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If there’s a rider more closely associated with a city than Iljo Keisse is with Gent then I can’t think of it. Born and bred in the capital of East Flanders, raised on the boards of the Blaarmeersen velodrome, the Gentenaars love him and he loves them. Iljo's dad, Ronie Keisse owns the legendary Café de Karper, a favourite student haunt in Gent, just a five minute walk from the Kuipke and the only place to be on a November Sunday evening when the Six Day finishes, so we sat down with Ronie on the Monday morning after the Six to discuss the life and times of his boy, one of the very last real ‘vedettes’ – star Six Day men.
On the track Ollie Wood has been a consistent top performer with national team pursuit and scratch titles to his name as a junior in 2014. In 2015 he again was in the winning team at national level and added the European U23 team pursuit title. Last year he was on the European podium in both the U23 and Elite team pursuit competitions – bronze on both occasions. And this season saw gold in the Manchester World Cup team pursuit. We caught up with the now 22 year-old – his birthday was the week after the Gent Six Day finished – to discuss his 2017 season and his plans for 2018 and beyond.
Historically cold, wet wintery nights meant just one thing in cycling, Six Day racing. In recent years that has really only meant the ‘Zesdaagse Vlaanderen-Gent’ (Six Days of Flanders-Ghent). This great race has continued to be successful during years when many of the other ‘classic’ Six Day races of Europe left their buildings, literally, for the last time to drift into cycling history.
Sunday starts with the climax of the under 23 Six the AVS Cup. Not long ago I would have struggled to believe that home grown Scottish talent would be riding Gent but with Mark Stewart in the elite event and Andy Brown and Grant Martin in the U23 this is a Scottish success story.
Coming to Gent to watch the Six Day, as I have for 20 years, is like meeting up with an old friend, a friend you see just once a year but when you meet you are familiar and easy in each others company. Most familiar is the velodrome, Het Kuipke that hosts the Six Days which has, barring a few upgrades in the bar areas, changed very little during the time I’ve been coming.
Ed and pals spent a few days at the Gent Six Day, catching up with the racing and old friends, and taking in the world cup cycle-cross race at Hasselt as well - but before we consider the racing at the track we have to think about the entertainment; whilst Belgium is a modern country and advance technologically we still marvel at the track-side entertainment; it’s like stepping back to a miners’ welfare in the 70’s – but the crowd loves it - and so do we...
I remember once, after the last chase in a Six Day I asked Dirk, our Belgian mechanic; ‘was that finale ‘straight’ Dirk?' He fixed me with a patient stare, much as a good parent would do after their child has said something silly, ‘have you ever seen a ‘straight’ Six Day, Ed?’ I took his point, they’re all pretty much choreographed – but like I keep saying, you have to be able to take laps out of a string riding at 52-53 kph to win. But I reckon that on Sunday evening I did see a straight finale.
A pictorial summary of the Gent Six Day and our trip to the Koksijde Cyclocross race in the beach dunes of Flanders. At the track, it took me back to the days when I stood on the apron, bottles at the ready for Kris to hand up – but not too much in them so they don’t splash when the rider grabs them - just taking in the speed, noise, music, heat, people and that Gent buzz - high as a kite on the Gent Six Days.
It’s Lombardia and the Trossachs today; that means just one thing – it’s almost time for the Six Days. It looks like VeloVeritas won’t be emptying any ‘you know what’ pails this year – but you never know . . . We will be at Gent, however – my liver gave a twinge just there – as fans. De Karper, The Hotel Adoma, Bar Vivaldi, the ‘cross up at Koksijde – I can’t help but smile at the thought. But we thought that you might like to hear what it was like to be a six day runner back in a time when the sixes meant more than they do now. The big road stars were in action and it was full houses all across Europe – particularly in Germany. John Purser is the man’s name and here’s his tale.
