Historically cold, wet wintery nights meant just one thing in cycling, Six Day racing. In recent years that has really only meant the Gent Six Day, 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.
The Westfalenhallen in Dortmund, the Olympic Hall in Munich and the Hallenstadion in Zürich all said goodbye to Six Day racing in the naughties due to financial losses, lack of sponsorship etc, although Zürich did try to comeback with a short-lived four day.
It seems they have no such problems in Gent as year after year close to 40,000 fans have come to the Citadel Park to watch their favourites fly around the steeped banked 166.6 metre inside track the legendary Het Kuipke.
This year saw good news for Six Day racing with the Madison Group taking control of the revived London, Amsterdam, Berlin and Copenhagen Sixes making what they are calling ‘The Six-day Series’. The format adopted may not be to the purists tastes but with TV backing from Eurosport hopefully it will help to reignite what was looking like a forgotten part of cycle sport, outside of Gent.
The Six Days in Gent will not form part of this series, it doesn’t need to as it is a Six Day race that continues to stand in its own right. This year it was more popular than ever as not since the days of Eddy Merckx riding to victory with Patrick Sercu in the early 70’s have so many punters come through the doors; all tickets sold out for the whole week, which is definitely a first during my 21 years of attending. These numbers included over 2,000 weekend visitors from the UK.
The reason for the increase in demand was not just because of the history, tradition, spectacle and sheer down to earth nature of this track bike race.
On the start list was a certain Sir Bradley Wiggins.
In fact Wiggins was the first former Tour De France winner since Merckx himself to start. Who would have thought when he made his debut here as a 19 year old in 1999 alongside Rob Hayles that he’d return to the city of his birth 17 years later as one of the best known cyclists in the history of the sport. Not to mention a road and track palmarès that needs no introduction here.
He first hinted 12 months ago in an Instagram post that he’d like to finish his career in Gent but I think most people assumed it’d never actually happen. To fuel the fire during interviews throughout 2016 he mentioned his desire to finish his career at the Gent Six, giving unheralded national and international mainstream publicity to this great race.
His partner in Gent was his World Madison Championship partner and 30-time Tour de France stage winner Mark Cavendish, returning to Gent after being the main attraction himself here in 2014. To continue with the history the British pair were the first Tour yellow and green jersey winner pairing since Merckx and Patrick Sercu.
The battle on the track raged all week between the current World Madison Champions Wiggins/Cavendish and two other teams.
Team 2 contained of local hero, six time winner and the most experienced racer on this most technical of tracks, Iljo Keisse.
This year Iljo was riding with Olympic Omnium Champion, the Italian Elia Viviani, riding for the first time in Gent.
The top other contenders from the start were perennial Belgium contender, and two-time winner, Kenny De Ketele alongside Moreno De Pauw. This pair upset the apple cart by pipping Wiggins/Cavendish to victory at the London Six Day in late October.
The leadership changed hands a number of times during the week between these three teams with Australians Meyer/Scotsan being the only other team to stay within a lap or two throughout.
As he did last year Moreno De Pauw burned up the track in the time trials consistently being in the 8.50s for the flying lap. He was so fast in fact that Kiesse and Cavendish regularly posted times in the 8.60s but always finished 2nd or 3rd. Quite amazing to think that about eight of the 12 teams posted 8.80 or less throughout the week. A few years ago 8.70s would have been more than enough to be the victor over the flying lap.
The Madison chases are where the Six Days are won and lost though and these races saw fast racing from the first night on night one to the final chase on Sunday.
Final Victory for Wiggins / Cavendish
Many cynics will look at the result and believe that the final honours going to Wiggins/Cavendish was no big surprise; many feeling perhaps it was a farewell gift?
My interpretation is a little different and believe if anything they could have actually won this Six Day more convincingly.
On the final Sunday the World Madison Champs started the day a lap ahead of their main rivals. Both De Ketele/De Pauw and Keisse/Viviani went looking for points in the early races and easily got their bonus lap for hitting the 400 point mark in advance of the final chase.
My observation is that Wiggins/Cavendish actually held back a little by not taking many points in the early Sunday races and perhaps intentionally avoided getting a bonus lap.
They arrived at the start of the final one hour Madison chase on the same lap as their rivals thus setting up a situation where they needed to gain a lap to win the Six.
