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An Introduction to the 69th Z6s Daagse Vlaanderen Ghent

by Steve Penny
Watford, UK
22th November 2009

At around 8.15pm local time on Tuesday the start gun will sound to begin the 69th Six Days of Flanders, Ghent (or Zes-Daages Van Vlaanderen, Gent in Flemish). With that bang the 24 riders will set off on the first of their thousands of laps around the famous 166 metre 'Het Kuipke' track before the finish at around 6pm on Sunday evening.

Before a pedal is turned in anger the riders, organisation and spectators will stand silent and pay their respects to Dimitri De Fauw, the local rider who took his own life just over two weeks ago. I had spoken to Dimitri at the Ghent Six during the afternoon of 25th November 2006. After a disappointing couple of years of being told not to ride the track and raced in the wrong races by the Quick-Step Team he was back were he loved to be on the boards at his local Six Day race. Whilst taking a massage he told me how he was content and in the form of his life winning all the time trials and going close to the track records each and every night. Less than 8 hours later in the early hours of Sunday 26th November 2006 his life had changed forever following his fatal collision with Isaac Galvez. Since then as spectators and reporters all we saw in Ghent was the below par cyclist Dimitri on the track. None of us read between the lines and saw that the real reason for his loss of form was ultimately the depression that followed the accident and the extent of this depression is now known. Whilst initially in shock life went on as normal for most of us in attendance that tragic night in 2006. For his family and those close to Isaac Galvez their lives where changed forever. For Dimitri De Fauw it was the beginning of the end and all that is left to say is RIP.

Six Days in Trouble?

Following on from the well publicised news that the UCI have proposed taking the Madison, Points and Individual Pursuit out of the Olympics the news on the future of Six Day racing, in its European spiritual home of Germany is once again bad.

Last year we reported the cancellation of the 2009 Stuttgart Six and this autumn we saw the loss of the traditional season opening Dortmund Six whose existence dated back to 1926. Dortmund has also cancelled the traditional Boxing Day 'Grosser Weihnachtspreis' meeting after 72 editions, another sad loss for track racing. Attendance at the Munich Six is down once again and the organiser has been saying that "although he will fight to keep the event in some format" he had also earlier said that "every product has its life cycle and perhaps this event has reached its end" which does not sound positive for an event that has traditionally been considered the World Championship of Six Day racing.

The news from the Ghent Six organisation though is once again good. They've spent €320,000 to repair the leaky roof and made improvements to bathrooms and other such facilities which signals a strong commitment on there part. The ticket sales are once again expected to go over 40,000 for the six days meaning that 'Het Kuipke' will again have very close to a full house for most nights.

The Teams and Riders

To complement the spectator boom the organisation believes they have put together their best field in years. At the press conference on Thursday sports director, and undisputed king of the sixes, Patrick Sercu said:

"It was puzzle to put together, but I think we can reasonably say that it is the best quality field we've had in years. We will have the reigning World Madison Champions Alex Rasmussen and Michael Mørkøv, and after 18 years Bruno Risi will say goodbye to his audience in Gent. It will be a fascinating duel for victory here"

He also explained the reasons behind some of his team choices noting that Iljo Keisse and Robert Bartko dominant displays in the last few years had been why he'd decided to split them up:

"With Keisse and Bartko apart and Keisse not racing with Kenny De Ketele we now have two top teams instead of one."

'Kaiser of the Kuipke'

Iljo Keisse will return to his local track after failing a dope test at the 2008 Ghent Six and subsequently missing the second half of the last winter season. He has since been cleared and avoided a full two year ban. He returned to Six Day racing in Amsterdam then following the news of his acquittal raced at the more low key Grenoble Six in late October. He did not race at the Munich Six and he himself is not sure how his form will be this week having said:

"I'm a little scared of Gent and I will be content when it is over. My general condition and top speed haven't returned yet. In Grenoble I raced with Gianni Meersman, who rode well, but hadn't been on the track in five years. In Amsterdam I raced with Kenny De Ketele, but again the speed wasn't quite there."