Snapshots from the Gent Six Day 2012, as we roam around the city and spend time with the winners in the bar. On Sunday it was a steam train – the sound took me back to when I was a boy, and it was nicer than Dave’s snoring. A centre for the Art Nouveaux movement, rich industrialists commissioned the ‘hot’ architects of the day to make sure the world knew that they had taste – and money. If you look up as you walk around the city, your eyes will be rewarded.
Dave and I saw our first Six Day in 1973, the Skol sponsored London Six Day - Sercu, Pijnen, Duyndam, Van Lancker . . . This is Callum's first trip to the Kuipke but Stuart's umpteenth. The Adoma has been our base for years - it's a great jump off for Het Nieuwsblad, Gent-Wevelgem and the Koksijde 'cross.
Here in Gent Friday night has always been the big night of the Six. It's not just about the beer, it’s about the cycling and fans of all ages bring the wife or girlfriend to what is for all concerned a big night out. A number of the revellers are ex-riders many of whom no doubt spend the night reminiscing on their time pedalling around the hollowed boards of Het Kuipke.
Contributor Steve Penny summarises the action for us from Het Kuipke (the little oval) last night, as we reach the halfway point in the Gent Six Day. The crowds filed into Het Kuipke in the thousands to meet friends, drink a beer or two and watch the 72nd Gent Six as it approached the all important weekend. Before the racing started it was announced that Wim Stroetinga was out of the race – for now - with a stomach problem. This would explain why he and partner Peter Schep had not been scoring many points over the first two nights.
Englishman Steve Penny is a long time track enthusiast and writer - this will be his 17th consecutive edition of Flanders' mythical Six Day. Here's his take on the 72nd edition of what is now unquestionably the hardest six day race on the calendar. VeloVeritas will be there for Sunday afternoon's Grand Finale. Champions of the World, or The Prodigal Son - that's the question which can only be answered on the steep bankings of the Kuipke velodrome.'
Whether it's a great edition of the Gent Six Days or not, it's still quite an experience to walk up through the tunnel for the first time. Especially if the Dernys are up on the track droning out their monotonous tune, there's the buzz of a thousand conversations, the lights, the throng, the smell of beer, the renners flashing around the bankings, the people piled high up to the roof in the corners - We love it !
It's Monday morning, I'm sitting in some horrible 'theme' bar at Charleroi Airport. My flight home to Edinburgh is cancelled due to the snow in Auld Scotia and the best I could wangle was Charleroi to Dublin, tonight then Dublin to Prestwick in the morning. My pal Dave has booked me into a hotel at Dublin airport, so I'm as sorted as I can be. The alternative flight from here was late on Wednesday night. The six all seems a long time ago...
Last year's Under 25 winner, big Aussie, Alex Carver just landed on the boards, somewhere close to my right ear. Meanwhile, down in the cabin, all of our guys sleep peacefully. It was mozzarella and ham salad followed by chicken and spaghetti for dinner and a post dinner nap (on the floor) is the last luxury they'll enjoy, tonight. Sure enough, the race hasn't long started and the dope test guys arrive - just like Elliot Ness and the Untouchables; but without the Armani suits - one guy tells me his day job is a plumber - the riders are suitably underwhelmed...
I just received an email from Rapha; "The New Tweed Softshell and City Riding Collection" - that's exactly what I need, tweed. Set a new trend at the Kuipke... Maybe not - my shorts have caused enough raised eyebrows. Night three? Lots of Dernys, lots of beer - Franco sick, Iljo fraying a little at the edges, the Danes calm under fire and bed for us at 03:45...
It would be easy to go native, work all the sixes, get a job in a bike shop or with a little team for the summer, forget the "25" champs, the 'day job.' The sixes are seductive, the rolling presentation, the music, the lights, the banter, the 'insider' chat, the gleaming bikes, the pretty girls, the total isolation from reality. But maybe it's because it's only three or four times each year that it's so special.
