"The World’s Best Cyclists Racing in a Gladiatorial Environment": James Durbin on the Six Day Series
Rouleur sit down with James Durbin, CEO of the Madison Sports Group, the organisers of the Six Day Series, ahead of the 3rd Round of the Six Day Virtual Series
Six-day track racing has a rich heritage dating back to the late 19th century.
It has witnessed historic moments of the sport and given a platform to some of cycling's greatest heroes. The Six Day Series, launched in 2013 by Madison Sports Group, aimed to breathe new life into the competition format by hosting events across the world. The next round takes place on Friday 26th February.
Rouleur sat down with CEO James Durbin to discuss the history of the event.
Related – The Six Day Virtual Racing Series Returns
How long have you been involved in the Six Day Series and how did you get involved in the first instance?
I was fortunate enough to be invited to a Six Day event in Amsterdam back in 2014.
Having spent my career in the business of sport, I was immediately drawn to the opportunity that I could see in Six Day. The natural combination between sport and entertainment, where the line between the two is indiscernible. The focus of what the Six Day Series was trying to do was modernise that concept a little bit more — reduce the amount of time, make it more watchable for a TV viewer and ensure that the sporting integrity is very high.
I started following it really closely for the next couple of years. The timing was right, I had just finished a major event that I was involved in which was power boats and jet ski world championships.
I was looking for my next challenge and Six Day was looking for someone to help them grow internationally, so I joined them mid-way through the second season.
How would you describe the Six Day Series to someone that has never watched or heard of the event?
The best way to describe the Six Day series as we knew it in the velodrome, before we made this recent pivot into the virtual world, is world class track cycling, the world’s best cyclists, racing in a gladiatorial environment of music and lights.
It’s an assault on the senses — it’s noisy, it’s bright, it’s dark, it’s quiet, it’s loud! There is always something to entertain you, whether it’s the racing, whether it’s the music, whether it’s the light shows. The experience is something that really needs to be seen.
(Image credit: Alex Whitehead/SWpix)
You mention the virtual series, obviously that is something that has come about since the pandemic, but what did it take to bring that idea to fruition?
We’ve been developing a technology and data stack within our Six Day Series for the last three years. We have developed our own data procurement systems, and we’ve been displaying those on our broadcast in quite an innovative fashion, creating all sorts of analytics and tools. That was all with a future vision of creating something in the digital world. Whether that was going to be virtual racing or gamifying the in-venue racing, we weren’t necessarily sure, but we always had this data and technology strategy that was a 3–5-year plan of what we were trying to achieve.
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The pandemic came around and it accelerated our thoughts in this world significantly because the opportunity was also accelerated. We weren’t allowed into the velodrome and so we had more time to consider what we can do with all this data and technology stack that we’d built. But the other is the adoption of digital technology.
It's exactly like how we are doing this interview now — we probably wouldn’t have considered doing an online interview 18 months ago, we’d have tried to meet face-to-face. So that adoption of digital, but also in the cycling world. As has been widely reported, the incredible uptake of indoor cycling.
Take yourself back nine months ago and all the cycling media were talking about was ‘you can’t buy an indoor trainer for love-nor-money’. And so, the amount of people that started indoor cycling grew significantly and it normalised what was historically really only for elite or very dedicated cyclists. So those two accelerations of digital adoption provided an opportunity for us to launch a virtual series.
We partnered with BKOOL who over the years have developed a virtual velodrome. They had some new investment and new ownership at the commencement of 2020. Their view was to develop this part of their business even more. But they needed some experience in the world of racing and that’s what we bring, We bring our technology stack and race experience to BKOOL and they bring us a virtual platform. It’s a good marriage.
Watch the Six Day Virtual Series on the Six Day Facebook Page.
Are there any specific challenges the team have faced with the organisation of the virtual event?
Well, yes, there are challenges. I can’t hide from that — we are into a significantly new frontier here. We are not the participants in the racing, we are trying to create a professional racing series and we will extend that into an amateur racing series in due course.
Some of the benefits of virtual racing is the lack of logistics required — we don’t need to fly our athletes around everywhere and we don’t need a big velodrome. But therein lies the challenge: trying to coordinate in real-time all of the different athletes who have different connectivity speeds, connections and qualities.
They will have different hardware which on the track is relatively well homogenised — you can have a different brand of bike but there are scoping documents from which they are allowed to build the bike and to what spec. That is not in existence yet in the virtual world.
And so, we need some level of integrity in terms of the hardware, and therefore the data integrity is of utmost importance. And therein lies the benefit of having developed our own data procurement for the last three years, and our systems can assist with that data integrity to ensure that the racing is fair and accurate.
I think there is a learning curve for the riders as well. It’s not the same as riding on the velodrome. We’ve done quite a few races now which we’ve broadcast through our social channels, we’ve had some very good viewer numbers, but what’s interesting is to watch the evolution of the riders from when they first started to those who have done a number of races with us. Their tactics are changing and you can see that evolving. They are riding slightly differently and they are not riding like they would in a velodrome.
