“I line up in my allotted position on the inside of the track as the dernys circle high on the banking, filing into their correct order, the drivers preparing and readying themselves for the all important ‘pick up’. These are the final pensive moments before the start, and the atmospheric hum gathers like a storm cloud, the humidity rising with the heat and smell of the engines.”
The men who drive these bikes are often slightly rotund but still wear full cycling get up, sitting low on their machines, their knees sticking out to the sides like kids on the wrong size bike. They pedal to assist the motor and adjust the pace, sitting bolt upright to offer as much wind resistance as possible to the rider behind. Their knees turn out to avoid banging them on the frame and to make a better shelter pocket behind; their right index finger is poised on the throttle, the others covering the front and rear brakes. Urban myth holds that the fatter the pacer the better but this is not technically the case as a flat or ‘concave’ frontage makes for a better vacuum at the back. Either way as one driver puts it: “A clever skinny pacer will always be better than a thick fat pacer.”
The absurdity of the spectacle belies the expertise required to become a good derny driver; to combine the pressure on the pedals with holding the throttle and feathering the brakes, often in changing wind conditions on big outdoor tracks. There is method in the madness and the goal is to give a smooth, fast and safe drive for the rider behind, and all of this before the tactics of racing. Every driver has their own personal technique that brings it all together. Every driver is committed to the sport.
The practice format is simple. Each lap the rider behind the derny pulls alongside, bringing the next into pole position before slipping down the line and tagging on the back. The skill element for both drivers and riders is considerable and the pace is unforgiving. At higher speeds and as the tension builds, the smallest gaps between riders are heavily punished and the effort required to surge at the front and back of the line can take you to breaking point. Expletives are exchanged and occasionally the elastic snaps and the string breaks. This is part of the attraction; the element of survival of the fittest. And there is always the glorious possibility, the thrill, of being the last man or woman left on the motorbike. For those that get a taste for the mudguard there is also the excitement of racing.
“I stare at the bolt holding the mudguard to the frame of the derny. I have slipped into a meditative state in this vortex I am in, this pocket; tucked in behind the steady hum of the machine. I am not sure whether I am in the home or back straight. I have no idea how long I have been here.”
The drivers acknowledge that the world of derny pacing is weird and wonderful. Though they may not be the ones taking themselves to their physical limits, derny pacers are a special kind of animal with a psychology set for the pressure and responsibility, together with the tactical nous to make the right decisions at the right time. There is a deep passion and respect for the sport and for the riders, and the implicit connection that they all share creates a very special camaraderie between kindred spirits.
Outside of the sport Tony is a music producer and film extra. In the local pacing scene he is the rookie of the group. His bike is gold, matched by the rim of his aviator style sunglasses. He sports a ponytail and a casual air but Tony is quietly ambitious. The gold bike is an aspirational statement. The Velo Club de Londres derny is inherited from Colin Denman, one of the old guard with multiple National Championships to his name. Secretly Tony intends to earn a medal to match the shine on his bike. He practises hard and networks harder. “I am at the track most of the time during the summer, coaching the kids. That’s very rewarding. I also do the pacing sessions and am commissaire at Herne Hill track meetings.”
In a race Tony has a slightly agitated impatient style. He shifts about a bit as though he is uncomfortable; uncomfortable mostly because he can’t wait to let out the throttle. He looks over his shoulder frequently, spurring on the rider tucked in behind, leaving them hanging slightly, constantly edging, teasing out a little more pace. “I’m tempted to say it’s a spiritual thing,” says Tony, “an understanding between driver and rider. You race as one. There’s a closeness. Sometimes you can almost feel the rider breathing down your neck.”
For a brief period a couple of seasons ago Tony was my pacer. We rode the Nationals together but on the day I was a nervous wreck and underprepared and Tony was a little inexperienced. The bad omens were there from the start. The track was soaked by torrential rain all morning and there was a long tense wait before it was decided we were to go on. Then Tony’s derny wouldn’t start, as though the machine itself could sense that it wasn’t a good idea. When the race finally got underway we were shut down by an aggressive overtaking manoeuvre by another pairing, causing Tony to let go of the throttle and me to go hurtling past him, narrowly avoiding going straight in the back of the motorbike.
“I got muscled off by another team onto the côte d’azur which was covered in rain-sodden moss,” he says. “After that we were off the back.” It was Tony’s first race and there were rumblings that this was an initiation of sorts. We both were shaken, and on top of it all I didn’t have the legs.
We licked our wounds and in the gap that followed Tony found a new, younger and faster protégé. Committed pacers are highly prized and sought after, and so riders and pacers are always on the lookout for possible alliances. The partnerships that really work take time to develop and like any good marriage there has to be an unspoken understanding. As a rider you want to abdicate all decision making to your pacer, and as a pacer you need to know exactly what your rider has got and when to give it.
“In a rider you’re looking for enthusiasm, fitness and strength,” Tony explains, “someone who can handle staring at the mudguard of a derny going at great speed [55-70kph]. It’s a unique specialists’ discipline. Pure endurance.” It’s all about trust.
