The men's Elimination race during round 2 of the second UCI Track Champions League in Berlin, led by defending Endurance league leader Mark Stewart (GB) with eventual winner Dylan Bibic (Canada) on his wheel.

‘What I saw’ at the UCI Track Champions League in Berlin

A firsthand account of one night in Berlin’s ‘UFO’ velodrome for round two of the UCI Track Champions League.

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Berlin is a city that has undergone more regeneration than most. It retains and acknowledges its storied past but moves beyond it, powered by resilience and energised by change.

Though its history is everywhere, modern Berlin felt young and vibrant to me. Even the more run-down districts and landmarks that some might label ‘sad’ have a sense of determination about them, and it’s never more obvious than on the graffitied remains of the Wall.

Photo-taking opportunities were kept to a minimum to preserve the feeling in my digits, but this is one of the many sights deemed worthy of some small discomfort – the East Side Gallery, the longest surviving section of the Berlin Wall located alongside the Spree river.

Even on an alarmingly cold weekend that welcomed the first snow of winter and dropped a grey veil over the sprawling metropolis, Berlin felt very much alive. This makes the city the perfect calling station for the UCI Track Champions League, a novel exhibition of a sport that is constantly evolving.

I went to the Berlin round of the Track Champions League with a particular passage of literature in mind, one I stumbled upon a couple of years ago in a collection of essays by Joseph Roth, the Austrian writer and journalist who lived in Berlin in the early twenties.

Roth’s essays are formalised people-watching. In his ‘What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-33’, he describes a homeless trumpeter on the Kurfürstendamm, one man’s inexplicable purchase of “the last of Berlin’s panopticums” (waxwork figures), teenage girls wandering through avenues of birch trees in Schiller Park, humanity’s feeble supporting role amid the “living organism” of a futuristic railway junction…

In January 1925, Roth got a taste of the 12th Berlin Six Day races, navigating the immense throng to seat himself among the hyper-enthusiastic families and sport fans in the old stadium, food, drink and even pets in tow.

I don’t know Roth’s material or background quite well enough to be able to comment on his interest in sport or athletics more broadly, so whether his thoughts on track racing are unique to the discipline or endemic to an unsporting character, it’s hard to say. But I think you’ll agree, he was more interested in the atmosphere than in the racing unfolding before him.

As I write, the eager cyclists have already covered more than eight hundred miles, without having gone anywhere. They don’t even want to go anywhere! They go around and around the same track, which is two hundred meters long and a million meters boring.… If I stayed here, my face would get to look like the megaphone by which the crowd in this madhouse is from time to time fed bits of information. Astonishing, really, that they still look human. They ought to look like megaphones, like screams, like brutal desires, like beery ecstasies, like bicycles, like blind wants, like decadent barbarism… They still look human, even at the end of six days of racing, or of watching the races. On the sixth day God created man, so that man might race for six days. It was worth it.”

From ‘The Twelfth Berlin Six-Day Races’ (1925) by Joseph Roth in ‘What I Saw’
Riders wait to get underway at the 1928 Six Days of Berlin. The venue is the Sportpalast, a huge multi-purpose indoor facility that would become infamous for a very different kind of spectacle at the hands of the Nazi party in the years that followed. The building was heavily damaged during the war but was rebuilt, surviving until 1973 when it was torn down to make way for a housing development.

The Track Champions League is not a Six Day event, far from it. Now in its second year, the UCI’s new track series was conceived with the key objective of drawing new fans into the sport with its shortened format. That’s certainly what comes across on the GCN/Eurosport/Discovery TV coverage, but it’s a different story in the venue itself.

Like Roth’s experience a little under a century ago, the Velodrom Berlin – apparently, and understandably, nicknamed the ‘UFO’ for its appearance as a huge disc that’s sunk into the earth – was full of atmosphere on Saturday night, one that is carefully curated by the event organisers, a huge part of the TCL’s appeal. I can only assume that a lot of that intent comes out of track racing’s historic connection with decadent, festive, beery ecstasy.

