by Steve Penny
British 6-Day Correspondent
Flanders in spring is home to the cobbled classics and the tradition of those races is part of Flemish culture be you a bike rider or fan. The Ghent Six-Days is very much part of this Flemish cycling culture and the 166 metre Het Kuipke track is to November what the Kemmelberg or Koppenberg are too April... hollowed ground!!!
Fans of all ages continue to come inside from the winter chill blowing in from the North Sea, some 25 miles west of the medieval city of Ghent. In many ways once you come inside Het Kuipke, you are stepping back in time, as very little has changed since the stars of yesteryear pedalled their way on their own road to nowhere.
The 73rd edition finished, as most have done, with an exciting final Madison on a cold Sunday afternoon. The racing had been fast and furious from the moment the gun sounded on Tuesday night. By the end of the second night two riders, debutant Martyn Irvine and the experienced Luke Roberts had crashed and retired due to the injuries sustained. Contenders on paper Bartko / Kalz had lost 5 laps and Spanish debutants Muntaner / Torres had lost 6 laps while struggling to adapt to the tight and technical Het Kuipke track. They aren't the first or last track specialists to struggle in Ghent as the track and the racing programme make this far and away the toughest Six-day race. By the halfway stage, at the end of Thursday, Franco Marvulli was struggling with illness and he failed to finish, a major disappointment for the Swiss rider making his farewell Ghent appearance.
By this time the Spaniards and Bartko / Kalz had found some form and didn't have more major lap losses but 3 teams had set their stall out in the battle for victory, everybody else was making up the numbers really. Those 3 teams, made up of 4 Belgians made this a local battle with perennial favourite Iljo Keisse and Wim Stroetinga, 2012 runners up Kenny De Ketele and Gijs Van Hoecke this year getting pushed hard with 20 year old sensation Jasper De Buyst and the experienced, and ever classy, Leif Lampater in the mix. These teams traded points and laps from start to finish and no one left anything on the track at the close at 18:00 on Sunday 24 November.
Starting the final chase in the lead on points, De Buyst / Lampater had to cover many moves as the race ebbed and flowed. Initially De Ketele / Van Hoecke tried to gain the upper hand by taking laps but as the last 15 minutes approached they'd been matched and were some way behind on points. They just didn't have the legs to get the all important clear lap which was no surprise, as it was revealed Van Hoecke had lost his Mother just the day before. He actually came from the hospital to the track.
Most people in the crowd, myself included, expected multi Ghent Six winner Iljo Keisse and Dutchman Wim Stroetinga to be too strong in the final laps for De Buyst / Lampater, but it proved to be the other way around. Despite numerous attacks neither Keisse or Stroetinga was to break the Belgian / German elastic and in the final few laps De Buyst / Lampater actually took control and cruised home over 50 points clear both sealing their first Ghent Six win.
There partnership was a classic one of strong chaser in Lampater and fast sprinter in De Buyst. The German Lampater has been close before but he had never previously had a strong sprinter alongside him and had always had to attack rather than defend in the Final chase. This time defend he did and he proved to be the strongest rider in the field. This year Keisse has ridden on the road more than ever finishing the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and the Giro, in support of Mark Cavendish and he just wasn't in the same form, something he acknowledged himself (see below).
Leif Lampater (Winner):
"Having a fast guy is really important in Ghent with the Time Trials gaining a lot of points. Jasper had the speed and the technique in the Time Trials but unlike a lot of the really fast guys he wasn't cracking in the chases, but he kept going. Of course I had great legs and a few times he was close to cracking so I just did a little bit extra and it worked out really beautiful. He is an Omnium champion so I know he isn't going to crack easily though!!! I've been struggling the last few winters with form and illness etc but this year I've been going well. Ok Iljo (Keisse) wasn't as strong this year, and maybe if he was on last years form it would have been harder but that's sport and when you are on top and have the opportunity you have to take it and we did that so I'm very happy."
