult now; no wool shorts which took two days to dry albeit some guys would bring 12 pairs because there was always an afternoon session.

“And some would bring 12 under-vests and pairs of socks.

“The organisation made life easier back then by providing three meals each day for the riders and staff – but that doesn’t happen anymore.

“Of course race food is much simpler now with bars, gels and isotonic drinks – we used to have to make our own with water, sugar, honey and glucose.

“Kendal Mint Cake was a favourite, we’d make up small sandwiches, biscuits with honey and have blackcurrant pastels to ease the riders throats – the halls were really smoky back then – but that just added to the atmosphere.”

London Six Day 2015
It would have been a different race if Cavendish had been competing. Photo©Ed Hood

Next year?

“Make it a Six Day!

“Start on a Tuesday so they have Friday and Saturday nights then Sunday afternoon – that gives you three big gates.

“Talk to folks on the Six Day scene, learn from them.

“Sharpen up the programme and have longer chases – and maybe even short chases for the girls?”

London Six Day 2015
The winners take a lap of honour. Photo©Ed Hood

‘Chases for the girls ?’ VeloVeritas’s cycling sage and guru, Viktor ain’t gonna like that one!

With thanks to Kris for his time and patience; his 401st Six just finished this week in Gent – quite a record.

Ed Hood
Ed's been involved in cycling for over 45 years. In that time he's been a successful time triallist, team manager, and sponsor of several teams and clubs. He's also a respected and successful coach, and during the winter months can often be found working in the cabins at the Six Days. Ed remains a massive fan of the sport and couples his extensive contacts with an inexhaustable enthusiasm for the minutiae and the history of our sport.

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