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A day at the Ghent Six

Stu Bowers
17 Nov 2016

As Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish make a bid for glory at the Ghent Six Day, we remember our visit to t'Kuipke a few years ago.

It’s hard to decide whether the scene we’re witnessing is a bike race with a party atmosphere, or a party with a bike race going on around it. Drum ’n’ Bass is pumping through enormous speakers while the DJ mixes tunes in time to the racing and an MC whips up the crowd. The centre of the track, which would normally be an oasis of calm for riders and mechanics to prepare for each race, is instead densely packed with spectators, and everyone is clearly in festive mood. 

I don’t know who to watch: local hero Iljo Keisse on his way to another convincing win in the derny race, or the group of guys almost certainly about to incur serious injury during a drunken game that involves using each other’s backs, leapfrog style, to attempt to clear a four-foot stack of beer cups. As the victorious Keisse laps up the adoration coming from the stands, throwing his winner’s bouquet to a young lady sat just to my left, an even more vigorous celebration is erupting in the track centre. Imminent disaster averted (for now), the inebriated leapfrogger has sailed clean over the stack to the raucous respect of all those around him. Time to add more cups.

Track record

Several hours earlier when we’d arrived at Ghent’s Kuipke velodrome in Belgium, greeted by the aroma of hot dogs, fried onions and beer, it was a slightly calmer picture. Now though, the party is in full swing and Belgian beer in full flow. This is the 73rd edition of what has become an iconic event and without doubt one of the most prestigious in the track racing calendar. The track is short at just 166 metres so the banking is incredibly steep. The riders clearly take things very seriously and want to put on a show, but some spectators seem oblivious to the fact there’s even a bike race going on. 

Quite how the event morphed into this half-party-half-bike-race is unclear. Six-day racing actually pre-dates the Tour de France by nearly two decades. Originating in the UK in around 1875, it simply involved riding for six days non stop, such was people’s slightly sadistic obsession with physical strength and endurance. It was only capped at six days for religious reasons, as Sunday was considered a ‘day of rest’. 

The aim was for riders to complete as many laps as they could, choosing to stop and rest or sleep only when they felt the need. The result was a mixture of incredible displays of track cycling endurance (some were reported to have covered over 3,000km with an average speed of nearly 23kmh – close to 500km a day), marred with unimaginable fatigue and even deaths. The programme for tonight’s event tells of riders in those early days as having ‘fallen asleep on their bikes and never woken up’. Clearly things are very different today, and we’re not expecting anyone to fall asleep at the bars. Well, not the riders at least.

Going round in squares 

Six-day racing was also popular in the US and it was here the original format was altered. Feeling that the event was simply too brutal, a new style of two-man ‘tag’ racing was developed, so that each rider could rest for 12 hours of the day while his partner took to the track. The first event of this type was held in Madison Square Garden in December 1898, and is where the name ‘Madison’ came from for the classic two-man endurance event we know today. What made the events more popular, as much as the endurance endeavour, was the sponsorship, which meant riders could claim sizable cash prizes. A boom in popularity in Europe saw events held in London’s Olympia in 1923 and Wembley between 1936 and 1939. The first Ghent Six Day was in 1922. 

It wasn’t until the post-war era that UK organiser Ron Webb introduced breaks between sessions, essentially creating the format used today, but due to disparagement from the traditionalists was forced to call the race a ‘six’ as opposed to a ‘six day’. Still though, the overall winners were the team (two riders) that completed the most number of laps in the six consecutive days of competition, with events such as the derny races and Madisons being especially important as they allowed racers to ‘take a lap’ from an opponent compared to sprints and time-trials. Ultimately, though, all races are crucial, as it’s the points tally that decides the victors in the event of a tie on laps. 

On the Saturday that Cyclist visits, each rider will have completed close to 100km over the course of the events, which run from 8pm until 2am.

Back to the party

There is a clear division in the velodrome. Those with a keener interest in the racing, generally the more sober, take to seats in the stands and peer down the track’s steep sides. Those here for the party amass in the centre and watch the racing going on like a wall of death above them.

Watching from within the track centre is both mesmerising, such is your close proximity to the action, and dizzying, such is the speed at which the riders fly around the track (close to 70kmh in the sprints). I’d put the experience somewhere between being in a mosh pit and on a fairground ride, or perhaps both at the same time. Diligent fans cheer and chant loudly, hailing the successes of their favourite riders. Others just cheer and chant loudly regardless. 

As we return to our seats for some respite, another huge roar erupts from the party. This time it’s ‘man down’ but the crowd seems just as happy to see a drunk man fail as to succeed. It’s now well after 1am but the party, we’re told, will go on until dawn. I can think of far worse ways to spend a cold winter’s night.

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