The magic of the six days, building houses, and learning to live for someone else : an interview with Guy East

I spoke with Guy East in Amsterdam (I know, this post comes late, but better late than never), while he was getting a massage from veteran soigneur Angus. Eventually, Angus started to chime in.

How are you enjoying Amsterdam? Do you get the chance to see the city, or is this only a business trip?

Guy: Actually, I’m one of the odd ones, I’m more adventurous and I actually explore the city and stuff like that, and try to know where I’m at. I come over, normally, a day or two early and I spend the first day with friends in another part of the country, and also tour around the city. It’s too pretty not to, it kinda stinks just to be cooped up in a hotel room, especially when it’s such a beautiful city. On a [rainy] day like today, you don’t want to go out, but some days I’ll sneak out before the racing, cruise around.

Especially because your wife is here as well, it’s great that you two can do that. How does she feel about this?

Guy: She likes it, she comes with me most of the time, because it’s hard to be away, you know? If she didn’t travel with me, I don’t think I’d be that motivated to keep going. She loves coming over, and seeing the world too.

And she really gets to enjoy the city in the mornings, no? She doesn’t have to — well, she might go for a massage, but it’s not for work.

Guy: We go to bed late, though, so we wake up late, but she’s going to go into town tomorrow, so she has more fun.

I heard that you also build homes in Mexico, that’s cool.

Guy: We live town there, just south of San Diego, near the Mexican border, I’ve been down there for three years. I had first raced for Lance and his team, and had raced and lived over here for four years, in Belgium, with the US National team. I started doing amateur six-day races in 2007. They wanted to prepare me for the Olympics, and in 2009 I rode through Mexico City — they took the Madison out of the Olympics, so I was pretty discouraged — and then I was riding through the city and I saw all of this poverty. I was like, what’s the point? What am I doing with my life, traveling around the world racing to a line that’s painted on the road when there’s so many other, more critical issues going on?

And so, shortly after that, I stopped. And I stopped for two years, I sold everything I owned, and I just had a backpack’s worth of stuff, for almost two years. I traveled around Latin America and stuff. And it was pretty cool, and during that time, though, I realized — our house also burnt down, that’s also a big life-changing experience — but during that time I realized I still like bike racing. And I can do it with a greater purpose. I don’t just have to be identified as a bike racer, I want to be a bike racer and also to help other athletes live with greater purposes themselves, because I know what they’re going through. It’s a hard thing, when your identity is only in one thing.

So part of that is, we bring professional athletes down, and they get to experience what it’s like to live for someone else. Because we live our whole lives just for ourselves, you know, eating right, just for us, training right, just for us, traveling, everything’s all about you. Which is good, to a certain extent, you have to have that mentality, but sooner or later your sport’s going to end, your career’s going to end, or you’re going to get married or something, and you realize: it’s not all about me. And it’s a really hard adjustment to make, and people don’t necessarily do it right. And also, there’s so many broken relationships all throughout sports and stuff,  and it’s like, if we focus a little bit more on the emotional side, on the human side of who we are, then they’ll be better athletes because they’ll be happier, because they’re not divorcing their families or… so that’s kind of the focus that I’m taking with that. Right after this race we have a bunch of pro athletes coming to build a home in November, from auto racing to cycling to rugby to speed skating.

Why’d you move to Mexico?

Guy: Pretty much because of that, to do that. I moved to Mexico and then I was like, I want to start racing again. I like it, and I train a lot in San Diego, I train a lot in the US, so it’s pretty easy, it’s pretty chill.

You just stick your passport in your jersey pocket?

Guy: Yeah, it’s easy to cross.

Is this all the good work you got going on, for the moment? I mean, it’s a big project…

Guy: Yeah, it’s a lot. Also, bringing professional teams down, so they use it as a team-building opportunity, just organizing all that stuff. I raise all the money so the athletes can come, which is a lot of money, for every house we build I have to raise $20,000. And so there’s a lot of work involved with that, it’s practically a full-time job. I’m also trying to start a high-level amateur cycling team, a Mexican-American team, with a couple hundred thousand-dollar budget. So I’ve got… my wife’s pregnant, I do a lot of stuff, and I like having all this stuff going on and it kind of helps me… I wouldn’t just want to be a bike rider, and I just wouldn’t want to work on the charity stuff, or whatever, so it’s good.

