Ghent Six Day: impressions of a first-timer

Leon Van Bon on his way to victory in the Derny behind the legend that is Joop Zijlaard

When you arrive in Ghent, you very quickly realise that this is a place with a special affinity for two wheels.  The city is teeming with bicycles, with thousands parked at the main St Pieters station. I’m here for the Six Days of Flanders-Ghent, which I understand is the six-day track meet everyone wants to win.  And this third night (Thursday) is reputedly the best evening to go.

The Kuipke

The event is held at the Kuipke track, just a short distance from the station.  The Kuipke is in Citadel Park and I find my way to the park by some back streets.  Probably this isn’t the best route, a few guys seem to be wandering down the gloomy paths into the park, disappearing into the darkness.  I’m not sure if this is really what I came for, but I follow.  The sounds of a crowd ahead are very welcome and reassuring!

The place to be is inside the Kuipke track.  Everyone has a seat allocated but these are mostly empty.  The big crowd is inside the track knocking back the local Primus beer.  It’s a big party for the local cycling and beer lovers.  The Ghent home song “’t Vliegerke” (The Little Kite) plays over the tannoy, my friend Bart and his cycling mates join in.  Cyclists career round the tight 166m track.  Shouts of “Ee-leo, Ee-leo” ring out.

Centre of the Kuipke

Surely they aren’t calling out for Elio di Rupo, the Belgian in charge of still trying to form a government a year and a half after the general election?  No, it’s for the absent Iljo Keisse, currently observing a drugs ban.  Apparently Iljo flouted the terms of his suspension and turned up unannounced earlier in the week.  Is he here again?I don’t see him.  But Eddy Merkx (we are not worthy) is here, as is the Race Director, Patrick Sercu (further adoration and abasement).

Lindsay sings “De allereerste keer”

More singing ensues with Lindsay belting out “De allereerste keer” (The Very First Time).  Lindsay is a local celebrity, a kind of Sam Fox-a-like, if you remember her.  Following the action is not so easy,  the Madison is particularly hard to follow if you don’t keep your eyes on the race all the time.  And all the announcements are of course in Dutch, so that doesn’t always clear things up!  My helpful Flemish friends try to clue me up as to what’s going on, but it all happens so fast!

Everyone is in training for Zijlaard’s job!

All this beer and hot dogs, I feel I will soon be ready to take over from the great Joop Zijlaard, Derny legend.  A well set-up gent, Zijlaard punches a great hole in the air, and any rider behind him gets extra wind break help.

After the Derny follows a “last man elimination” race, this is by far the easiest to follow.  As each rider at the back is eliminated and the last man standing wins the race.

From the Kuipke track centre

The whole evening is most highly recommended. I would suggest that to best enjoy one of these very special evenings, you ensure you have either a (good) understanding of six-day racing (not me!), or some local assistance, i.e. Bart and mates, (thanks!).  The action goes on well past 1 am; there aren’t any trains by then, so I was glad of a local hotel to sleep it all off!

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