by Steve Penny
British 6-Day Correspondent
25 November 2015
Coming to Ghent to watch the Six-day, as I have for 20 years, is like meeting up with an old friend, a friend you see just once a year but when you meet, you are familiar and easy in each others company. Most familiar is the velodrome, Het (the) Kuipke, that hosts the Six-days which has, barring a few upgrades in the bar areas, changed very little during the time I've been coming. Importantly it still feels like a bike race, rather than a show or party although the latter does have its place here. The fans who come to the event year after year know and respect the tradition that makes this a classic and, really and truly, the last remaining Six-day that has had no identity crisis during these austere times.
This year the organisation started the race by commemorating 50 years since Patrick Sercu and Eddy Merckx won the first Six in what was then the new Kuipke - the building was rebuilt between 1961 and 1965. On the first night both men where in the house to fire the starting gun, the Keizer and the Cannibal reunited. That 1965 edition started a run for Patrick Sercu (the Keizer) that saw him win a record 11 Six-days in the Kuipke. His partner Eddy Merckx (the Cannibal) who went onto make history on the road needs little introduction. What might not be so well known though is that Eddy topped and tailed his career in the Kuipke taking one of his last career wins in the building in 1977 alongside who else but Patrick Sercu.
The 75th edition of the Ghent Six was, as is has been for many years, another commercial success. In excess of 40,000 people came through the doors with the last 4 days selling out completely. In some ways the continued, or even increased, success is a strange phenomenon because on the track getting riders of the right level onto the start list is not an easy task in 2015. That isn't the fault of the available riders, we are in different times, and many will debate the reasons such as there no longer being a Six-day season (since the cancellation of the big November Sixes in Germany), the lure of the road with much more money now available on the road riders don't need Six-day contracts, the madison being cut from the Olympics, increased specialism, lack of cooperation from trade teams and national federations etc, etc. Really, there is no easy or right answer. What we now have every late November is a one off event and that one off event is as successful and popular as ever, despite talk that the Six-days are dead… not so in Ghent.
On the track there was a battle all week between what we'll describe as the 3 'local' teams. The experienced modern day Keizer of Het Kuipke Iljo Keisse with Michael Morkov, a Dane but by riding at the side of Keisse he was for six days anyway, an honorary local. The winner of the last 2 editions Jasper De Buyst was alongside the 20 year old Otto Vergaerde. Going for a 3rd straight win De Buyst was himself just a few days away from his 22nd birthday. The other Flemish contenders were twice winner Kenny De Ketele alongside Gijs Van Hoecke. This pair also having been the 2012 World Madison Champions.
The leadership changed hands a number of times during the week but the final honours went to Keisse and Markov on a wet and windy Sunday afternoon. Of course inside the Kuipke building it was not wet or windy but the heat was on in more ways than one. The final chase was hard fought and the winner undecided, on paper at least, until the last 20 laps when Keisse turned the screw with a big attack taking what was in effect a 'double lap or doublet' as they say. His partner was in no mood to let it slip either and they powered around both taking strong turns to seal the victory with a few laps to spare. No final sprints or point totals coming into play. In reality this pair who both rode full road seasons in the pro-tour where too strong for the track specialists but Vergaerde, De Buyst and Van Hoecke are all young so it was natural that the older and stronger guys came through in the end. A telling factor of these 3 teams' domination was they all had over 400 points by the finish. It wouldn't be fair though if I didn't point out that the Danish team of Marc Hester and Alex Rasmussen finished just two laps behind in 4th place but with a points total of nearly 250 less than the winners they were not in the running for the win.
Elsewhere during the week another Belgian, Moreno De Pauw produced some stunning performances in the flying lap. On Friday night he broke the track record storming around the 166 metre boards in just 8.45 seconds. The previous track (or Baan as they say locally) record was 8.56 seconds. In fact De Pauw, with the lead outs from his French partner Morgan Kneisky, put in another sub 8.50 time on Saturday as well as posting an 8.58 on Thursday. Over the six-days the flying lap was perhaps the one event on the programme that you could say massively exceeded the exploits of previous editions. Keisse / Morkov and De Ketele / Van Hoecke all consistently went below 8.70 with De Buyst / Vergaaerde also in the 8.70s most of the week. Such times would have been more than enough to win the crowd pleasing flying lap night after night, in years gone by.
Iljo Keisse (winner):
I spoke to a severely limping Iljo Keisse an hour after the finish:
"After 2 years being 2nd it left me feeling a little bit sour but I knew coming in with Michael Morkov that we had a big chance to get the win this time and of course it went pretty well. Unfortunately there was a stupid crash on the first night and I suffered a little bit from that but I think all week we have been the strongest. I didn't race as much on the road after the nationals in early July, just a few races and the London Six-day, but anyway I've felt good all year actually and coming in felt really fresh, apart from my problem suffered in the crash on Tuesday."