We are starting to compile some data comparisons between our riders in the velodrome and the exact same race in the virtual world, and what their telemetry says, what’s the better riding strategy in the virtual world. That’s really quite interesting if you’re into your cycling numbers and you like all that data.
As the virtual cycling platforms start professionalising and become leagues in their own right, I think you’ll see a lot more analysis of this data to understand how best to ride particularly the endurance virtual races. The sprint virtual races, at the moment, it’s all about how many watts you can put out in a short period of time, but the endurance is very different. It’s fascinating, but there are certainly some challenges we are facing.
Laura Kenny, Six Day Manchester, 2019 (Image credit: Alex Whitehead/SWpix)
Which is your favourite of the track disciplines to watch and why?
There’s an in-venue answer to that and there’s a virtual answer to that as well. From an in-venue perspective, I don’t think anything can surpass the final Madison chase.
The chaos of the race is quite intoxicating, but the sheer athleticism of the cyclists is just something to behold. When they have been racing flat out for six days and then they come to this final 60-minute race, where the head of the race will average near on 60kph for one hour, with these incredible sprints throughout, and then the final six or seven laps is just done at full gas, it’s extraordinary to watch.
Even thinking about some of the races now that I’ve been fortunate enough to witness gives me a tingle down my spine. So, I don’t think I can go past that, the chaos and excitement of the Madison chase is just something to behold.
James Durbin, CEO of Six Day
In the virtual world, what I’ve really enjoyed watching in what we’ve done recently are the Keirin races with our sprinters. You can feel, even through the digital technology, this sort of coiled up power ready to be released. We have a derny in our virtual races, and the derny holds the riders at 35-40kph for four laps, and then, just like in a normal Keirin race we release them for the last three. In our most recent series, I’ve been watching some of the power that these riders are putting out in that final lap, it’s anywhere between 1400 and 1700 watts. And there’s six of them.
When you’re watching in person, you can see the size of them and the power of them and the speed of them, but when you’re watching in the virtual world you can really see the cadence of each of the riders lined up on the screen, as well as the pain on their face as they are trying to put out more watts than their competitors.
The data flow is just incredible, the speeds they are getting up to which is obviously just a calculation of cadence, power and weight. It’s extraordinary to watch and every race goes down to millimetres at the end, so in the virtual world that one is hard to go past.
When will Six Days return to the real velodrome? Can we expect more virtual racing until then?
In the UK we had a positive announcement from the Prime Minister recently suggesting that things are returning to normality through the summer which is hugely encouraging. We are currently on-sale with our London event which is scheduled for the end of October. We obviously had to postpone that by a year, but we are on track with that for October.
We also expect to keep our Hong Kong and Berlin events for the end of this year and beginning of next year. Our friends in Hong Kong have managed this pandemic better than many countries, so we are confident that will go ahead.
One of the advantages with launching the virtual series is that we can maintain riding and racing and that competitive requirement for our fans as well as our riders throughout the year. And because of the lack of logistics required, we can continue running our virtual events right throughout the year – and that is our intention.
So, our expectation is that we’ll continue running the virtual series right up to our in-venue series, and then there is no reason for us to stop the virtual series. I think we’ll continue right through the in-venue series, as we call it, and have them running complementary to each other.
Find out more about the upcoming in-venue events on the Six Day website.
(Image credit: Alex Whitehead/SWpix)
What are you most looking forward to with the Six Day Series in the future?
Having the virtual and the real world combined, and for those two racing pillars to complement each other.
One of the things that I would like to have created with the Six Day Series is a logical career path to professional cycling and providing a professional career path for budding cyclists. At the moment, if you’re a budding young cyclist, your only option is to go out on the road and try to find your way to a contract with a WorldTour team. There are very few track cyclists who can forge a significant career.
So we consider that we have the potential to create a professional career for track cyclists and give them the opportunity. If they want to go onto the road and forge a professional career, fantastic, we wish them well with that. But if they want to stay on the track, we want to give them the opportunity to stay on the track. And I think that with the virtual world, and our in-venue velodromes, that is going to help us create that logical career pathway.
We can create a career pathway for amateurs to come up into the professional ranks in the virtual world because you can safely ride against each other in the virtual world. It’s very difficult to put an amateur onto the velodrome boards against an Olympic champion, it's too dangerous, quite frankly. But you can do it in the virtual world and get up to speed (excuse the pun) and then try to learn your craft if you want to, in terms of bike handling skills on the velodrome. Or, you can stay in the virtual world, if that is your path to professionalism.
So, I think it allows us to widen the markets in terms of track cycling and it helps us to provide a logical career pathway to professional track cycling. I think that’s a really exciting element to what we’re doing.