“My body is alert but relaxed and I have separated my mind from the pain in my legs, watching myself from outside myself. I am hypersensitive to the wind, overlapping to take shelter through a bend and slipping seamlessly behind as I come back into the straight. I make subtle adjustments to the pressure on the pedals, sucked along in this vacuum. I am waiting… Waiting for the call from my driver. He is waiting too, for the right time to go. The self talk starts… Relax… Be ready…”
Experienced pacer Graham Bristow has developed just such a partnership with multiple National derny medallist Janet Birkmyre. Birkmyre has a reputation for being tough and determined, and Graham admires her spirit and knows she will hang on when others would give up and let the bike go. He once told me about her first test run out, an audition process that involved progressively faster laps until Janet was at her limit. Just to test her mettle Graham added a few painful laps to the agreed number, leaving her out there those extra few to see how badly she wanted it. She dug in and held on and the seeds of a beautiful partnership were sown.
Graham is a professional will writer by day and his bike is black and sinister looking, a machine from the dark side. It has a sticker with the words: “Get on, hold on, shut up” on the mudguard, giving you something to ponder as you follow it into a semi-conscious effort induced oblivion. He is one of only a handful of British drivers who have raced ‘the big motors’, the stayers bikes popular in Europe where pacers stand and riders go at even faster speeds (80-85kph) tucked in behind on even stranger looking bicycles.
Like many immersed in cycling culture, the sport is in Graham’s blood. He raced as a younger man and brings that experience and knowledge about training and racing to his role as pacer. “I started pacing in the ‘90s and used to go to Leicester once a fortnight to ride the Triumphs, no dernys then, which had been a long time ambition because my father used to pace on the big motors. I was fascinated by watching anonymous black leather clad pacers astride identical machines pacing riders on funny bikes at incredible speeds.” This full costume of black leathers and a funny shaped helmet with ear guards finishes off the slightly fetishistic Darth Vader look that is part of the stayers’ dress code.
A quirkiness and eccentricity of dress and style is something you come to respect and understand if you get involved in the derny scene. Every driver’s bike and outfit is an expression of their personality and a symbolic statement of how they will drive. Graham: “I like to consider myself professional as a pacer in the sense that I try to be professional in my approach. This is why I bought my own derny. I invested in a new one so that I know it. I know if it needs anything doing to it. I keep it in good running order. I try to make sure that it looks as though I’m serious about being a pacer. If I am asked to pace, then I am there. Ready and kitted up.”
Other drivers have an altogether more exuberant look, but whatever the costume it’s their genuine passion that brings credibility in the face of the sometimes ridiculous. I can’t think of another sporting arena where it would it be cool for an overweight middle aged man to be riding a cherry pink motorbike, wearing Lycra.
Derek Marloe is another well-worn pacer heavily entrenched in the scene. Since the ‘90s, Derek, Graham and (now retired) fellow pacer Colin Denman have been instrumental in developing the UK cycling scene. The trio have taken talented junior riders, including Bradley Wiggins, to Europe to get a taste of racing on the continent. Operating outside of mainstream British Cycling and without any funding, it was the bloody mindedness and dedication of the trio that helped keep the sport alive in the UK. This element of being outsiders has perhaps driven the community closer together and getting ‘in the loop’ can take a bit of work. You have to earn the drivers’ respect.
In spite of the strong bond between the more experienced drivers, there is an equally strong competitive streak. I have heard each man subtly undermine the others in their struggle for supremacy. Since Colin’s retirement the local competition for top derny dog has become a two horse race. Graham explains: “Derek thinks he’s the best deny pacer in the country but he isn’t – I am. We are both well travelled with the dernys, but I’m the only one that’s done derny crits on the road in Holland, Belgium and France.”
Derek is a cool but sometimes controversial character who in recent years has been battling cancer [Derek sadly died in 2014 and the Derek Marloe Memorial Dernyfest is now held at Herne Hill in his honour.]
Ask the drivers what the attraction is and themes emerge. “The hustle and bustle of eight to 12 teams tearing round a velodrome. Riders eyeballs out and the smell of the two stroke.”
“It’s a combination of the noise, the speed, riders riding to the limit of their abilities.”
But there is also something more enigmatic about this cycling subculture that gives it that seductive, addictive quality. It is like a love affair that you know is going to hurt, but you can’t turn your back on. It is that chance of the perfect drive, the perfect ride, the perfect romance.
“As I reach peak speed my cadence is faster than under any other circumstances. Suddenly I am more gliding than pedalling, but I know this can’t last forever. Bodily sensations start to encroach on the mind state. Tension creeps in and there is the real danger of misjudging my distance from the bike and bumping into the mudguard. Now I call on my willpower, my responsibility to give it my best shot, my partnership with the driver. He is relying on me, and I am leaning on him. We are together in this. Hang on… Just hang on…”
Tony and Graham are among the derny pacers in action at Six Day London, 18th – 23rd October.
270 is an exercise professional and personal trainer who is also very good at chasing motorbikes.
Photographer Geoff Waugh loves the smell of two-stroke in the morning. His photo essay on dernys and their drivers first appeared in the 1 annual Volume 6.