By Jeff Jones
Anyone taking more than a passing interest in Six Day racing over the last few seasons may have noticed an American by the name of Basil Milsal regularly appearing near the top of the standings in the amateur events. In 2001/2002, he finished second overall in every event he raced in, and collected a number of first placings on individual nights. An impressive record that he hopes to improve on this coming season.
The amateur six days are usually raced in conjunction with the pro's, although they only race one or two events each night. Often they are titled the "Six Days of the Future" (pick preferred language) and serve as stepping stones to the lucrative professional circuit.
Basil Milsal is one of these next generation of six day specialists, and the 21 year old hopes to break into the pro scene soon, perhaps as early as 2002/2003. The first offer he gets "the answer is yes for sure. I could be sick with diphtheria and I would be there," the Californian enthuses in his very 'go for it' style.
He has the ability and the drive to get there, and this becomes apparent during the following interview with Cyclingnews.
After riding for a several years as a junior on the US track scene, Basil got to know US track coaches Roger Young and NoŽl Dejonckheere, the latter who is now in charge of the US U23 team. Through Dejonckheere, Milsal came in contact with the legendary Six Day rider and now promoter, Patrick Sercu.
Basil recalls his first interview with Sercu, who was a formidable character to someone so new to the scene. "He wanted to talk to me in the beginning - I was so freaked out."
But when he caught Sercu in the bathroom one time, "Then it was instantly relaxed. It was easy to talk to him after that," he chuckles. Now Basil's base is in Izegem, just down the road from Sercu's house.
This led to Basil's first ride in a Six Day race, in Gent in 1999. There he was partnered with another American, Brian Whitcomb, and the pair finished seventh overall in the amateur six, seven laps behind the winners Damien Pommereau and Roberto Sassonne, who were later to become World Champions in the madison.
At only 19 years old, spending three months in Belgium in winter is not the easiest of tasks. Many amateurs do not last long when they are away from home in a foreign country, but for Basil it defined his ambition - to race professionally as a Six Day rider.
In 2000, a bad crash during the season gave him concussion and doctors told him it would be a year before he could ride again. "I waited 8 months and started in April 2001," said Milsal. "I put my heart in it more than before."
"Patrick took a big chance on me this year. He put me with a couple of good partners (Britain's Dean Downing and Belgium's Iljo Keisse). It was originally planned that I would ride the whole season but it didn't really work out. He (Keisse) was foreign and I was from the USA, and they like to have national teams. He got to ride (and won) Zurich, I didn't."
Despite this, Milsal still managed second in Gent, Berlin, Stuttgart and Copenhagen. "I won a night in each of the sixes but I was second in all of them. I was really frustrated as I never felt like I got ridden away from. With two nights to go, I thought had a chance."
In madison pairs, it's common that one partner has the speed and the other the endurance. The quicker rider gets slung in for the sprints with one lap to go by his partner, who may have to do additional laps to ensure that the sprinter stays fresh.
"I totally consider myself an endurance rider," says Milsal. "But I have the speed to win the sprints in the points race. I'm not like Juan Llaneras who has a whole lot of strength but not a lot of speed. With Iljo it wasn't a problem at all. Either could be in for the sprint. "
Of course, this means it is also obvious to the other teams who to mark for the sprint laps. "In Berlin we rode in a foolish manner. I would set him up as well as I could. I would sprint with 3 laps to go, and throw him on the bell. I could do it for a while, but our tactic was obvious to the other teams. We had to learn how to sprint more conservatively and have reserves left in the race."
At the end of Berlin, they finished on the same lap but 13 points behind the German team of Leif Lampater and Christoph Meschenmoser. Chalk another one up to experience.
Each Six Day race is different, with the promoters using different combinations and durations of events to maintain variety. "Gent was about 45 mins a night and the last night was an hour [one event per night]. Berlin was two events a night, including one madison. We had one miss and out with both riders from 18 teams = 36 wild amateurs - it was fun! It definitely reminded me of my days a junior. Everyone wanted to kill each other!"
"Copenhagen was the same way. We had two days that were only 25 minutes. That really benefited the other team [Dimitri De Fauw/Wouter Van Mechelen]. He [De Fauw] races as if he's Eddy Merckx. He does foolish things and you can take advantage of that. We beat them in Gent and in Berlin but the races were too short in Copenhagen."
Another second place to Milsal and Keisse, this time 27 points behind the flying Belgians. You have to feel that a win is coming soon for the young American though.
In the meantime, he will be returning to Belgium in April for the road season with the USA U23 national road team, and that will make a big difference to his pre-track season preparation. "That's the biggest change over the winter. It came quickly and was unexpected," he said of his next appointment.
"It's different because from April until now I was only thinking about the Six Day series. All of a sudden I was at Copenhagen at the end of the season. I didn't know what to think. I'm having to shift to a new focus."
His program will include some "smaller kermesse racing" as well as some bigger races. "If they're flat I'm fine. It's the hills that get me. I put on some weight with my accident and I didn't really looking at trimming down. Now I'm in warm California I'll try to lose 5 kilos to get down to 75 [he's 188 cm tall]."
"April is a huge objective for me. I'm going to come to Belgium amped up. This time now I'm starting the races trying to win. Before I would very occasionally be in the final move, but have nothing left for the finish."
He hopes this will give him the necessary condition and exposure to make the US track world's team this year. "I'm hoping to," he says, adding that the US Cycling Federation has not really decided on a preliminary squad. "It's tough to make those decisions in the winter. They have a lot of obligations that they're really looking at. They're more federation involved than rider involved at the moment. That's good, that's what they should be doing now. Especially with new people."
"If I ride with one of the really good US guys that'd be great," he says of a potential selection, also with thoughts to the upcoming Olympic Games. "If I ride with one of the younger guys, then we'd be developing more for 2008 rather than 2004. It all comes down to the long view."
One of the 'good guys' for Basil is Marty Nothstein, a relatively recent convert to Six Day racing after a very successful career as a sprinter. "With Marty they're making steps in the right direction. It's a foot in the door for young American guys like me. Anything that he tells me I'll take as good advice. He's on the wheel, he's winning sprints and that's great."
An amateur Six rider doesn't attract anything like the money that the pro's do. There is some money for the overall win, some for each night, as well as a food and travel allowance. "It's not much - I'm no rock star. Any time now..."
But there is more to life than money, especially in the sport of cycling as Basil sums up. "I like every event that's on the track. As a junior I rode the sprints and the kilo. I like all the races where you get to hear the fans. I can wave to people I know. It's very entertaining."
There can be no doubt that Six Day fans will be seeing Basil Milsal waving in future years.
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