Monday night, 24 hours until the 70th Gent Six Day 2010 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 Mørkøv, 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.
Now and again they shake their hands and flex their fingers.
I ask Michael when he comes down; ‘were your fingers cold?’ He explains;
“No, it’s just that your hands go to sleep, you have to get used to the small track, again.
“When you hit the bankings it’s hard on your back side, back, shoulders, arms and hands – it takes a bit of getting used to and you’re riding into the bankings every couple of seconds.”
I was up at 04:30 on Monday, two buses, a Ryanair flight and Kris collected me at Charleroi.
Kris always likes to get to the track early; he’s more nervous than the riders on the eve of a six.
There are two sets of cabins to set up, there’s the glam track side ones where you see those shots of legs getting rubbed.
But the heart of the operation is the big cabin where the riders are fed and massaged, the washing is done and everything needed for the race has to be stored.
At Grenoble, below the track there are nice custom built changing rooms with showers, a massage area, a sink and water, lots of space, good light and power.
At Gent there’s nothing below the track – except toilets.
The cabins are uninsulated steel storage shells, linked end to end, open plan office type screens are used to sub-divide them with curtains as doors. They are located in the big old exhibition hall next to the Six Day hall.
Heat comes from industrial space heaters which thunder away – the cabins are either too hot or too cold, it’s well nigh impossible to maintain a steady temperature.
The shower and toilet blocks are mobile units too – albeit clean and cosy.
So cosy that I caught Iljo warming down on his rollers in there last night; ‘It’s the only place in this whole stadium that is warm!‘ he told me.
The power supply was erratic to start with and whilst we parked inside the hall, anyone who parked in the car park was given a 25 euro fine – ‘no car park passes ’til tomorrow!‘
We’ve been told that we can’t park in the hall this year.
That’s a hassle for showering in the morning, at which times I resemble a dazed wildebeest and am devoid of human characteristics until I get blasted with a shower.
But we’re here and we’re set up, Alex and Michael have arrived and the shopping has been done – on the way to the supermarket we wandered past the elegant museums and adverts for forthcoming cultural events.
It reminded us that Gent is a city of contrasts – art nouveau elegance, grubby flats, galleries, gay bars, all the beer in the world, delicate Jenever gin, sleazy dives, haute cuisine, frites – and bike racing.
For all the hassles, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than in this city for the next six days.
We’ll do our best – assisted by John Young’s excellent pictures – to let you share the experience.
And who’s going to win? I’ll tell you what I think tomorrow.