Last night? It's tonight, already! No-one stood out, the home boys had to be seen to do well and De Ketele, Mertens, and of course Iljo, all did the biz. Who can win? Alex & Michael are favourites but it's been a long season for both of them and there are some hungry big fish in this pond...
Monday night, 24 hours until the 70th Six Days of Gent commences. The Derny exhaust fumes are sweet and sickly, like the stench from the Grangemouth chemicals plant on a bad day, the cold air makes them all the more pungent. Five or six riders sit behind the little bike, loosening off stiff legs, dull after hours sitting in aeroplanes or cars. They're all wrapped up tight against the cold - Michael Morkov, Steve Schets, Tosh Van Der Sande, Kenny de Ketele and Iljo Keisse. De Ketele wears a balaclava under his crash hat; Iljo has on gloves and leg warmers.
The Gent Six day kicks off next week, so as a way to build the excitement we thought we'd revisit last year's finalé, with VeloVeritas' own Ed Hood there and working for the Danish World Madison Champions, Saxo Bank riders Alex Rasmussen and Michael Mørkøv, as well as Swiss star Franco Marvulli. Read on!...
The A2 Dover to London road, 23:23 on Sunday. There was no partying at Iljo's dad's bar, De Karper - which is just along the road from the Gent track - for us tonight; we had a ferry to catch. I didn't have time to put together a Day Five piece, today. We were up at 09:00 for the 13:00 start; usually I spend the early afternoon writing, but today I couldn't, although I did manage to get the Day Five pictures away as the under 23 lads prepared for action.
Viktor has been keeping in touch, he was going to come over but couldn't get a flight. 'Is that Bruno's wee brother's bike he's on?' He does have a point, with carbon frame manufacture, one of the biggest costs is to produce the moulds. This leads a lot of manufactures to go down a 'one size fits all' route - meaning a lot of seat post on show and/or stacking/high rise stems at the front end. For me, the classic look of Keisse's bike is best - extension hard down on the head race and just the right amount of seat pin. The atmosphere was great, again, last night - the track centre is alive.
The Belgian papers are something else. Whilst you do get superb cycling coverage; in yesterday's 'De Gentenaar' we had to endure a colour photograph of a fatal road accident, complete with burnt out car and mangled push bike; a racist photo manipulation of Michelle Obama as a character from Planet of the Apes and images from a slaughter house, including a cow getting it's head chopped off - I'll stick with the Guardian. My tortured old body is getting into the routine, now. It was 03:30 am when we got to bed; we could have been in bed before that, but a beer was necessary.
It's different here; the butcher asks you how Keisse is doing in the six and the local paper has Iljo in full colour, on the cover. In the same paper - De Gentenaar - which is a local 'rag,' there's a two page guide to track racing and two pages of stats on the 2009 season. Columbia are top winners, with 85 (I thought it was 86 !): Saxo have 44: Diquigiovanni 33; Garmin 29; Rabobank 26; Cervélo 25 - first Belgian team, on 24, is QuickStep.
It was 1975 when Dave, Don, Ed the Pole and yours truly first climbed the concrete stairs to get our first sight of the legendary boards of Gent velodrome. I still remember the smells; derny exhaust, pee, frying food and beer! Having spent my formative years riding time trials and road races (badly !) in the wilds of Scotland, with sheep as the main audience, I was fascinated by the spectacle.
"When you see the track, you think, no way, I can't ride that ! it's too small !" and that's from world madison champion, Michael Mørkøv. Compared to the wide open 210 metre pastures of Grenoble, at 166 metres, the Gent track does look tiny; the bankings aren't really steep enough and you can't ride the top 400 mm of the track, because the crash barriers overlap the boards by that much. But legends aren't necessarily perfect; and this is a legendary place - it was 1922 when world hour record man, Oscar Egg partnered Marcel Buysse to victory in the first Six Days of Ghent, or Z6 Daagse Vlaanderen - Gent, as it is, now.