Indeed they got that lap, and in spectacular fashion in the last few minutes of racing.
So was this stage managed? Of course everyone expected it to happen but my belief is that the Brits, especially Wiggins, had been holding back a little and thus not winning quite as convincingly as they might have.
If they had the bonus lap before the ‘finale’ they’d have only had to mark the other teams, not attack. Watching the riders, Wiggins looked like he was the strongest rider in the chases over the weekend getting those big gaps that lead to gaining laps as soon as he pressed hard on the pedals. Etiquette unofficially says don’t rub your opponents noses in it, which they didn’t.
The Olympic Omnium Champ Elia Viviani had gone fairly well all week but made no secret of the fact he wasn’t in top condition coming into Gent. Although he still had his natural speed I’m sure the endurance wasn’t quite there over Six grueling nights. The ever-popular Iljo Keisse was – as he always is – strong but after a long season riding Classics, the Tour and the Worlds Road Race even his speed and experience couldn’t better Wiggins this time.
The 25 year-old Moreno De Pauw was pushing hard all week for the Time Trials, as he has in the past couple of years. Looking on he was probably the most tired of the main favourites by the end. He did not stop trying though and seemed genuinely disappointed at the finish. That tiredness is to be expected and I believe he’ll come back stronger and will be a winner in Gent in the coming years. His partner Kenny De Ketele is always consistent in Gent but has had to play second fiddle to Iljo Keisse a lot over the last six or seven years. This year he did finish ahead of Keisse but Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish refused to be denied in their last ever race together.
What they said
Bradley Wiggins (winner)
“This place, this city, is always special to me. I have pictures of me as a boy in the cabins with my Father. Maurice Burton came up to me and told me how he remembers holding me as a baby in the cabins, that stuff gets me really emotional.
“Seeing so many people who saw me as a child, just coming into this building gives me shivers. I don’t think it’s changed at all has it?
“The Gent Six is special to me, just to think of the greats like Rik Van Steenbergen, Rik Van Looy, Don Allan, Danny Clark, Eddy Merckx and of course Patrick Sercu, someone I have so much respect for, who have raced it makes it so special.
“To come back 18 years after my first Gent Six, 13 years after I last won it, and nine years after I last rode it to win with Cav is a dream way to finish. I always said I wanted to stop while at the top.
“It’s been so emotional at times this week and after London I had thought about coming back next year but I can say now this will be my last Gent Six. I respect the event, the fans, the people too much to come back again and not be at my best. That was all the emotion as I realise that without a road season in your legs or at least racing throughout the year you can’t just turn up and ride a race as hard as this one and be in top form, and I can’t see myself going through another full road season.
“I think now it’s time to work with my development team (Team Wiggins) and try to help bring through the next generation of riders who can win great events like this.”
Mark Cavendish (winner)
“As a boy I always dreamed about winning the Gent Six.
“This is my fouth time here, and I was close in 2014 with Iljo. That would have been great but to finally win it and win it with Brad as World Champions is something really special.
“I also think we are the first all British pair to win it?
“I’m quite emotional knowing it’s the last time we’ll race together. We came here in 2007 to prepare for the 2008 World Championships and lost 40 odd laps so it’s great to come back and book end our partnership in style.”
Moreno De Pauw (2nd)
“At first I was feeling really disappointed but you know being second to a couple of legends is not so bad!
“I’ll be back next year to try and win a Gent Six Days.”
Mark Stewart (11th riding in the pro Six Day for the first time)
“I quickly realised the difference racing with the pros after winning the Under-23 event last year.
“We got a real kicking most nights in the chases.
“But I’m doing my best to stay positive and I’m looking at it in terms of hopefully coming back next year and being another year stronger.”
Elsewhere Around Het Kuipke
As already noted the 76th edition of the Gent Six was a complete sell-out so the organisation came into the week with the pressure off.
This was always going to be the case with Wiggins riding so next year they will need to go back to selling the event a little more than they had to in 2016, not too much though, I’m sure.
One nice gesture from the Gent Organisation was that following the cancellation of the Koksijde Cyclo-Cross World Cup race, due to heavy winds, they gave complimentary tickets to a coach load of fans.
These fans had travelled over 150 km to watch the Cyclo-Cross race only to see the race cancelled and the organisations tents blown into the North sea.