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  • 29.09.15

    Six Day London: Chasing Motorbikes

    "Get on, hold on, shut up." The mudguard sticker on Graham Bristow's derny tells you pretty much all you need to know. Jo McRae fills you in on the rest 

    Words
    Jo McRae
    Photographs
    Geoff Waugh

“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.

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