For his home race, Keisse will be paired with young German star Roger Kluge who has had a good start to the 2009/10 season winning the European Madison title and the Amsterdam Six with Keisses' former partner Robert Bartko. Kluge and Bartko started the Munich Six as favourites but following Bartkos crash on the first night Kluge had a number of partners before finishing a creditable 5th with Kenny De Ketele. The young German is also a silver medallist in the Olympic Points race and now has a road contract with the Milram team for 2010. That move could see him concentrate on the road and thus have a limited future on the track. For now though with Keisse probably more motivated than ever on home soil and Kluge seeming to be in good form, this pair should be on the podium come Sunday afternoon.

Whether they make the top step or not will depend upon a few things:

-Keisse will need to have something close to his old form and, importantly, have that old speed back... a big advantage on such a short track.
-Then, can Kluge adapt quickly to the shorter track? His talent is undoubted but he has no previous experience on the two short Six Day tracks in Ghent or Bremen.

Farewell to a Six Day Legend

Bruno Risi now in his 42nd year has decided this will be his last season on the Six day circuit. So this week will be the last time Belgian fans will see a man who made his debut in the professional Sixes here in Ghent way back in 1991. That debut was the start of a record breaking partnership with boyhood friend Kurt Betschart that saw them win 37 Sixes together. The pair had their first Ghent victory in 1993 and followed that up with wins in 1996 and 2002.

Since Betschart retired in the summer of 2006; rather than slow down, Risi has gone on to win a further 21 Sixes, 16 of those victories coming with fellow Swiss rider, and partner here in Ghent, Franco Marvulli. The partnership seemed to be rock solid after a record run of 15 Six Day wins and World and European Madison titles between September 2006 and the start of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. They went into the Beijing Madison among the top favourites but performed below par and spent part of the last Six Day season seemingly in dispute and racing mostly with different partners. However they've started the 2009/10 season back together and any fall out seems to have been put behind them, as the pair won the blue riband Munich Six last week. That was Risi's 9th victory in that event and leaves him on 59 career Six Day wins coming into Ghent.

Looking back over Bruno's impressive career though, Ghent has been the least successful of all the 'classic' Six Days for him. A good reason for that may be that his home Six in Zurich used to start the day after Ghent finished and he and Betschart may well have, at times, kept there powder dry with Zurich in mind. However in this his 19th and final Ghent appearance you'd have to expect that he will be going all out for a last shot at a 4th Flanders win. Also note that Marvulli having won in Zurich, Dortmund, Munich, Stuttgart, Berlin and Copenhagen but never at Ghent will surely be equally as motivated to bring home the bacon for the Swiss couple. Barring illness or injury they should be the team to watch

For further information on this team see our interviews: http://www.6dayracing.ca/interviews/risi/risi.html

Uncomfortable Rivals

The statement from Patrick Sercu that 'Keisse and Robert Bartkos dominant displays was why he'd decided to split them up' may or may not be 100% true. Because following the suspension of Keisse last winter his partner for 7 Six day wins Robert Bartko had been publically critical of the Ghent born rider saying that:

"He (Keisse) didn't do anyone any favours - not himself, not the other riders and certainly not the Six Day races."

So here we have local rider Kenny De Ketele paired with Robert Bartko and Keisse paired with Kluge who is Bartkos current Madison partner for Germany and at the Sixes. Last year De Ketele made no secret of the fact that he felt he was ready to take on the responsibility to ride with hometown hero Keisse to make an all Belgian team. It is probably the case that De Ketele would probably have liked to ride with Keisse this year but on this occasion, as on many before, it looks like Mr Sercu has made the right choice. There are a few potential problems though as Bartko had a heavy fall in Munich and his condition, although deemed fit enough to start, is unknown. It will also be interesting to see how the various pairs accept on a professional level the decision made by the organisers because one would suspect that the Germans, and the Belgians, would have preferred to stay together. Will Keisse and Bartko hold any grudges after those comments and how will that affect De Ketele and Kluge?

