An Introduction to the 71st Z6s Daagse Vlaanderen Ghent
by Steve Penny
71st Six-Days of Ghent
The 71st Six-days of Flanders, Ghent (Zes-Daages Van Vlaanderen, Gent) gets underway in Het Kuipke velodrome this coming Tuesday night. Following the recent demise of the Dortmund and Munich races this classic among Six-days is now the undisputed main event of the pre-Christmas indoor calendar. Over 36,000 fans will once again create the atmosphere from the stands and track centre while the 26 cyclists embark on their race to nowhere. Ghent is never an easy race as the programme is, as it's always been, once again loaded with racing lasting around 6 hours every night.
Most of the local talk in the build up concerned 'the will he, won't he' participation of local hero Iljo Keisse. This followed the enforcement of a ban, back dated from 2008, that forbids him from racing on home soil until early 2012. In the last two years he has raced in Ghent following some legal loopholes but there was no way around the rules, so Keisse will not defend his crown on the home track this year.
The start list, Sports Director Patrick Sercu was able to announce, does not look as strong as it has in recent years though. Along with Keisse he is also without strong riders such as Morkov, Rassmussen, Kluge and Hondo. He, Sercu, admitted in the opening press conference that it hadn't been an easy task for him to select the teams. So approaching the start the field is short of obvious favourites but no matter we still can expect fast, exciting racing none the less.
Without the aforementioned riders Kenny De Ketele probably has his best ever chance to win his home race, and paired with possibly the strongest man in the Sixes, Robert Bartko takes on the mantle of pre-race favourite. After winning the European Madison title (with Keisse) last month De Ketele should arrive in good form. Without a race since the Amsterdam Six a month ago Bartko will also be fresh and ready to go after his first win of the winter season. Although neither rider has a great sprint, there isn't a team in the race that will eat up points in the way Keisse or Alex Rasmussen and Michael Morkov have in the last couple of years. So, 'team number 4' with their motivation and experience on this track means that barring accident or illness, they are this years team to beat.
The Rest of the field
Looking at the rest of the teams, in number order below, gives a pointer to who may do what over the course of the week.
Winner with Iljo Keisse last year was Dutchman Peter Schep. He'll wear the number one, teaming this year with countryman Wim Stroetinga. On paper they are a classic Six-day pairing of endurance man (Schep) and sprinter (Stroetinga), so they should rack up points on the small 166 metre track. At this level Stroetinga hasn't yet shown he has the stamina for the up and down, non-stop nature of a Six-day race. With maturity, plenty of track experience and good condition, not to mention a good partner in Schep, this may be his time to shine. However, if like last year he returns from holiday without the required form and conditioning, the chances will be lost within the first couple of sessions.
The Frenchman Morgan Kneisky won the Grenoble Six last month, with Keisse, but this Six is a different level so he and Dane, Marc Hester will just be expected to keep the pace high in the chases and go after wins in the lesser races on the programme.
Young Belgian hope, Tosh Van Der Sande, gets his second pro Ghent Six start and teams with the experienced and classy Leif Lampater. Race director Patrick Sercu obviously rates Van Der Sande as the German, Lampater, is one of the strongest riders in this field. If all goes well this mix of youth and experience, not to mention home support, means they could yet be the 2011 surprise package.
The Swiss rider Franco Marvulli was on fire a few years ago when racing with Bruno Risi and they won race after race, although never Ghent. Since the great Risi retired he has fallen by the wayside a little and hasn't really shown he has the form or the motivation to reach those heights with varying partners. Plus this has never been a favourite Six for Franco. He'll be partnered with Munich native Christian Grasmann who hasn't had a start in Ghent since 2006, but deserves the chance. With the thinning pool of riders available he's proved at German Sixes he can race well for six days, but the podium may be a long shot though.
There is no Michael Morkov in the race this year but his family will be represented by his brother Jesper Morkov who is trying to make the transition from the amateur / under-23 races into the pro ranks. One suspects it may be a Ghent baptism of fire for Jesper and his partner fellow rookie Benjamin Edmuller from Germany, as this an unforgiving event. But these youngsters may well benefit from the experience on their road to trying to join the Six-day circus... just don't expect too much this time though.
