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The Ghent Six: a spectator’s view

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Photographs: Timothy John

Compare and contrast.
Track centre at a World Cup event, far less an Olympic Games, is reserved for a ‘mixed zone’ of lanyard-wearing elite: riders, support staff and media. At the Kuipke (Dutch: ‘small bowl’), it is given over to the fans; a veritable sea of cheerily lubricated spectators, consuming the product of event sponsor Primus with enthusiasm. The riders, by contrast, are confined to metal hutches that face out on to the track. The Ghent Six is a race for the people.
The grandstand seats at the perimeter of the track rise steeply into the black extremities of the roof space, but while the view from the stands is superior, track centre is the place to be. The fans stand shoulder to shoulder, plastic glasses raised to lips with a frequency that matches the laps clocked up by the riders. In an impressive display of multi-tasking, however, their attention remains fixed upon the racing, evidenced by cheers and gasps in perfect synchronicity with events on the track.
Ghent’s Kuipke track is just 166m long. Its diminutive scale has created vertiginously steep banking and short, narrow straights that demand full concentration from the riders
Somewhere among the throng, young British riders Chris Lawless and Matt Gibson are warming down on rollers, sweat rolling down their cheeks, perhaps from the unmissable glow of satisfaction at a job well done, if not yet finished. 1 attends the Ghent Six on the Zaterdag, with a day of racing still to come. They are well-placed, however, having won this evening’s under-23 madison, regaining the overall lead after being surprised by the French the previous evening.
“It’s an amazing event,” Lawless enthuses from his position on the rollers, hands off the bars, wiping his face with a towel. “The atmosphere is so good. It’s a completely new experience.” Like his madison partner, Lawless has ‘grown up’ at the Revolution Series. Victory at the Ghent Six, with its history and atmosphere, feels more special, they agree.
The track, a tight circuit of just 166m with vertiginous banking, exacts a greater demand on the riders’ mental faculties than the Olympic distance 250m circuits – the standard of London, Manchester, and Glasgow – on which, until now, they have learned their trade. The Kuipke offers no respite. Not only are the straights shorter, Lawless explains, but narrower too, making a touch of wheels a frighteningly real prospect, if maximum concentration is not maintained.
Simon Cope, a coach with British Cycling’s vaunted Academy, barks instructions to the pair from a position at the exit of the final bend. As his riders pass, he turns back to a printed schedule. A giant electronic screen keeps spectators up to date with the race that’s unfolding, he explains, but not with the various positions of the teams in what might be described as the general classification. This is Cope’s goal for his young charges, and a day later, one that they achieve. Job done, for now at least: Lawless and Gibson are also racing for a longed-for slot on the senior team at the final round of the World Cup in Cali. “You’ll see some of the Academy,” Cope tells 1. “Who it will be at the moment, I don’t know, because there are nine riders [in contention].”
Track centre is reserved for lanyard-wearing elite at World Cup events; not so the Ghent Six, an event that belongs to the people
Gibson and Lawless are aware that their selection is far from a foregone conclusion, despite their excellent performances in over a week of racing in Belgium that began with an international on the 250m track at the Eddy Merckx Centre (Belgium has two indoor tracks, and both are in Ghent). They need not look far for inspiration. Merckx himself is in attendance on this penultimate day of the 2014 Ghent Six, his appearance prompting immediate chants of “Eddy, Eddy”. For the riders on the Academy programme, Mark Cavendish’s participation provides a more tangible example of the type of career that can be built on such meticulously prepared foundations. “It’s our race, then their race – Cav racing with Iljo Keisse,” Gibson tells 1. “It just shows where I could be if I continue that progression.”
Cavendish is, of course, the most illustrious graduate of the Academy, but it is a different heritage that he is mining this evening. A student of the sport, the significance of riding in the colours of a Belgian team, and with a Belgian partner, at the Ghent Six will not be lost upon him.
Ghent is Keisse’s home town and there is little doubt whom the crowd holds in greater affection. There is little doubt either that Six-Day specialist Keisse has been the pairing’s senior partner, despite the hype (in Britain, at least) that has accompanied Cavendish’s participation, stoked a little by a very public expression of dissatisfaction from Omega Pharma-Quickstep boss, Patrick Lefevre – a Flandrian. Lefevre appears immune to sentiment. The business of seeing his sprinter risk all in a competition from which OPQS has little to gain and much to lose plainly pleases him as little as a Premier League manager seeing an injury-prone star striker called up for an international friendly.
Mark Cavendish took a tumble on the penultimate day of the Ghent Six, but was soon back on his bike. He won the madison with team-mate and hometown hero, Iljo Keisse
Late in the evening, Lefevre’s fears are almost justified. Cavendish comes down hard, but he is quickly up and climbing back on to a bike swiftly recovered from its prone position in the middle of the back straight. He rides on with no more lasting damage than a hole in his shorts. Keisse is the diesel driving the OPQS train, but when he hits top speed – an instant response to the announcement of four laps to go until the final sprint – it is truly impressive. The increased G-forces placed upon a rider on a smaller track give the impression that Keisse is riding on rails. He exits the last bend seemingly at an angle of 60-or-so degrees from the track, his face a mask of concentration. That such an effort can be summoned so late in the race is astonishing; Cavendish, by contrast, looks exhausted.
Their victory in the madison is greeted with football-style chants of ‘Iljo, Iljo’, while Cavendish celebrates with daughter, Delilah Grace, who is passed across the barriers to her father, much to the delight of the crowd. There is something genuine about the Ghent Six, perhaps uniquely Belgian, and entirely absent from mainstream British culture, where cynicism is the default, and where even institutions as banal as insurance companies hawk their products with a low-grade irony that they mistake as a sophisticated appeal to an intelligent audience (neither is the case).
Later, Nick Stöpler receives a birthday cake for his victory in the Derny Race, itself a wonderful mix of the comic and athletic; one in which lean athletes are paired with corpulent men of a certain vintage, who pilot their motor-driven steeds up and down the banking with a skill that belies their appearance, forcing the athletes to pedal at full gas to keep up. The contrast of paunch and musculature, of lycra and goggles, is one to behold.
Ghent’s paunchy and goggled Derny riders provide an amusing counterpoint to the sleek riders, but pilot their motor-powered steeds with a skill that belies their appearance
There is another hour of racing to come as we leave just after midnight for a coach back to our hotel in beautiful Ghent. The party in track centre shows no signs of slowing, and neither, come to that, do the riders. We pick our way across a sticky floor through the happy throng to a concrete tunnel that leads beneath the track to a perimeter lined with stalls selling hotdogs and beer. It’s a cold, clear night in Ghent, and its many attractions, notably the Belfry and St Nicholas’ church, are beautifully lit. The sweaty interior of the Kuipke soon feels far away, though in truth it is a coach journey of no more than 10 minutes and walkable from the town if you know where you’re going.
Cavendish and Keisse will return to action this weekend at the Zurich Six, but the people of Ghent must wait another year for the city’s flagship event to return. It will seem a long time.
1 travelled by Eurostar from St Pancras to Brussels, and onwards by rail to Ghent with SNCB. Eurostar operates up to nine daily services from London St Pancras International to Brussels with return fares from £69. Tickets to any Belgium station start from £79. Fastest London-Brussels journey time is two hours. Tickets are available from eurostar.com or 03432 186 186.
1 attended the Ghent Six as a guest of Sports Tours International, staying at the Ibis Hotel, Centruum Kathedral. Sports Tours International organise three-day coach trips to the Ghent Six from various locations in the UK. Follow this link to schedules and prices.

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