Is there an exit strategy? Or are you never going to quit racing?

Guy: Nah, I’m gonna quit, I’m at the point where I could just stop whenever and totally be fine. And I think that’s a good place to be, you know, because you’re confident where you’re at and I’m not tied down to it. Some people stay in it out of fear, because they don’t know what they’re going to do, I think it would be hard to transition out of it but when I’m done I don’t know exactly but I would find something. I would find something pretty quick, there’s a lot going on.

But I just do the six days, pretty much, all the other guys are doing all kinds of big road races and stuff, which is pretty cool, and I probably should do a little bit more; I would like to and I would probably come here a little bit more prepared. But for the lack of racing that I do, I think that I come here with a fairly decent level. But I just like the six days, it’s something really cool and special, and Angus’ll tell you that they’ve changed so much over the years, but this one is special. They’re all special in their own way, this one isn’t a huge party, but you go to Berlin and it’s a huge party, you go to Ghent and it’s a big party, they all have their own little specialities.

Yeah, in Grenoble there’s acrobats!

Guy: Yeah, Grenoble’s super cool, that’s one of our favorites.

I don’t have to tell anyone else about your opinions on this, but do you have a ranking? What’s your favorite?

Guy: Well, I haven’t done Ghent — well, I did Ghent as an amateur, but — there’s something… Grenoble was my first pro 6-day and it so fun, and that track is fun, so I think Grenoble is one of my favorites…

I’m going on Thursday.

Guy: Oh yeah? It starts Thursday?

Angus: You have to say hello to Biondi and Thévenet, they’re two sport directors.

Guy: The sport director for AG2R, and Thévenet, he won the Tour de France twice.

Angus: You have to say hello from Angus, I was supposed to be going there, and then this showed up [laughs].

An offer you couldn’t refuse?

Angus: This is six days, that’s three days now, and just from here it’s 1.000 kilometres.

Guy: Grenoble is cool, the town and everything is cool, where you’re at in the Alps and whatever, but it’s — well, maybe if I had a contract to go there — but I can’t justify going to a three- or four-day race all the way from the U.S. A six-day race, it’s cool, and I like the stats, how many starts you have, stuff like that, I kind of chase that a little bit.

Angus: Me too, eh?

Guy: I think I’ve done…

Angus: 31 times in Grenoble, eh?

Guy: He’s done 400 six-day races, right? 400?

Angus: Nearly.

Guy: This’ll be, what, 396 or something?

Angus: Something like that, yeah

Guy: So I’ve only done 14 of those. But he’s been with me all the winter ones, at least, so that’s fun.

Are you coming over for anything else this year?

Guy: Um, I think we’ll do more, it just kind of falls into your lap, we’ll get quite a few, I think, like we did last year. Berlin, Copenhagen, Rotterdam, I’m sure. We got some sponsors who like seeing us over here, so they help us out. The Island 200 [track], they’re the sponsor for us here. All the teams have their own sponsors and our guy is American so he wants to have an American team, so it’s almost like a guaranteed start.

But when’s he going to tell you? Christmas Eve?

Guy: Sometimes. We found out about this one at the end of September.

Yikes.

Guy: Same thing for last year, too, but yeah, I would assume Rotterdam, maybe Bremen, Berlin, Copenhagen. That would be our goal, I think. Yeah, pretty fun. Rotterdam’s cool. This one’s fun, too, cuz it’s quaint and stuff, you know?

Yeah, they built a track in a warehouse?

Guy: But it’s a pretty prestigious six days, don’t you think, Angus?

Angus: Yeah, well it’s quite new, is the thing, the first one was in 2001, from the 60s. Last one [before that] was ’69, I think, but this is the way to build velodromes: it’s what they really have to start thinking about in the States. One of my friends was a six-day rider, then a promoter, and then he built tracks all over the world. Really what you need is not an Olympic track, you need a 200m velodrome inside a factory, because of the costs: you can get one for £300.000, so you put these in the towns, then you get the kids going on it, then you get good riders. It’s the way you have to do it. To build an Olympic velodrome, it’s too much money.