The same applies to the winners of last years Under-23 Ghent Six, Claudio Imhof and Silvan Dillier from Switzerland. They have had a few Six-day starts since that win last year and have competed for their country at World Cups and the European Championships. They'll have an eye on the Zurich Six (well its only four days this year) starting just a few days after Ghent. They will know it is a massive jump from the amateurs to the pros, but this pair could well be two to make the transition over the coming years, this year will be about survival and getting form for Zurich though.
The next team are the opposite to Morkov / Edmuller and Imhof / Dillier as they have all the experience you could want, but neither Alex Aeschach nor Leon Van Bon have the required speed to make a run at the win in Het Kuipke. They should prove competitive in the chases though and will be looking to finish inside the top half of the field on Sunday afternoon.
This will be the last Ghent appearance for 2004 winner Danny Stam, who after over 100 Six-day races will hang up his wheels in February. His remit this year will be to try and bring Belgian rider Tim Mertens to the next level, that being a podium finish. They may have a shot, in this depleted field, if Mertens is on form as he is quick and can pick up points. Stam has always had good endurance along with the track savy.
Ghent has always been a welcoming place for Australians and this years participants from down under are Luke Roberts and Glenn O'Shea. The latter raced here a few years ago with current World Champion Leigh Howard but hasn't been back since. The experienced Roberts has been on this track a number of times so they should make for a decent team as the Aussies are always fighters. Getting into the top half of the field will be their goal, the podium will be a big ask though.
Team number 11 has another rider, Steven De Neef, who'll be saying his goodbyes to Het Kuipke. He has ridden here every year since the late 90's, but has never been a full time track racer and has usually been paired with a young Belgian invariably struggling through in the bottom few places. For his last hurrah he is paired with Berlin born Austrian national team rider Andreas Muller. Its a slight change of roles for Muller who normally helps a young local rider around the races rather than a guy aged 40. But Muller likes this track so it may be that the experienced pair work well together, however expect them to lose 15-20 plus laps before De Neef climbs off for the last time on Sunday.
Two more Ghent debutants are Germans Robert Bengsch and Marcel Barth. This pair have some experience at German Sixes and Bengsch won in Bremen last winter with Robert Bartko so he has done well on the small track before. He's a big guy though and the tight and high curves of Het Kuipke might not be ideal for him. That said both he and Barth will be motivated after getting the call from Patrick Sercu so they should compete with the likes of Roberts / O'Shea and Kneisky / Hester for a place in the middle of the standings.
Last but not least are World Madison silver medalists Martin Blaha and Jiri Hochmann from the Czech Republic. They are a pair who go well at major championships but the Ghent Six is a different animal to a one off, one hour madison. As will all the debutants, the Czechs will probably just be looking to impress Patrick Sercu by keeping the peleton together in the chases rather than challenging for the top places.
Full start list:
1 Peter Schep - Wim Stroetinga (Ned) 2 Morgan Kneisky (Fra) - Marc Hester (Den) 3 Tosh van der Sande (Bel) - Leif Lampater (Ger) 4 Robert Bartko (Ger) - Kenny de Ketele (Bel) 5 Franco Marvulli (Swi) - Christian Grasmann (Ger) 6 Jesper Mørkøv (Den) - Benjamin Edmüller (Ger) 7 Claudio Imhof - Silvan Dillier (Swi) 8 Alexander Aeschbach (Swi) - Leon van Bon (Ned) 9 Danny Stam (Ned) - Tim Mertens (Bel) 10 Luke Roberts - Glenn O'Shea (Aus) 11 Steven Deneef (Bel) - Andreas Müller (Aut) 12 Robert Bengsch - Marcel Barth (Ger) 13 Martin Blaha - Jiri Hochmann (Czech)
Six-Day Season so far:
As noted without Dortmund or Munich, the Six-day season is now spread rather thinly across October and November. The only two races so far saw the following results:
Amsterdam - 17-22 Oct 2011 Winners - Keisse (Bel) / Terpstra (Ned) Grenoble - 27 Oct - 01 Nov 2011 Winners - Keisse (Bel) / Kneisky (Fra) Steve Penny Watford, UK 21 November 2011