We have to hope that all concerned are professional and motivated by the thought of winning the prestigious Ghent Six. I am sure De Ketele, having taken his first Six this February in Hasselt, will be going all out for his first Ghent win and Bartko has proved to be a force every time he has raced on the 166 Kuipke track. The answer may be in the state of Bartko's health / condition, is he recovered from Munich, as they'll need him to be at 100% if this team are to remain in contention right through until Sunday.

World Madison Champions

2009 has been a very good year for the Danes Michael Morkov and Alex Rasmussen. It started with a contract to ride on the road with Bjarne Riis' Saxo-Bank Team. Next came a win at their home Copenhagen Six and they then played a part in Denmark's Team Pursuit win at the World Championships and the capped it off by becoming World Madison Champions a few days later.

So the two 24 year olds will make their professional Ghent debuts (Morkov rode the U23 event in 2003) wearing the rainbow jerseys and will start as one of the favourites for victory. They rode to within 3 points of victory at Munich last week and having a road season behind them they'll be strong especially in the time trials where Rasmussen has blistering speed. There are a couple of factors that probably make them only 4th favourites.

Firstly, like Kluge, a lack of experience on the short and tight track. Then importantly do they have the tactical know how, along with that strength, to out wit the likes of Risi and Keisse at the end of six hard days? Knowing when and where to save energy will be crucial and these skills are certainly not beyond the young Danes.

Strong but No Sprint

At the end of this season Dutchman Danny Stam will take over from Bruno Risi as the elder statesman and therefore spokesperson for the Six day riders. His long term partner Robert Slippens succumbed to injury and retired late last year. Without Slippens he has won Sixes with Peter Schep and Bruno Risi respectively but has not quite hit the heights that he and Slippens rose too in 2005/06 when they won 4 races. In Ghent, Stam is partnered with the talented, but often overlooked 26 year old German Leif Lampater. The German has not really had a regular partner since becoming an established rider in 2005/06 but has won a handful of Sixes with Erik Zabel and Guido Fulst amongst others. As individuals they have the pedigree so as a pair they should remain competitive but neither man has a real turn of speed in the sprints or Time Trials. Without that they probably won't rack up enough points (that equates to bonus laps) to challenge for the overall win. That said if they are still on the same lap come Sunday they could yet have a part to play in the last 50 laps of the finale chase.

Elsewhere in the Field

Another Dutchman in the field is former Tour De France stage winner (1998) Leon Van Bon who teams with Berlin born Austrian rider Andreas Muller who took a bronze medal in the World Championship Scratch race this year. This pair should be around the middle of the pack taking a few wins throughout the week but winning a big chase may be beyond them, and indeed most of the other teams outside of the top 5 teams already mentioned.

Alexander Aeschbach comes into Ghent without having ridden Munich, and despite his experience, finding the leg speed and having the right condition to stay with the best in the chases will be difficult. So he and his partner, fellow young Swiss hope, Tristan Marguet will just hope to help form the peloton and not lose too many laps. The same will apply to most of the other teams such as, the stylish, Peter Schep (who did ride in Munich) paired is paired with fellow Dutch national rider Jeff Vermeulen. Yet another Dutchman in the field is the inexperienced Geert-Jan Jonckman who teams with Danish Six Day regular Marc Hester.

Last year the Belgians Nicky Cocquyt and Ingmar De Poortere had a torrid time trying to just hold onto the back of the field and they'll want to improve this time around, if not place wise then performance wise!!!

Steve Schets looked like a possible future talent when he came onto the scene after winning the 'UIV Under-23 Cup' with Kenny De Ketele a few years ago. Following some serious back injuries he still has a lot to prove though whilst De Ketele has gone onto become a major player on the track scene. Schets teams up with Belgian veteran Steven De Neef and this pair will probably have to battle it out with Cocquyt and De Poortere to avoid the wooden spoon.

