- - The Dying Derny: A Tribute to Peter Post

The Dying Derny: A Tribute to Peter Post

article by Graham Jones

The Antwerp Six

Twenty-one portly gentlemen dressed in loose-fitting cycle racing clothing slowly wheeled their machines onto the track, while the band played merrily on in the track center. Their sound was competing, but not winning, with the 18,000 raucous souls crammed into the packed stadium.  Suddenly the first machine, known as a Derny (which is a cross between a bicycle and a small motorbike), was kicked into life by its rider. The band played on as the crowd became perceptively quieter. In rapid succession, all 21 Dernys sprung into life. The noise in the enclosed stadium was incredible. The band gave up trying to compete as the air of high expectancy coursed through the crowd.

The Dernys now started to slowly circle the 250-meter banked wooden track. It was the largest of all indoor tracks used on the European six-day circuit. Each Derny rider with an impassioned face sitting bolted upright and with total confidence in his task, assumed a position in the long line now starting to accelerate around the track. For us in the crowd, the sound, although deafening, became strangely tolerable.

Now it was time for the stars of the show. Professional cyclists, lean, mean and looking formidably fit, started to leave their cabins in the track center and ride out onto the track. Immaculate shorts, jerseys and shiny black leather cycling shoes. Legs gleaming from freshly applied embrocation and sporting the contoured musculature of hardened professionals. Apparently not taking any notice of the now highly vocal public or even the other riders around them, each one entered into their own little zone of concentration as they got their legs back into action.

Signals from the trackside advised the Derny riders and racers that it was time to start and after a lap or two every cyclist was riding smoothly behind his Derny. The actual order of each Derny/racer was strictly pre-determined on a handicap basis. This order became very clear with the biggest stars at the back of the long line now circling the track.

The last man during this era was always Peter Post. He was a lanky Dutchman with a very distinctive style that oozed power. With his arms dead straight, he held his bike just fractions of an inch away from the fender of his Derny. In this discipline, he was in a class of his own. With multiple European Derny Championships, the Derny Hour Record and victories in major Derny races on the road few, if anyone, could beat Post behind the Derny.

Those immediately ahead of Post on the track that evening were no slouches. The start list included Rik Van Looy, Rik Van Steenbergen, Patrick Sercu, Jo De Roo, and a collection of equally famous track specialists.

SPECIAL NOTE: When it came to the sprint matches Patrick Sercu was incredible. He always seemed to manage to get his beaked nose over the line first and often from seemingly hopeless positions. Rik Van Steenbergen (Rik1), then in his 40’s and in the twilight of his illustrious career, was still a formidable force capable of winning frequently. Rik Van Looy(Rik2) was at the peak of his career and his adoring fans expected their ‘Emperor of Herentals’ to be a winner. He met those expectations with alarming frequency.

Now, riding line-astern, this awe-inspiring selection of professional cyclists and their Derny pacers seemed to float around the track as the starter’s pistol fired and a tumultuous roar from the crowd signaled the beginning of hostilities. At this point, the lead Derny was entering the finishing straight just as Post was about to leave it. The line occupied over three-quarters of a lap.

SPECIAL NOTE: Tom Simpson, Jacques Anquetil and a young Eddy Merckx also battled Post and the established six stars during those years. All were legends in their own time, having won Grand Tours classics and everything else of note between them. These were proud men with huge egos and exceptional cycle racing ability. These riders were not accustomed to playing second fiddle to anyone and as a consequence when riding against Post real battles were guaranteed.

Every five or six laps (after the first dozen) the last rider over the line was eliminated. It was a strange sight to see furious sprints taking place at the back of the bunch. This was a battle for the survival of the fittest. Watching Post and those big stars just ahead of him work their way through the field was sheer poetry in motion. Between them they seemed to decide on the next ‘sacrificial lamb’ and sure enough, no matter how he tried the chosen one would be last over the line and thus out of the race.

Perhaps most surprising, and certainly most entertaining, was to watch a Derny rider lead his charge high up on the banking and then swoop down with additional impetus to edge nearer to the front of the race. Watching carefully you could see the riders talking (loudly) to their Derny rider with instructions to accelerate and maneuver. One got the distinct impression that it was the Derny rider who was in charge. Whoever was calling the shots in any given pairing, it was the skill of the entire field that left you speechless. A slight mistake and disaster could strike. Yet there they all were riding at 50 km/h plus with barely the width of a finger between each rider and the rear wheel of his Derny. At the same time, everyone was moving up or down the line and up and down the banking making the Derny and rider combinations look like single units moving in complete unified harmony.

Slowly the field was getting smaller. Each elimination produced high-wattage boos or cheers from the crowd. When the really big names went it produced a noise so loud that even the Derny’s were drowned out.

Sercu was out. How could that be? Then Van Steenbergen. Unthinkable! Finally, only two riders were left, Rik Van

Looy and Peter Post.  Surely Van Looy, the only rider (then and still) to have won all nine conventional road classics as well as winning the World Road Championship was more than a match for Post the ‘King’ of the Derny race.

The crowd was beside itself with excitement and the resultant cacophony of sound was beyond description. Unbelievably, even those propping up the bar at the track center stopped drinking their beer to watch the action! Van Looy, the reigning Lion of Flanders, was the hero of Belgium and his supporters were clearly expressing themselves. But here in Antwerp, Holland being but a few kilometers distant away, Post did not lack in support either.

For the final showdown, there were 12 laps to sort things out. The wily Post and his skillful Derny pacer managed to get behind Van Looy’s wheel. With each lap the speed seemed to increase along with the roar from the crowd. Six to go and Van Looy is looking back trying to force Post forward. No go. Four to go and the speed and fluid skill of these great champions left you in awe. Three to go and it looks as though Post will do what he has done the entire race, simply slide by Van Looy in the final stretch.