I asked him about the possibility of Sir Bradley Wiggins coming back to Ghent to finish his career as he has been quoted saying its what he wants to do:
"Well Bradley posted an old picture on Instagram of him and Rob Hayles here in Ghent and I commented that I hope to get a picture with you like that in Ghent next year. He answered saying 'yes we'll do it' so hopefully it can happen."
Michael Mørkov (winner):
"Even though it was just the second time we'd raced together at a Six we worked very well together from the first day. I think getting it right as we did from day one was a big factor towards us winning this race. The crowds have been fantastic and even though some people say the Six-days are dying that certainly is not the case here in Ghent!!"
I also asked him about his road season and plans for 2016?
"I wasn't as visible perhaps this year but I had my job working for the team and did a lot of work for Peter Sagan as well as having a nice victory at the Tour of Denmark. Next year I'll be riding the road with Katusha"
Kenny De Ketele (2nd):
"It's a fact that these guys were really strong but we had the feeling that we were growing as the Six-days went on especially in the last 2 days we were growing and growing. That said in the end they had a perfect attack and we were calculating, as we knew somewhere we'd have to make a chase but they threw a big bomb and got 40-50 metres straight away. I tried and we kept them to half a lap at first but my legs felt the pain and we couldn't keep it up, they were so strong and went on to seal the victory at the end with that big attack. The finale of a Six-day is a man on man fight and usually if you are strongest you will go on to win which is how it should be."
Gijs Van Hoecke (2nd):
"We got 2nd and normally you may not say you are happy with 2nd but we all saw Michael and Iljo riding together, they we're really good. We were also good but they were stronger in the chases. Maybe we were a bit stronger in the time trials but you only win a Six-day by taking laps and they were the strongest and best at that. We had a fight for 2nd as well and they saw that was going on and used their strength to attack and take the win."
Jasper De Buyst (3rd with Otto Vergaerde):
"After winning the last 2 years its disappointing, I was going for a 3rd straight win. I'm still on the podium but for sure it's not the result I hoped for coming into Ghent as I wanted a unique 3 in a row. If I ever want to do it (win 3 in a row) I'll be starting again from zero. I'm going on holiday now as I've been racing since February but I'll get to the training camp after my holidays and discuss with the team how best to plan my season aiming for the Olympics in Rio."
Moreno De Pauw (5th):
"We started the Six aiming for the podium but after a few nights we made some mistakes and lost some laps. It's so difficult to take laps back against these guys. So from Thursday we changed plans and decided to go for the lap record that, as you saw, turned out pretty well!! I had done a lot of road training coming into the Six-day so it took a few days for the speed to really come but by the 3rd day I did a 9.58 so knew I was getting close then of course on Friday the 9.45 … I couldn't believe it. The other guys put in some good times too though as saw Kenny (De Ketele) did a great 9.60 that in previous years would have have won. In the new year I'm hoping to ride the rest of the Six-days with Kenny (De Ketele)"
1. Iljo Keisse (BEL) - Michael Mørkøv (DEN), 457 points at 1 lap: 2. Kenny de Ketele - Gijs van Hoecke (BEL), 449 p 3. Jasper de Buyst - Otto Vergaerde (BEL), 442 p at 2 laps: 4. Alex Rasmussen - Marc Hester (DEN), 212 p at 14 laps: 5. Morgan Kneisky (FRA) - Moreno de Pauw (BEL), 371 p at 16 laps: 6. Nick Stöpler (NED) - Jesper Mørkøv (DEN), 156 p at 20 laps: 7. Yoeri Havik - Melvin van Zijl (NED), 138 p 8. Marcel Kalz - Christian Grasmann (GER), 122 p at 45 laps: 9. Andreas Müller (AUT) - Stijn Steels (BEL), 76 p at 49 laps: 10. Lindsay de Vylder (BEL) - David Muntaner (ESP), 79 p at 52 laps: 11. Christopher Lawless (GBR) - Roy Pieters (NED), 83 p at 62 laps: 12. Tristan Marguet - Benjamin Thomas (FRA), 62 p
This years UIV Cup for Under 23s (or Toekomst zesdaagse to give it its traditional name) was, if you just looking at the final results, an easy ride for the winners but some drama in the final chase showed that you've not won any race until you cross the finish line for the last time.
