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. They all pay hommage at the Kuipke velodrome, home to the annual Six Day where Keisse is King; six wins from 11 podiums bear witness to that.
When we say he was raised on the boards of the Blaarmeersen we don’t exaggerate, his father, Ronie managed the velodrome – which hosted the 1988 World Track Championships – and is now the “Vlaams Wieler Centrum Eddy Merckx”.
As most kids kicked a ball around the streets, Keisse swooped and soared on the steep bankings; the result can be seen now in a man who is the consummate trackman – smooth, elegant, at one with boards and bicycle.
Ronie now 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.
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.
Did you ever race, Ronie?
“Yes and no!
“I wanted to but my mother forbade it and tore up my application for a race licence.
“Then I wanted to be a cycle mechanic but my parents said that I must study and get a good job. But my studies ended when I got married and had children.
“I had to make money so I organised a burger van and took it to all sorts of sporting events, basketball, soccer and the World Track Championships in 1988 at the Blaarmeersen.
“It was then that the guy running the track told me wasn’t really interested in what he was doing and in 1989 I took over as manager of Gent’s second velodrome.
“I ran it until 2003 when the city sold the facility to the government – it was closed for three years while they converted it into the Vlaams Wieler Centrum Eddy Merckx and I had to find a new job.”
When did you first think that Iljo would be a racing cyclist?
“When I had the hamburger van he would come with me and see the different sports – he played soccer and squash.
“But it wasn’t until I took the job at the velodrome that he got into cycling – no nerves, no fear, soaring on those boards at seven years-of-age.”
I believe your brother, Freddy raced – was he an influence on young Iljo?
“Freddy is six years younger than me and I helped persuade my mother that Freddy should be allowed to race.
“He was in the team with Rick van Slycke – who’s now a DS with QuickStep – which won the Belgian team pursuit championship in 1984.
“He was a rider and a mechanic and a director with the BBB company which makes cycle components and tools.
“He was more than just a mentor to Iljo, he was his godfather, too.
“He helped Iljo a lot and when Iljo needed equipment then Freddy would help but Iljo still had to pay ‘cost’ for it – we were from a poor family and Iljo was brought up to understand the value of things and that you had to work for what you wanted in life.”
Iljo’s first National result shows as ‘Novices Pursuit Champion’ in 1998…
“When I worked at the track and did coaching, I watched what went wrong with a lot of the promising young riders – their parents.
“They tell the youngsters they’re going to be stars; when Iljo won I would tell him it was an easy win and he should keep his feet on the ground – we have a box with 50 medals in it!
“I didn’t treat him differently from any of the other kids and I didn’t do too much to help him, not like many of the parents, who did.
“We’d go to road races and there would be kids there with 400 supporters, having their ride video-ed.
“We’d think; ‘we’re never going to be able to compete with this stuff!’
“But the thing I always taught Iljo was patience; I would tell him that he was going to be good – but all in good time.”
The 1999 season and Belgian Junior Madison Champion with Dimitri De Fauw; it must have been a big blow to Iljo when Dimitri took his own life.
“Dimitri was a huge talent, Iljo was clever but Dimitri was ve