As a footnote the promising Belgian Tim Mertens who has performed well at a number of Sixes and in the track World Cup events would have been here but had to leave the Munich Six with a suspected heart problem. He his undergoing tests and we wish him well.

Return of the Aussies

Australia has a long and rich in Six Day racing dating all the way back to the early 1900's during the golden age of the Sixes in the United States (USA). During this era Alf Goullet, Melbourne born Jackie Clark and Tasmanian Alfred Grenda all won Sixes in the USA and Europe. Having started in Sixes at home Alf Goullet then a 24 year, from a farm near Sydney, had his passage to America paid for by promoters. He went onto join an elite group of cyclists that annually earned more money than the most famous of all baseball players Babe Ruth.

The great New South Wales rider Reggie 'iron man' McNamara won 19 Sixes on both sides of the Atlantic between 1913 and 1933, winning his last as a 45 year old in Cleveland, Ohio. Following a lull during World War II in 1950 Alf Strom teamed successfully with Reg Arnold to twice win the Berlin Six (it was run twice that year). Reg Arnold became the first Australian to win the Ghent Six in 1956, also going onto win in 1958 with the great Rik Van Looy.

The Ghent tradition was carried on in the early 1970s by Graeme Gilmore, who also lived locally whilst racing, getting wins in 1973 and 74. Don Allan continued the trend taking wins in 1976, 79 and 82 on his way to a tally of 17 career victories. Those 3 and 15 of Allan's career wins came alongside the 2nd best (and greatest Aussie) Six day rider of all time the one and only Danny Clark. Between 1976 and 1994 Clark won 7 times at Ghent and during his career rode more Sixes than anyone else in history appearing no less than 236 times. He also sits firmly in 2nd place behind Patrick Sercu on the all time winners list with 74.

After Clark retired the baton passed onto Graeme Gilmore's son Matt and Scott McGrory. Matt Gilmore was born in Ghent during his father's career and became a Ghent resident, and a 'naturalised Belgian', and during his career he won 5 times in Het Kuipke as well as taking a total 17 career Six Day wins. Scott McGrory was a surprise and deserved winner at Ghent in 1999, with Dane Jimmi Madsen. That win started a good run of results for 'Scooter' that saw him win another 12 Six Days (14 in total) including Ghent 2001 across his career that ended in 2005.

So fast forward to 2009 and Leigh Howard and Glenn O'Shea will be the first all Australian pairing we've seen in Ghent for a few years. Leigh Howard at just 20 has a promising career ahead and has secured a contract with Columbia HTC (Mark Cavendish's' team) for next season. Coached and mentored by Scott McGrory at the Victoria Institute of Sport (VIS) Howard had a great World Championships in Poland winning the Omnium gold as well as taking silver in the Team Pursuit and Madison (with Cameron Meyer). Fellow 20 year old and VIS graduate Glenn O'Shea appears to have a great future too. The Bendigo born rider having taken two Junior World Titles in 2007 and the hard fought (senior) Australian Madison crown in 2008.

The pair had a great introduction to Six Day racing taking 4th in Hasselt this February but there 2009/10 debut proved to be a baptism of fire in Munich but after a slow start they finished 8th at 17 laps behind the winners. For these youngsters anything could happen in Ghent with the long and tough programme of racing. However after getting their leg speed up in Munich and both having all round track talent the short speedy track could well suit them and a finish somewhere between 5th and 8th should be achievable.

Finally after winning his first Six Day race in Grenoble, with Franco Marvulli, there is no place in Ghent for Luke Roberts although I'm not sure whether it was his or the organisers decision? Either way it's a shame none the less.

For the complete starting field follow this link to the official website: http://www.z6sdaagse.be/

The 2009/2010 Six day Season: (so far)
19/10 - 24/10 	Amsterdam - Bartko / Kluge (Ger)
29/10 - 03/11 	Grenoble - Marvulli (Sw) / Roberts (Aus)
12/11 - 17/11 	Munich - Risi / Marvulli (Sw)