Cutting through the typically flat, grey Flemish morning en route to Gent, the motorway exit signs read like a history lesson in cycle racing; Kortrijk, Kuurne, Wevelgem, Oudenaarde, Petegem- a pick & mix of legendary bicycle race place-names rushing past like a slideshow at full tilt. With the kilometres ticking rapidly down there is one sign that remains a constant: Gent. A magical place steeped in the history of cycling, wrapped tight and deeply woven into the fabric of the city, the home of the Gent Six Day, the Doyenne of Six Days if you will, with 't Kuipke velodrome- Flemish for 'The Little Tub', (a reference to the compact and fearsomely steep nature of the 166m wooden track) at its beating heart.
Gent sits comfortably minding its own business under the the risen star of Brugge. If Brugge is the manicured chocolate box fairy-tale, Gent is the welcome beer, savoured after a hard week at work; the favourite pair of old jeans rather than the restricted elegance of a Sunday best. The city greets us warmly as dusk creeps along the canals and rivers, adding gothic splendour to the imposing architecture of the churches and less than upright waterfront townhouses that line the echoing, cobbled streets and alleyways. The chimes of bike bells, their pilot skilfully navigating the tram tracks and cobbles glistening under the drizzle softened street lighting, call the pace of life here.
We dive into a bar at the end of a bridge. We are looking for the essence of Gent & its Six Day Race and believe the dark wood panelling and kaleidoscopic beer selection behind the orange glow of the bar's small windows is the place to start. The lilting Flemish voices and myriad options on the beer menu, which can often run to a small novella in length, wash over us. The food and drink in this part of the world mirror the feeling: hearty and honest; steeped in tradition and of the earth. That is not to say it is without finesse or depth- order any beer you like, obscure as you fancy, the correctly branded and shaped glass will appear from under the counter. An old pair of wrought iron waffle-makers, just one of the many curiosities mounted on the bar’s wall, sit next to a classically dark oil on canvas depicting times gone by. My attention is drawn to an array of small, colourful tin plaques, serial numbers and years- 1973, 1968- industrially embossed upon them, adorning the woodworm burrowed beams: "Bicycle registration plates" my Flemish friend and photographer, Pieter, informs me, noticing me examining them for clues. Cycling, as ever, seeping unobtrusively but intricately into the fabric of Flanders and of the evening.
Cycling in Flanders is not a movement or fad. It does not demand your membership of an entrenched sub-society which sits somewhat at odds with the world at large. It's like farming or football, like the road bridges that raise up above the barges as they plough along the Schelde or the chairs & tables outside the cafes and bars in the town square. "It's in our bones" Pieter told me, not as a grand statement or badge of honour, but matter-of-fact because it's always been that way; part of life and folklore.
Het Kuipke is a short walk from the centre of town, buried in the leafy Citadelpark. In these days of awe inspiring velodromes resembling flying saucer-like modernist sculptures, 't Kuipke's utilitarian 1960's brick squareness politely asks you to leave your desire for the ephemeral at the door and wallow in the worn paint and school sports hall feel of an analogue history. For anyone whose childhood team's 100 year old football ground has been torn down and replaced by a corrugated iron & girder corporate walk-through experience on an out of town retail park, 't Kuipke is your return to the womb.
I walk through the catacombs of the velodrome, accompanied by the thunderous rattle of the riders hammering around the banking where the wooden track's boarding is skeletally exposed, and head further down into the depths of the Little Tub. I reach the steep, curved ramps that lead up into that most iconic and, crucially, accessible of track centres; Middenplein. The tumult and fervour of the track centre at the Gent Six Day is central to its legend and draw.
I emerge into Eurobeats, bright lights and an animated crowd; the noise of the chatter and laughter rhythmically interspersed every 12 or so seconds with the woosh of the race as it barrels endlessly by. Beer flows as ceaselessly as the circling rider's laps, the air is charged with excitement and high spirits. It's a huge celebration of feeling and breathing that which runs in the veins of Flanders, stripped of pretension or menace. I catch sight of a friend. He is coaching a team of two, Dane Elias Busk and Czech rider Denis Rugovac, who are riding in the AVS Under-23 Cup. His charges are holding the green points jersey going into the final day after a strong showing all week. They sit effortlessly on the rollers spinning their legs out after the night's exertions as engrossed in the whole proceedings as the partying throngs with the crowd buzzing only a couple of feet away from them. Together we head down to the riders changing area; a place suffused with the same lived in feel of worn paint and well-trodden corridors that characterizes the rest of the stadium. I have to pinch myself in order to snap out of a deepening haze as I stand picturing the legends of the sport that have undoubtedly sat drained in the emotions of elation or whisker close defeat. A bunch of podium flowers lies forlornly in a small wash basin next to the empty soap dispenser. A friendly smile and "Hi!" from perhaps the next great British Champion, Germain Burton, as he casually hops off his rollers on the eve of a monumental victory. Just a lad racing his bike on the boards and into the weighty history books of 't Kuipke.