Jasper De Buyst (Winner):
"This had always been a dream but I didn't expect it to come true so soon (his 2nd Ghent Six. It is really nice to get this win at just 20 years of age. I'd like to come back and get a couple more but you never know as every year is different, next year I might not be so good, we'll see. The level this week was a really high and from day one 3 teams where stronger than the rest so we knew we can get the podium at least but until the last minute the winners weren't decided - so really happy to be on top. The crowd has been great all week but I know that this is still Iljo's place, he's won here 5 times and for now and the next few years its still his place and rightly so, I have no problem with that, but you never know one day it might be my place too!!!"
"I'll be doing a lot of track from now up until Rio 2016 so I'll be around on the track for the next few years at least, before I try the road more, after Rio."
Iljo Keisse (2nd with Stroetinga):
"This has been a long and hard season and I think that maybe I'm a little bit tired. I've been racing since Rotterdam in January and I think I've had about 120 races days, plus I was off the bike for sometime after the Giro with an injury, so its been a long year. I think its only normal that I'm starting to feel it, I'm not fresh, I'm not super fast, so the only thing I can do is keep going. I thought that in the long chases I'd have the condition from all the work on the road. That's what I did the last few days kept going, but in the end, today, I think the work we'd done in the last few days got into my legs and today, no excuses, but I didn't feel super!!! "
"It's been good having 4 Belgian guys up there, but I think we need some more strong international teams in this Zes Daages. We wouldn't have to be going so hard and making the racing every single day if there was a bit more competition to share the work load out a bit."
Kenny De Ketele (3rd with Van Hoecke):
"This year I think we were more or less at the same 'high' level as last year, but this year there were 3 strong teams going for the win, not just 2. We had 2 very hard days at the end and with Gijs' (Van Hoecke) Mum being in hospital and then dying last night. We made the best of it but... yeah... what can I say?"
David Muntaner (9th with Albert Torres) - I asked him about adapting to the track and their venture into Six-day racing:
"The first 2 days were very difficult. Its very small and we'd never raced on this track or any other like it, so it was hard, but after a few days we got better. I knew the size but I never expected it would be so different and the steepness and size of the banking make it super fast. I think with more experience we could do a little better. But we knew before we came it would be difficult, we spoke with (Joan) Llaneras and he told us we'd lose a lot of laps so we expected a tough few days but came to learn and do our best. On bigger tracks I think we can be better as we are used to 250 metres, so on a bigger track we can compete in Six-days I think." (ed: They finished 3rd the following week in Zurich)
"The public have been amazing here in Ghent, it's the best place I've been racing. Big crowds every day and they are so close to the action. They like cycling a lot... its impressive just being here."
Moreno De Pauw (11th place with Nicky Cocquet but winner of numerous Time Trials) - I asked him about his week:
"Our objective from the start was to get the most points in the small races and stay calm in the Madison chases. Almost immediately we could see we were going well in the Time Trials and Elimination races and we did take the most points there and met our objective. I think everyone is happy. We showed our jersey (Belgian Madison Champs) to the public by winning a lot in the small races and that was what was important, rather than trying for say 9th or 10th etc. Obviously in the future I'd like to do better in the chases and get a higher place in the classification but I'm taking that step by step. For now we did what we set out to do. The level was very high with the top guys all week, I think everyone is tired!!! So my objective is to improve and come back stronger in the chases."
Final Standings: 1. De Buyst / Lampater 447 points 2. Keisse / Stroetinga 392 3. De Ketele / Van Hoecke 378 At 4 Laps: 4. Kneisky / Brisse 233 At 7 Laps: 5. Dillier / Marguet 214 At 8 Laps: 6. Bartko / Kalz 244 7. Grasmann / Graf 120 At 11 Laps 8. Muller / Havik 134 At 12 Laps 9. Muntaner / Torres 101 At 36 Laps: 10. Coquyt / De Pauw 233 Did Not Finish (DNF): Marvulli, Roberts, Irvine, Hester, Jesper Morkov and Imhof