by Steve Penny
British 6-Day Correspondent
18 November 2012
Once again the wheels will whirr, the crowds will flock and the beer will flow at the 72nd Six-days of Flanders, Ghent (Zes-Daages Van Vlaanderen, Gent) starting in the legendary Het Kuipke on Tuesday.
With the big German sixes in Dortmund and Munich consigned to the history books 'Ghent's Classic' status is now undisputed and is the main event of the pre-Christmas European track calendar. An estimated 36,000 plus fans will create the atmosphere from the seated stands, and in something unique to Ghent, the standing room only track centre. On the old 166 metre boards the 26 cyclists will embark on their race to nowhere. That journey is never easy, as the programme is loaded with racing that by the weekend lasts for 6 hours each night.
The start list which Sports Director Patrick Sercu announced last week, does like last year, lack big names. However, the return of local hero Iljo Keisse to that list should be enough to keep the knowledgeable local fans happy. This is Flanders after all and a bike race is still a bike race, but this Six like any other needs a star attraction. Being born and bred in Ghent, Keisse is undoubtedly that. So despite a below par event, by the usual high standards last year, I will be heading out to Ghent for the 17th consecutive year hoping to see fast and furious racing.
The aforementioned Iljo Keisse starts as the favourite, although his 2012 partner Glenn O'Shea, is not exactly a Six-day veteran and has no victories in his palmares. That said, Australians have a long history of success in Ghent and his pursuit strength and Keisses' speed on his home track seem like a good match. After 130 days of racing this year, Keisse said he isn't sure how well he'll be going, but is aiming for his 6th win in Het Kuipke. If they gel, stopping them may be tough, as long as the rest of the field doesn't throw up an obvious winning pair.
Kenny De Ketele fulfilled his dream and conquered the Kuipke in his 7th start last November alongside Robert Bartko. The affable 27 year old from Oudenaarde has had a great year. He and partner Gijs Van Hoecke became the first Belgian World Madison Champions since six-day legends Etienne De Wilde & Matt Gilmore in 1998. They will race Ghent in the rainbow stripes and will in fact be the first Belgian team to ever wear the rainbow stripes as Madison Champs in Het Kuipke. Following a serious crash, Gilmore was unable to race with De Wilde in the 1998 edition. They are being touted as being among the favourites based on De Keteles pedigree in Het Kuipke, but Van Hoecke is an unknown quantity in Six-day racing. The rainbow stripes are no guarantee of six-day success, as the Worlds are won in one full on hour, not six tactically hard nights/days. That said, the jerseys alone should provide the extra motivation to get them close to the podium
Keisse described the big German, Robert Bartko, at the press conference as 'strong like a V8 engine'. The native of Potsdam has three career wins in Ghent to his name, and despite being a big man he copes very well on the short straights and tight bends. His partner Silvan Dillier from Switzerland, at 22, is only in his second year racing with seniors, but has track speed. So, with the experience of Bartko, not to mention that V8 engine, they remain close come Sunday afternoon.
The runners up last year were Dutchman Peter Schep, who was a winner in 2010, and Wim Stroetinga. On paper they are a classic Six-day pairing of endurance man, (Schep) and sprinter (Stroetinga), so they will rack up points and post fast times in the time trials (TTs) on the 166 metre track. Stroetinga does have a self professed dislike of the important elimination races, so he will need to do better in the chase for points. Last year he was sick during the race but maintained his speed, if not his stamina, for the first time at this level showing he can now last in the up and down, none stop nature of a Six-day race. With his extra strength and maturity alongside Scheps engine and track experience, this team may well be the leading challengers to Keisse and O'Shea.
Young Belgian hope Tosh Van Der Sande, once again teams with the experienced and classy Leif Lampater. This pairing came in 4th, just a lap behind the winners last year. Another year older and stronger after a season on the road with the Lotto team, Van Der Sande and perennial contender Lampater, are poised to make a run at the top step of the podium this time out.
Looking at the rest of the teams in number order below, gives a pointer (although only based on my knowledge), as to who may do what over the course of the week.
The Frenchman Morgan Kneisky took a fine 3rd place last year, with Marc Hester, showing himself as a very good Madison rider. This year he teams with countryman Vivien Brisse, someone I know little about. The best French team on paper would probably have been Kneisky and Bryan Coquard, but the latter is not here. It could be a tough week for the French.
As mentioned, Marc Hester was 3rd last year and had his first ever Six-day win at home in Copenhagen to finish his best ever season in February. The word was, the 27 year old Hester has matured and become a lot more serious about his racing after just being part of the peleton for a number of seasons. Challenging won't be on the agenda this year though, as he teams with fellow Dane Lasse Norman Hansen, the winner of the Omnium gold medal at the London Olympics. At 20, despite the gold medal, he is very much untried at this level of Six-day racing and how he'll perform is difficult to predict. With the foundations for Omnium gold being laid against the clock in those Olympics, perhaps doing well in the crowd pleasing TT's will be the goal?