Guy: Yeah, you look at track cycling, honestly, and you look at how… I’m just thinking, if you want to sponsor a velodrome, like the LA velodrome, for example, it’s going to cost you like $30.000 per year, or more, just for a little logo. And then, during the UCI races, you’re not even allowed to have those logos up. And if you’re doing the World Cups and stuff, you can’t even show your own personal logos and sponsors if you’re a rider, you have to show your country.

Angus: It’s not allowed.

Guy: It’s not allowed, so it’s not a profitable business model for track cycling. The only one making money out of it is the UCI, right? Well, the six days do actually have a — I don’t know if it’s scaleable, but it’s more or less a successful business model, and it’s the only track event that’s doing that. Maybe there’s a couple in South America, but… six days are special, they’re actually an effective business model, which is extremely important.

Angus: In the old days, most had a big sponsor, which was normally a beer company, and then you had all of the little sponsors for the teams and things. It was good advertising, because people would come, but like Guy says, for the UCI events and everything, there’s a famous velodrome in Britain. And the biggest British soft-drinks company wanted to put advertising on, and they wouldn’t let them, because they wanted to have World Cups. And these guys, I know them because it’s from Scotland, and they were just like, ‘we want to give them half a million, and they don’t want it.’ But if they put the advertising on the track, like you see here, they have to take it off every time they have a World Cup event or a UCI event. It’s the way the sport develops: the international federation is in control of everything, so all the money has to go through them, you know? It’s difficult. But, in saying that, it’s almost the same as every other sport. You know, Formula 1, football, it’s all the same.

Guy: Anyway, it’s just interesting, they actually generate income.

Angus: And when beer companies were still around, you could tell which town you were in by the beer. You know? In Stuttgart it was Stuttgarter beer, in Bremen it’s Beck’s, in Berlin it’s Schultheiss, you know when I was young and starting, that’s how you knew where you were.

Guy: In general, man, I just think the six days are so cool. The tradition, the racing style is so different, it’s sport as entertainment, which I like because I feel like athletes are entertainers, and these guys, they know they’re entertainers, but it’s really still hard racing. We don’t take ourselves too seriously, for the most part.

But it’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s a thrill, I think if you go to a matinée show, you know the storyline for the most part. If you go to Beauty and the Beast, or whatever, you don’t go because you’re going to be surprised at the ending, but you go because it’s a beautiful show. It’s a cool story, and it’s professionally done and it’s entertainment. And it’s a similar thing with the six days, it’s like, yeah, you probably know who’s going to win, and the guy who’s going to win, they deserve to win anyway, because they’re the fastest guys on the track, but there’s some choreography, you know, so I think if you relate it to that, it brings a little more clarity to what they’re like. But to say that they’re fixed, or anything, isn’t an accurate description.

Angus: It’s a show with three battles going on. The guys for first, then the middle guys, then the little guys at the back, they’re always fighting with each other for points and places, there’s always something, somewhere, to watch.

One thing is the overall, but I really love that there’s keirin in the middle, and the miss n’ out…

Angus: It’s not even that. In the Madison, there’s three fights going on, the lead guys, the middle guys, and the back guys, because nobody wants to be the last of their group, so there’s always something to watch, that’s what’s actually good about it. And also, the variation of the different events. Here, there’s not a big program, there’s not a big variation, but in most races they have a lap record, and a 500m record, and you have different dernies, here they put in keirin, there’s always something different for the public to watch. And, like Guy says, that’s important. If you don’t put on a show, people don’t come in.

Guy: I think that’s probably actually okay to include [in your interview], if you’re going to take it that direction, it’s cool, people don’t understand: ‘ah, it’s all fixed, it’s so boring’…

Angus: Ed says to me, that’s fine, it’s all fixed, but riding at 54k per hour. Can you do that? How can you? It’s like Guy says, you can probably tell that there’s three teams up there, and probably one of them is going to win because they’re just the best, you know, but anything can happen.

And how do you feel about being on stage for a week straight?

Guy: It’s cool, I like it, I think it’s fun. What exhausts me a little bit is the loud atmosphere on the track. It’s not horrible here, but in Berlin, oh my gosh, you’re up there for six hours and there’s loud music the whole time and it’s just like, I wanna die right now.

Angus: Your brain hurts.

Guy: I can’t do this any more… after the first couple hours on the first day, you’re just like, it’s too much.

Angus: And you try to speak to each other, and it’s like, eh?

Guy: Rotterdam’s like that too…

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