The evening gathers pace as riders and crowd whip the atmosphere up ever higher. Both are egged on by the energetic announcer and music, carefully orchestrated to first keep pace with, and then spill the drama of each race over into frenzy; Rossini's William Tell Overture and The White Stripes' Seven Nation Army make for odd bedfellows but are intrinsic to the whole scene. Even sitting up in the trackside stands away from the seething track centre the atmosphere is intoxicating. It rises from the track centre, embraces the racers as they career around the track and spreads into the stalls in one continuous wave. There is no division or separation between those that have come to ride and those that have come to cheer; the interaction is total between rider and fan. The viciously tight track means the racing is intense and without respite, the careworn venue embraces racing and feeds off the passion of all involved in a way that can never be recreated by the chrome and glass behemoths that rip the beating heart from the centre of affairs and banishes it to the seating. Het Kuipke is filled with people who live and breathe cycling, many of whom may never turn a pedal in their life; the white haired old lady, start-list in hand, craning her neck past the steward on the stairwell to catch a glimpse of the riders hurtling by; the frenetic, beer spilling Flemish teen who grabbed me around the shoulders as the music and racing reached a crescendo, looked me in the eyes and declared euphorically at the top of his voice "This is living!".
The climax of the night's events though is the derny racing. The concept is one part Mad Max-esque duel, one part quaint two-stroke formation display team. The music is cut for the first two thirds of the race as the pleasing buzz and howl of the derny's engines fill the velodrome, surging and diving around the banking like dogfighting Tiger Moths. The riders urge the derny pilots on in a gladiatorial dance, banging their front wheels theatrically against the track or cracking imaginary jockey's whips, all the time verbally exhorting their mechanised allies ever faster until their own mortal legs give out or a decisive break is forged. The crowd raucously lap the ham acting up and the music kicks in for a finale that is unrivalled for sheer velocity, the wining duo parading in unison to the delight of the whole arena. Nothing beats the derny race.
By 12.45am only the hardcore are watching the racing, the party has taken on a life of its own. Mr VeloBeats, John Braynard, wandered amongst the carnage "The crowd has been drinking for about 6 hours.. This is when it gets wild. While the races were still going on, the infield crowd built an obstacle out of trash cans and took turns seeing who could jump over it. One guy didn't quite make it over and ended up head first inside the bin. If you made it over you got a bigger cheer than the riders winning a race.."
It has gone 3am by the time my head hits the pillow, I fall asleep with only one thought running through my mind: This is no one-shot hit - I get to relive it all again tomorrow!
Our suspicions that Sunday may prove to be a mellower affair were swiftly put to one side as we entered 't Kuipke just after lunchtime. The final session would run from midday until around 6pm, after which the whole party would decamp to the bars of pre-working week Gent. The whole building swayed to the crowds constant chiming, worshipping mantra of the local favourite's name: Iljooooo..Iljooooo..Iljoooo... It reached fever pitch as we headed into the final hour of racing with the scores set dead level. A veritable masterclass in Madison racing ensued as Iljo Keisse and Michael Mørkøv put their opponents to the sword, the coup de grâce delivered with the requisite panache in a swashbuckling attack to finally seal the only result the crowd wanted.
And so to De Karper for the after-party, a small bar just a couple of hundred metres away from 'T Kuipke and run by Iljo's family, which distils the euphoria of the velodrome within its cosy confines. The place is packed tight, so much so that the windows of the bar serve as additional entry and exit points (complete with Renson frame venting, the Renson representative, co-sponsor of the victorious duo, proudly points out to me, as he helps haul in yet another newcomer to the party). I glance at the wet, dark streets through that window and see a lone figure in jeans and a black jacket walking towards the bar, hands stuffed into pockets. A woman holding the hand of a young girl beckons to the figure as he crosses a road. He stops and bends down to greet the youngster, smiling, and exchanges a few words. Iljo Keisse: The Lord of Flanders. Just strolling down the street to the pub after winning the Gent Six. The bar goes into meltdown as he enters; that Iljo then announces he is buying the rounds for the next couple of hours did nothing to dampen spirits!
What the Gent Six means to the fans is evident all around me, but what of the racers?
“Gent is a difficult race to win, that means that everybody is ready to race and the races get more exciting as you go on… the feeling in the races between the riders and the crowd is one of the best-they want to see racing and you clearly feel that and hear them when riding..” enthuses Elias Busk when I ask about his overriding emotions. His team mate, Denis Rugovac, echoes those sentiments before pinpointing one moment that stands out for him amongst the blur of the week "The Gent atmosphere is special, it's not like anywhere else. It's like in a football stadium - but everyone is friendly which makes it just much better. . It's just awesome and the crowd just support anyone, they love the cycling and that's why they come. A memorable moment? For me it was when I was looking face to face to Mark Stewart and knew I will crash into him when he was sliding down the track after a crash. We are alive and no big harm done!".
As I watch the re-run of the final, victorious moments for the umpteenth time on a wall mounted TV in the back of the bar, I sense someone standing equally transfixed beside me: Michael Mørkøv. He's watching the shots of the crowd ecstatically Mexican-waving as he and Iljo launch yet another lap-taking sortie. The addition to the palmares is, naturally, welcome- but I wonder: How does it feel to see all around him the joy his victory with Iljo has brought to the people? "It's just.." Michael glances around the bar "..Amazing! When I won back in 2009 (with fellow Dane, Alex Rasmussen) I felt as though I had, in many ways, let everyone down. Disappointed everyone.. but to win, with Iljo, the local hero..." again, an incredulous glance around, "..It's just... Fantastic!!"
Photos credit - Pieter Van Hoorebeke Photography