This is one of a few Sixes that Franco Marvulli never won during his magical couple of seasons racing with Bruno Risi, something I'm sure he'd love to put right. It's unlikely that it'll be this year though, as he sets out on his first season racing with Swiss hope Tristan Marguet, especially as he (Marvulli) was ill earlier in the season, having to abandon in Amsterdam. With Zurich only a week away there lies another reason he is never been able to leave it all on the track in Ghent. But, although no longer the young gun at 34, Franco is still a talent, and if he and Marguet can gel well over the winter it maybe that he can play the veteran of the partnership and challenge for that elusive 'classic' win next year.
Munich native Christian Grasmann gets a second successive start in Ghent having been previously overlooked since 2006. With the pool of strong Six-day riders being thin, he's proved he can hold his place in the bunch for six 'full on' days. He'll partner South African novice Nolan Hoffman, who is making a run at being the first black rider to break into the Sixes since Brit, Maurice Burton in the late 1970's. He is another rider I know little about, apart from the fact he won a scratch race silver medal at the 2012 World Championships. He finished a whopping 23 laps back in Amsterdam, despite having a good partner. (Marc Hester) That said, the field is thin, so it may not be as bad for him, lap loss wise, as it might have been 5 to 10 years ago.
There are 10 Belgian riders on this years start list, something that reflects the trend amongst Six-day organisers for filling up the fields with local, and cheap riders. Of those 10, only Keisse, De Ketele, Van Hoecke and Van Der Sande have any chance of finishing near the top of the tree on Sunday. The rest face a hard six days.
Team 10 are Jasper De Buyst and Tim Mertens, the latter having raced here with reasonable success over the last 5 years or so.This year Mertens is cast into the role of looking after a young debutant. That rookie being De Buyst, another rider I know little about. There is not even a amateur placing to comment on.
Next up are Jonathan Breyne and Steve Schets. The debutant of this pair, Breyne, did ride the amateur Six last year, but wasn't even close to a win then. His partner, Schets made his Ghent debut back in 2005 when he and Kenny De Ketele were themselves the young hopefuls. Their careers have taken differing paths, as De Ketele has gone from strength to strength, Schets didn't even start last year, a reflection of some torrid times in Het Kuipke. In 2007 he suffered humilation losing over 80 laps with Ingmaar De Poortere. That performance meant neither man got a start in 2008. He returned in 2009 to lose 48 laps and despite a Worlds bronze in 2010, his last Ghent Six was another disaster finishing in last place with a 44 lap deficit. He did have back problems in the past, so if those are resolved he'll want to prove that the real Steve Schets was the promising rider seen in 2005 and 2006. However, with a novice partner it could be another long and painful five nights for Schets before Sunday afternoons finish.
Like Steve Schets, Nicky Coquyt had a tough few starts between 2007-2009 and with no improvement made, he seemed to have disappeared off the radar. But in these times of austerity he makes a return looking after another Belgian rookie, Moreno De Pauw, headed for a baptism of fire.
Team number 13 is an all German affair, featuring rookie Max Stahr and Berlin born (Austrian national team rider) Andreas Muller. The young Stahr had some decent results in the UIV Cup last winter but this is a different proposition. The likeable Muller takes the role of taxi driver. His morale is always high and it'll need to be as they'll no doubt be losing laps night after night. The motivation will be to avoid the wooden spoon. He'll celebrate his 33rd birthday on Sunday and if 'Mulli' is in good condition they'll aim to finish ahead of a couple of the Belgian teams, avoiding not only being Team 13, but finishing 13th in the standings!!!
1 Kenny de Ketele - Gijs Van Hoecke (Bel) 2 Peter Schep - Wim Stroetinga (Ned) 3 Morgan Kneisky - Vivien Brisse (Fra) 4 Tosh van der Sande (Bel) - Leif Lampater (Ger) 5 Lasse Norman Hansen - Marc Hester (Den) 6 Iljo Keisse (Bel) - Glenn O'Shea (Aus) 7 Franco Marvulli - Tristan Marguet (Swi) 8 Christian Grasmann (Ger) - Nolan Hoffman (RSA) 9 Robert Bartko (Ger) - Silvan Dillier (Swi) 10 Jasper De Buyst - Tim Mertens (Bel) 11 Jonathan Breyne - Steve Schets (Bel) 12 Nicky Coquyt - Moreno De Pauw (Bel) 13 Max Stahr (Ger) - Andreas Müller (Aut)
The only two races so far saw the following results:
Winners - Morkov (Den) / Lighart (Ned)
Grenoble (4 Day)
Winners - Keisse (Bel) / Keisse (Bel)