The Kuipke Velodrome in Ghent, Belgium is one of the smallest cycling amphitheatres in the world. At 167 metres this really is a small and intimidating track, with banks so steep it barely seems possible to reach the high points on these boards. Yet, I witnessed first-hand, the best track riders in the world doing just that. But not only that, they did it theatrically, gesturing with no-hands on their handlebars at times and at speed whilst stirring up a 3,000 strong raucous crowd, before each race. Like legends of wrestling before the opening acts.
Having ridden on a velodrome at Manchester once, a mere short playtime experience, I am aware that any shortage of skill in this environment would leave the most ambitious amateur licking their wounds.
The Ghent Six Day is part of a series comprising 6-days of racing in varying cities over the season, often including London, Rotterdam, Copenhagen, Hong Kong, Berlin, New York and Brisbane among others. Six-Day racing has a rich history and is becoming more iconic with every fixture.
It all started in Islington, London in 1878, when David Stanton cycled for 73 hours over 6 days to prove a point and win a bet. His average speed was 13.5mph. His effort inspired a truly competitive six-day event thereafter, in which legend has it, the riders competed solidly and without sleep for 6 days, in order to achieve the highest distance to win. Bill Cann was the winner that year, with a staggering distance at that time, of 1060 miles.
Fast forward 143 years to 2021 and the winner of the Ghent Six-Day was Belgian pairing Kenny De Ketele and Robbie Ghys. De Ketele bowing out of the sport in his final race of a sterling six-day career. The Belgian duo grabbing victory with their final pedal-strokes, besting the current Olympic Madison champions Michael Morkov and Lasse Norman Hansen at their own game. A fitting drama, 99 years after the first Six Days of Ghent.
Nowadays, Six-Day racing is very different from the pioneering days of Islington. The current day format has remained largely unchanged since six-day racing was reinvigorated in 2016. That year Britain’s decorated Olympian Sir Bradley Wiggins incredibly, won his second Six Days of Ghent title with Mark Cavendish – thirteen years after first winning in Ghent the first time.
The six days comprise of a format repeated each day until the final day and consisting of individual timed fastest flying laps of the track, a points race, an elimination race, a Kierin race and finally a Madison.
Points are accumulated throughout each act, in some respects similar to the Tour de France whereby a daily overall classification is established. The pair with the most points at the end of the ultimate day are declared the winners.
What is each race?
First, the ‘Flying Lap’ or ‘Team Time Trial’ – both riders in each team get their chance to set the fastest 1-lap time possible with their teammate giving them a tow for 2 laps before handing over to them. They will then literally hit the line at full gas for around ten seconds to complete the timed lap. They reach speeds of 65kpm+ on their flying lap.
Second, the ‘Elimination’ – As the name suggests this race is about strategically eliminating your rivals through positioning and timing techniques. Every two laps, the last rider across the line is eliminated, making this a nail-biting watch.
Third, the ‘Points Race’ – In this battle, riders sprint every few laps when signalled by a ringing bell. The rider with the most points wins. Sounds simple but this is a highly tactical race and requires exemplary management of effort.
Fourth, the ‘Derny’ or ‘Keirin’ – The Derny race builds slowly from a calm, controlled start to a frenzied crescendo. Each rider lines up behind a motorised lead bike which builds speed gradually until the final laps, at the behest of the rider behind, where an all-out sprint decides the winner. The key is to use the Derny most effectively and time their final effort to perfection, as the Derny peels off to one side.
Finally, the ‘Madison’ – The Madison race is the archetypal absolute six-day thriller. As well as being a centrepiece of the week, it is also the final event of the final day. The last showdown. Riders hand-sling each other into each and every lap, taking turns to hunt for points every fifth lap. Riders can also make spectacular attempts to lap the field, thus taking significant points but it’s a risky strategy! The Madison is mayhem but enthralling and explosive.
Each six-day varies in formulae but largely, they follow these most popular formats.
Whilst Belgium took this year’s honours, it wasn’t the winner the script would have suggested. Most would have bet on British sprinting legend Mark Cavendish with Ghent-native team mate Iljo Keisse to sweep victory in Keisse’s home town. T’Kuipke is Keisse’s backyard. So much so he is a seven-time champion here. Alas, final day drama was in store for the home town favourite and his Manx Missile partner. It came in the shape of a rather spectacular and alarming crash mid-way through the very last act of the closing chapter, the Madison.
Not only is Keisse the local boy, but his family also runs the local cycling bar, where many of the regular Ghent fans are found annually soaking up the drama as Belgian television’s Sporza, beam out live coverage of Sunday’s finale.
Cavendish will live to fight another day, but at 36 years young, will this have been a sad final encounter on the boards? Many have bet against him before, yet time and again, the sprinter proves all wrong with yet more victories. The 2021 Tour de France was a timely reminder that he should not be written off. Four stage wins took Cavendish to a record-equalling 34th stage win in La Grand Boucle. After what seemed like a never ending cycle of annae-horriblae, many had already considered Cav, a retiree from this great sport. Only Belgian cycling legend and untouchable Eddy Merckx, achieved the same number of Tour wins. But, Merckx’ wins came courtesy of time trials, sprint finishes, breakaways and mountain top finishes, we all muse. The Manxman’s 34 wins all came from bunch sprints. There lie a subject of which the debates shall never end.
Keisse in-fact, while riding in the modern era, mixing professional road cycling and commercial team obligations with track racing, has won 23 races from 72 appearances in six-days. That is in itself an astonishing achievement, placing him higher in the all time list of six-day legendary hall of famers, not only than Merckx himself but former world champion, hour record holder and Grand Tour veteran Francesco Moser and British Six-Day hero Tony Doyle. A win rate of almost one third gives perspective on why Ghent expected an eight triumph for the anglo-belge duo. History cares for no-one. Not even Keisse and Cavendish.
But what makes these intimate and atmospheric track meetings so magical is the buzz between races, the speculation. Belgian beer fuelled frenzied tifosi, murmur and speculate on the goings on down in the belly of the track, where the actors await the stage. Are the gladiators plotting their final assaults or are they laying blame at the feet of one another for their failings. Mutterings on this day centre around Cavendish’s questionable form and the tension between he and Keisse. Did Cavendish prepare properly? At all? Did he leave no stone un-turned in the pursuit of an eight victory for his esteemed teammate? For all we know, they are delighted with their fourth sport on classification. But what the fans perceive and what is reality, need not align.
Rumours and speculation are food for the fans, the plankton that fuels them and emits excitement into the theatre. After all, it is theatre. Some say they are pre-determined acts even, like WWE perhaps. Exhibitions tailored to celebrate the warriors of the cycling season. We will never know. But we love theatre, nonetheless.