The last time the Skol 6 was held in London in 1980, Maurice Burton was in action, lapping the vertiginous 160m track night after night, entertaining the crowd alongside the likes of the great Patrick Sercu, the prolific Australian pairing of Don Allen and Danny Clark, and home stars Tony Doyle and Ian Hallam.
Two years previously, I’d been there at the Empire Pool, Wembley, witnessing my first Six Day race as a wide-eyed kid from the West Country enjoying a rare night out in the big city. Yet I don’t recall seeing Burton, or any of the other big names on the bill, for that matter.
It was Willy Debosscher who stuck in my mind. Debosscher was, for want of a better word, a clown. A perfectly decent rider when it came to the serious races of the evening, the Belgian came into his own during the Devil.
As any track rider will tell you, the safest place during the elimination race is near the front – not on the front, wasting energy, but second or third wheel – away from the scrabbling and jostling for position at the back, but taking shelter and sitting comfortably ready for the final lap dash to the line.
Debosscher, whistle in mouth, would dangle off the back, surge through a seemingly impossible gap at the last second, then cross the line no-handed, pointing towards the eliminated rider whilst blowing his whistle furiously.
Willy made his clowning around look easy. It most definitely was not. And it was great entertainment, which is what Six Day racing is all about.
As a schoolboy and aspiring track rider, Maurice Burton’s introduction to Six Day racing was also at the Skol event, sat in the stands a few years before me, with Peter Post, Patrick Sercu and Tony Gowland providing the thrills and spills.
“I knew I wanted to do it but didn’t know how,” says Maurice now. The south Londoner moved to Belgium as a young man and threw himself into the winter track circuit, becoming an established name on the Continent – racing against Sercu, rather than watching him from the stands.
And now, 35 years after that final Skol 6, in a delicious and apt full circle, Maurice gets to sit in the stands in London once more and see his son Germain entertain the crowd.
Inspiration and Perspiration
Maurice remembers the first cycling magazine he ever bought, having watched the Good Friday track meet at Herne Hill: International Cycle Sport, Jock Wadley’s groundbreaking publication that in large part provided the inspiration to launch Rouleur.
“Roger de Vlaeminck was on the front cover, sitting on the bonnet of a Flandria team car,” Maurice recalls. “Peter Post was inside the magazine in a feature and he was being massaged by Gus Naessens.
“I looked at this and read about these people, and it wasn’t long after that I was racing with these guys and that soigneur was working for me.”
Maurice had started as a pure track sprinter, travelling the World Cup circuit in the company of Australian world champion John Nicholson – the old hand providing advice and encouragement to the youngster along the way. “I learnt to drive going from London to Copenhagen. And I’ve never had another driving lesson since,” says Maurice with pride.
The next break for the aspiring trackie came from the promoter of the amateur races in Ghent. Oscar Daemers was a committed Anglophile who had been a big fan of Tom Simpson. He also gave Maurice a leg-up into the world of Six Day racing.
“He took a liking to me. I remember the last track meeting in February, Oscar said he was going to give me a present. There were two races that day, so Oscar put all the good riders in one race and all the lousy ones in with me! That’s what he meant by a present. Of course, I won it.”
Another year in the amateur ranks and then Maurice took the plunge and turned professional in 1977, breaking into a tight-knit band of travelling performers by starting in Ghent paired with Kiwi Paul Medhurst. “We weren’t going to win overall but we got the green jerseys for points leaders,” says Maurice.
“The promoters like to see you make an effort for the money, make a show, so that’s what we did. It wasn’t easy, but the first winter I rode seven Sixes, which made life easier for me – I could buy a car. We could earn in a week what a road rider would get for a month.”
The top piece of advice offered by the Belgian manager with over 200 track riders on his books? “Keep your bags packed. If a rider pulled out at the last minute because they were injured, you might be the one to go in his place
“What cracked it for me was riding Berlin in place of a rider who had withdrawn. We finished three laps down, which was pretty good. The manager came up to me straight afterwards and I signed ten contracts, just like that. And I rode 16 Six Days that winter.”
Twice Maurice made the front page of Cycling Weekly following his appearances at the last three editions of the Skol 6, the framed covers proudly displayed at De Ver, the Streatham bike shop the Burton family runs following Maurice’s premature retirement at the age of 28 after a bad crash in Argentina.
“I never won it though,” he says, with a hint of regret. “In fact, I have never won a Six Day. The older riders controlled it.”
It’s a shame Maurice never got to be one of the “older riders” and enjoy more time in the spotlight. He’d have surely won a hatful of Six Day races to go alongside his three national track titles taken before turning professional.
A Grand Day Out
Now the spotlight is on son Germain, who first burst onto the racing scene as a small and skinny 15-year-old, winning the Bec CC hill climb and snatching the £1,000 first prize from under the noses of some of the best in the country.
“I knew exactly what I was doing when I put him in that race,” says Maurice, who was careful to nurture his son’s undoubted talent and ensure he left his options open as a schoolboy before joining the British Cycling finishing school in Manchester. Enjoying riding the bike comes first, and it was road racing where Germain first shone – making it all the more enjoyable.
“He had some good results on the road as a junior,” says Burton senior. “It’s been a good start for him, but he’s still got a long way to go.”
For now, it’s the track that dominates Germain’s racing and training. Judging by his performance as part of the gold medal-winning GB team pursuit squad at the Euros in Athens this summer, the work is paying off. Success on the boards makes for a happy cyclist. Road racing can wait.
“The track has been good for him after all. We didn’t think he was heading down that path, but…”
You get the feeling Maurice, without steering his boy towards the velodrome – not wanting to play the “pushy parent” – is quietly rather pleased how things have turned out. The wheel has turned full circle for the Burtons, from a Six Day perspective.
Any advice to proffer his son? “I told him that when he takes a lap, look for a wheel.” And how does Maurice think Germain will cope with six days of flat-out racing? Genetics go a long way, he reckons, referencing the spritely Jamaican gentleman I have just met in the adjoining room.
“Look at my dad: he’s 96. Physically, you need to have that strength to do it, day in, day out.”
I leave De Ver cycles and wander up Streatham High Road, in disbelief that the man inside is 96 years of age. His grandson will be just fine at Six Day London, don’t you worry. They are made of strong stuff, these Burtons.
Six Day London runs from October 18th to 23rd at Lea Valley Velopark