After a rushed and snowy walk from my hotel, I arrived at the velodrome a little before the first punters were allowed inside and was given a preview of the fizzing electricity that was already palpable from the infield. Riders buzzed around my head as they warmed up on the steeply banked track, their shoulders juddering with every pump of their piston legs; the whole spectrum of athletic preparation was in evidence as some laughed and jabbed at their friends, rivals and compatriots, while others kept a silent, steely-eyed vigil inside their bowling-ball helmets.

The arrival of the night’s crowd raised both the volume and intensity as families, cycling clubs and enthusiasts took their seats, the smell of beer and currywurst beating back the curious gingerbread scent I’m sure I noticed on entry.

This crowd was no match for Roth’s: the conscientious housewife who unwrapped a pungent lump of cheese, the policemen dangling from pillars shoulder to shoulder with pickpockets, the ‘acoustic tragedy’ of a reeling and rambling drunkard, a crying young girl out past her bedtime. Ours was not as big as Roth’s either – “faces, faces, faces. The rows like shelves, head is pressed alongside head, like the spines of books in a great library” – but what it lacked in number was made up for in its energy, becoming one with each other, the space, and the riders who earned their unwavering support.

By seven o’clock, the music had reached its maximum volume and the lights swung around the venue, ramping up the excitement under the Velodrom’s low ceiling as the last riders finished their warm-ups.

Then the lights fell to black and the countdown began.

The beginning of the opening light show, which was honestly – and you’ll have to excuse the hyperbole – a heart-thumping, adrenaline-pumping, spine-tingling spectacle; the projected graphics and videos that swung around the track were awe-inspiring, and the sound was reminiscent of a dangerously loud IMAX screening of a tentpole Hollywood movie (my ears continued ringing into the following morning). All the ingredients needed to energise a crowd, and indeed the racers.

This is where Roth would allow his mind and his gaze to wander from the riders to the crowd, or to the dozing chauffeurs and taxi drivers idling outside. But this is where we diverge. 

As the racing got underway and swirled around us for three exhausting hours, my thoughts turned to the city beyond the velodrome’s otherworldly walls. And the more I thought about the determination of Berlin’s continuing regeneration, the more it twisted together with the stories unfolding on the track.

‘Regeneration’ implies some kind of failure or damage, and, like so many of our favourite sporting comeback stories, this was most certainly in evidence on Saturday night. 

I cannot leave out 2021 Endurance champion Katie Archibald who had a spectacular night, winning both events after her shock early knockout in last week’s Elimination, not to mention what she suffered this summer with the untimely death of her partner, but the standout story in the concentrated environment of this weekend unfurled around the young Canadian Dylan Bibic.

A heavy crash during the Scratch race – the event in which he took a surprise, history-making victory at his first elite World Championships last month – left Bibic limping and wincing noticeably as he returned to the infield, even later in the evening when the pack gathered for the Elimination race, the Canadian having swapped his written-off rainbow skinsuit for his national colours.

I watched from a few feet away as the 19-year-old stepped slowly to the barrier that separated riders from media to join the back of the queue. He still looked in some considerable discomfort as he muttered something darkly to the helper holding his bike, then perched himself on the top tube for a handful of seconds until the bunch was directed onto the track.

And then he won. 

Bibic rode invisibly for the duration of the race – a perfect game plan for ‘the devil’ – until the last few laps when he soared to victory over Britain’s William Perrett, with Mathias Guillemette, also a son of Canada, in third, meaning he took over the turquoise leader’s jersey.

When Bibic finally descended from the track, after one of the more muted celebratory laps of the night, he sidled slowly over to the winner’s interview booth and took a perch once more, his shoulders sagging and a thousand-yard stare boring holes through the air before him.

Relief poured from his mouth as he gulped in oxygen, looking far older than his tender 19 years. Then a camera and microphone pulled him out of his lonely reverie and he delivered a straightforward, no-nonsense assessment of a good night’s work.

The crash was behind him. Bibic had learned, rallied, built upon his misfortune, and defied the odds to make a statement on the boards.

And on Saturday 26th, he and his 71 fellow racers will do it all again.

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