Once upon a Velodrome.
I loved track racing before I had ever ridden a single lap on a banked oval. My cycling teammate and friend Alan Cote's dad had a collection of "Miroir" magazines. I poured through those magical photos of the 6 Day races in Europe. The history, showmanship, and athleticism all enthralled me. I wanted to be one of the thousands of fans watching their heroes flying around the wooden velodromes scattered throughout Europe. Scratch that, what I really wanted was to be one of the riders over there. Unfortunately, the closest velodrome to where I grew up in little West Townsend, Massachusetts was 304 miles away in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania. Less than a century earlier there would have been 10 tracks within a hundred-mile radius. Even though track racing was not in the cards when I was a teenager it became a fixture in my summer racing once we moved to Portland, Oregon. The steep banks of Alpenrose Velodrome became a new playground and I even had a chance to do a simplified 6-day race a few times. Track racing is hard but the hardest thing about it is that there is no place to hide. The crowd can see everything that happens and if you are having a bad day everyone is going to know. If you are having a good day it can be amazing.
Back to the image. While I was doing some research for a jersey design I saw the image on the left and my love for the track came bubbling back up. I had the urge to do a drawing that focused on one of those "Hard Men" of the now bygone era when the modern 6 days were at their Zenith. The photo I found was of Willy Debosscher from Belgium. He was on the Olympic Pursuit team in 1968 and after that began a career as a pro. He became famous as a 6-day racer for more than a decade. (see results)
Willy had good results but he wasn't one of the stars that chalked up victory after victory. He was a great bike handler, crazy fast, and added quite a bit of showmanship to the events. He was one of the underdogs that kept the top-level pros honest. I found quite a few photos of him doing some crazy things on the track but that isn't what I wanted to focus on. For my illustration, I imagined an event where Willy showed up at a track where he wasn't really expected. All the local fast guys thought they had a chance but with a slight turn of the screws Willy would leave them all in his wake. I can say I experienced this a few times at the Alpenrose Velodrome challenge when elite riders flew in from around the country and showed us what fast really looked like.
I found some great photos on the web of his antics but I still couldn't find many stories about Willy so I put this image out one of the facebook velodrome groups to see if anyone had anything to share.
A gentleman named Ian Smith wrote this in the comments and I couldn't ask for more. I got a big thumbs up when I asked if I use his words on my blog.
"I have a particular memory from a 6 in the early eighties? It would probably have been Rotterdam but also maybe Ghent.
Willy's event was undoubtedly the devil and was always earmarked for him to win with the expectation of some of his famous clowning.
He would have a whistle on a length of string around his neck and would always lurk at the back of the group doing just enough to cross the line in last but one position then would sit bolt upright no handed to blow his whistle and point to the rider who was eliminated, ie doing the commissaires job!
He also carried red and yellow cards as in football and would produce them and use in conjunction with the whistle.
Another party piece was to lay back but ride high on the bank and then drop almost vertically between turn 3 and 4 to gain speed and pass the rider about to be eliminated sitting upright and pulling hand over hand on an imaginary rope! Unbelievable skill!
Tamer antics were pulling on rider's jerseys or seat posts in the battle for last place on a sprint lap.
Another was riding very close alongside a rider and reaching over and tapping them on their opposite shoulder giving the impression that someone was boxed in and needed urgent space. Then hysterical laughter from Willy when the rider turned to look realizing that they had been duped!
It didn’t always go to plan and he was eliminated early in one "devil take the hindmost" either by an overzealous official or some mistiming on his part.
Anyway, he wouldn’t come off when called out and ended up riding the track clockwise (backwards) and passed the wrong way through the still-racing group several times
All of this undoubtedly had the fullest cooperation of his fellow pros!
I also have a memory and I’m sure it was him of riding the vertical perimeter wall boards into the turn and hopping off and back onto the track at the start of the straight!
As I said earlier he was a Clown, entertainer, and consummate bike handler!
Happy memories of a bygone time!" Ian Smith.
Willy Debosscher and some of his 6-Day antics. I did an illustration of these elephants years ago without seeing the photos. If I can find it I will add it. Apparently, Willy was asleep in the box that the elephant is knocking over.