Suddenly a Derny sputtered… It’s Post’s! A gap opens between Van Looy’s rear wheel and Post’s dying Derny. The crowd was in shock and did not seem to know how to react. Post on the other hand knows exactly what to do. He sprinted past his Derny and latched on to Van Looy’s rear wheel. Whatever level of decibels had been achieved thus far in the stadium now hit a whole new level.

Two laps to go and Post is neatly tucked in behind a “none too happy” Van Looy. However, to win Post would not only need to get ahead of Van Looy but also his Derny! Still riding with his arms locked dead straight and firmly grasping his drops, Post started to move up the outside of Van Looy while virtually rubbing elbows with him. This tactic ensured that it was impossible for Van Looy to move out from behind his Derny.

Now they were steaming into the final lap at over 60 km/h. Van Looy was still benefitting from his pacers draft while Post was out on his own treating the crowd to a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle! With less than half a lap to go Post put in an acceleration that defied reality. Van Looy tried to counter as he left the shelter of his Derny but Post gauged his effort to perfection and got his wheel ahead of Van Looy’s Derny on the line. The explosion of noise from the crowd all but lifted the roof off of the stadium.

The Antwerp Six was unique in that it featured three-man teams and the 250-meter track was by far the largest (most were in the 150-meter range). A six-day back then also meant that a rider from each team had to be on the track 24 hours/day for all six days. After the main show of the evening, the crowds would melt away and the nominated riders would settle into slowly cruising around the track while reading, munching on food, chatting to each other or simply staring blankly into space. Come morning there may be a flurry of activity as one or two teams try to ‘steal’ a lap. Known as a ‘jam’, these incidents could sometimes turn into outright battles and for the few die-hard spectators (like myself) who stayed all hours, a real connoisseur’s delight of racing would be served up. For the masses, the afternoon matinee and the evening program were where the major action took place.

Since that week in Antwerp, I have had my own racing career and been fortunate to have seen many of Europe’s great races. But nothing matches the memories of that Six. Peter Post was magnificent not only in the Derny races but he was also a master of the Pursuit and Madison races. When it came to the sprint matches Patrick Sercu was incredible. He always seemed to manage to get his beaked nose over the line first and often from seemingly hopeless positions. Van Steenbergen, then in his 40’s and in the twilight of his illustrious career, was still a formidable force capable of winning frequently. Van Looy was at the peak of his career and his adoring fans expected their ‘Emperor of Herentals’ to be a winner. He met those expectations with alarming frequency.

Perhaps less obvious to many was that these men were ‘professionals’. They rode to make money and they understood that winning, and especially winning in style, is what fed their bank balances. Races were fixed. Riders formed combines. Competitors were offered nice cash bonuses to ensure that ‘the big man’ looked to win with extraordinary effort and skill. Whether spontaneous or scripted, these professionals put on races that captivated those lucky enough to see them. Behind the scenes during the 1960’s Peter Post orchestrated what was known in track circles as ‘the blue train’. As he came to do in later years, he used his management skills to stage manage the racing and decide who gets what from the cash spoils. Lesser riders could make a great deal of money if they played the game!

To this day I do not know if Post’s dying Derny was real or engineered. The spectacle was unforgettable. News of it guaranteed that every night the six-day stadium would be full with thousands of paying fans eager to see more. If the incident was in fact orchestrated then it was a master stroke of showmanship. Either way, both Post and Van Looy benefitted for years to come from their new rivalry.

Whenever I see the raw statistics of a great riders’ palmares I always try to get past the cold numbers and imagine the champions during their greatest achievements. With the passing of Peter Post this month we have lost a truly great man and yet another link to those glorious days of the past. It seems that of late we have lost a whole slew of old champions. Each is recalled, usually with a string of statistics to emphasize, the significance of their racing achievements. The numbers tell a story but to have seen such men in action is truly something else.

Whenever I see the raw statistics of a great rider’s palmares I always try to get past the cold numbers and imagine the champions during their greatest achievements. With Post, I will always remember him behind the Derny. With Van Looy I remember watching him use his ‘Red Guard’ to annihilate the competition at a kermesse near Gent before taking the win from a furious sprint. How I would have loved to have seen Bahamontes or Gaul climbing to the clouds. Or Coppi and Bartali or Anquetil and Poulidor during their most brutal battles. Numbers yes, but it is the image of legendary riders at their absolute best in the heat of battle that feeds the soul.

Sadly the glory days of six-day races faded as professional cycling changed. In the past, professionals had to earn their money at races. Post, Van Steenbergen, Van Looy, Anquetil, Simpson, etc. could command significant appearance money to race a six, a local criterium, or any other event. By the 1980’s the fiscal model started to radically change as the primary income now became sourced from team contracts and endorsements. Racing anything and everything was no longer necessary. Appearance money became chump change. Win a classic or deliver a significant Grand Tour performance and a rider can now rapidly become financially secure without spending 200-plus days per year racing.

The Antwerp Sportspalais

I remember the Antwerp Sportspalais as a dark and dingy place with the exception of the track itself which radiated with light. It became inevitable that the annual six-day cycle race and a few other events each year could not sustain the place. During the 90’s new owner investors refitted the huge structure to bring the old stadium into the 21st Century. Unfortunately cycling is no longer featured. The new target audience was concert fans and everybody from Pink Floyd to Lady Gaga has appeared there.

The old wooden track now lies silently beneath the new stands built to accommodate the concert audiences. I am willing to bet that no concert has managed to match the decibel level that erupted during that long-ago Post/Van Looy battle. Maybe one day the track will awake from its slumber and be restored to its former glory and a new generation of great cyclists will thrill countless fans. Nothing wrong with dreaming!

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