British pair Mark Stewart and Germain Burton came into Ghent having shown well last month in the professional London Six-day. They dominated proceedings so much that entering the final day they were a full 6 laps clear of the field. So game over then, not quite as a couple of scary moments on Sunday afternoon nearly put paid to the hard work they'd put in from Tuesday to Saturday. First Germain Burton fell but he dusted himself off and returned to the fray. With less than 20 minutes remaining a scary incident saw Mark Stewart come down heavily and somehow his bike ended up in the spectator seats above the track. Only a TV reply would be able to show exactly what happened and I'm not sure any footage is available. Stewart got back on his feet and went up the track to get his bike. Within a couple of minutes he was back in the race. It must have been a surprise to the British pair, and everyone, when they got a warning from the Commissaires for 'walking on the track while the race was still in progress', very strange. But onwards they went in their race to nowhere and in the end still managed to finish a clear 5 laps ahead of the field losing just one lap, despite the spills. Bruised and with some abrasions, I'm sure, Stewart and Burton confirmed their overall victory, clearly the class act of the Under-23 field in Ghent this year.
Both the riders are part of the GB programme with training based at the Manchester velodrome. They live nearby in Stockport, which is a little way out of the city and makes getting out onto quieter roads easier for training rides. Mark Stewart hails from Dundee but lived in Glasgow for a long time before heading down south to join up with the GB squad. He noted that they'd had the chance to ride with the pro's following their London performance but decided that as it'd be their first time on the 166 metre track it'd be best to gain some experience racing with the Under-23s. A wise move as over the years riders, many with track and Six-day pedigree, will tell you its not easy coming onto the bowl shaped track for the first time, especially when you're used to the championship sized 250 metre tracks.
Germain Burton is the son of Maurice Burton* who was a resident in Ghent and rode nearly 60 Six-day races in the late 70s into the early 80s. Maurice would have gone onto ride many more Sixes having established himself on the, then, ultra competitive circuit. He'd have ridden many more too if a serious crash, that left him in hospital for 6 weeks, in 1984 in Buenos Aires hadn't ended his career prematurely at the age of 28. Germain is now following in his wheel tracks albeit in a different climate from his Dad. Being a Londoner, Germain said with a smile, that he finds Stockport quiet, but I'm sure that's what he wants and needs moving forward. Both the guys seemed to enjoy the experience so I'd imagine, GB permitting, we'll see them cut their teeth back here next November having gained some experience at the Berlin Six and (hopefully) the 2016 London Six.
Final Standings: AVS Cup - UIV-Under-23 (Toekomst zesdaagse):
1. Germain Burton - Mark Stewart (GBR), 147 points at 5 laps: 2. Matthias van Beethoven - Killian Michiels (BEL), 105 p at 7 laps: 3. Lorenzo Blomme - Bryan Boussaer, 65 p at 8 laps: 4. Stefan Schneider (GER) - Dylan van Zijl (NED), 55 p 5. Gerben Thijssen - Jules Hesters (BEL), 45 p at 11 laps: 6. Simon Bigum - Mathias Lindberg (DEN), 31 p at 13 laps: 7. James Baeyens - Mathias Lefeber (BEL), 16 p at 15 laps: 8. Silvan Dieterich (SUI) - Stefan Matzner (AUT), 3 p at 17 laps: 9. Elias Helleskov Busk DEN) - Denis Rugovac (CZE), 115 p at 31 laps: 10. Davide Piebani - Francesco Lamon (ITA), 9 p at 44 laps: 11. Arne de Groote - Maxim Pirard (BEL), 4 p
As mentioned earlier, the Six started with Patrick Sercu and Eddy Merckx commemorating 50 years in the Kuipke. On Sunday there was an introduction, on the track, of some other past retired winners of the Ghent Zes Daages.
The first to be introduced to the crowd was Australian Don Allan who won in 1976, 79 and 82 alongside the great Danny Clark. Next up was the 1999 winner Jimmi Madsen, who triumphed alongside Scott McGrory. The Dane is now one of the Sports Directors for the still surviving Copenhagen Six. The 2004 winners Robert Slippens and Danny Stam, from Holland, also took their bow. If Slippens had not suffered a serious career ending injury within a few years of this success you'd have to imagine they'd have gone on to win again on a track that suited them well.
The biggest cheer was reserved for the Swiss legend of the modern Sixes, Bruno Risi. He won in 1993, 96 and 2002 with Kurt Betschart. Logic suggests they'd have taken another couple if the Zurich Six hadn't always started a day or two after Ghent. Zurich was of course being their home Six-day and they'd certainly have had, and felt, obligations to sponsors, supporters, etc, to arrive there ready. Also not helping was that Betschart seemed to have bad luck in Ghent with injury or illness. That said, Risi did make 7 appearances on the final podium, latterly with Franco Marvulli in 2009 following the retirement of Betschart in 2006. Bruno, who I interviewed in 2008, is now in the skiing business, actually selling skis. He was a skier before a cyclist, so to quote him he's returned to that, his first passion. The continued success of the Ghent Six was something Bruno believes proves that the Six-days can still be part of the cycling calendar but he noted that in these changing times and with more competition for the entertainment dollar (euro) it is difficult to succeed.