It’s nearly 01:00 am, the Dernys drone, the drums pound from the PA, the crowd lifts itself from the beer and burger torpor to roar and stamp as “Kenee dee Ketel-ah !” goes for it – but it’s just not the same.
Is it that you can see the floor, instead of the usual layer of dead plastic beer glasses and discarded burger wrappers ?
Or is it that the conga lines are too short and you don’t have to force yourself through the track centre throng ?
Or maybe that they haven’t played Kiss, ‘I Was Made For Loving You’ even once, this evening.
It’s all of that; but the biggest reason ‘t Kuipke isn’t its usual pulsating Saturday night self is that it’s King – instead of popping wheelies when he takes a lap – is sitting in the stand with the civilians.
It’s his Kingdom, but he can’t reign.
When I tell Dave by SMS, he reckons that Iljo Keisse should stay away from the stadium and serve out his Belgian ban in silence.
But how can he ?
He was born in this city, he played in ‘t Kuipke when he was a kid, he’s won here four times – and been second twice – and still when you interview him and mention the 6 Daagse Vlaanderen-Gent, his voice changes, his eyes go misty and you can see that the man lives for this race.
Maybe Jesper Morkov sums it up best; ‘In Germany they say you must have the “Lokalmatador” for the atmosphere to be right.’
Kenny De Ketele is solid, quick, professional and tries his heart out – but he’s not Iljo.
PEZ arrived in Gent on Friday night; Kris only has two riders here, Jesper and Franco Marvulli so we agreed that I’d come out for the weekend, help out with the packing on Sunday after the race and then provide moral support on the long drive down to the Four Days of Zurich, which starts on Wednesday.
I managed a few hours ‘warm up’ running on Friday night – just to get me ready for Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.
The faithful camper van is here, parked beside the stadium; that top bunk looks very beautiful at 03:00 am.
On Saturday I woke before my 10:00 am alarm and ambled down to get the local paper, the ‘Gentenaar’ – literally, ‘citizen of Gent.’
Our favourite Gent bar, the Vivaldi is on the way to the paper shop – good pils at sane prices, great 70’s and 80’s sounds, a voluptuous hostess and open ’til . . . I don’t really know – we’ve never made it that late.
Iljo’s dad’s bar, ‘De Karper’ is next door to the paper shop – I can still remember the party there the night Iljo won in Gent for the first time, with Matt Gilmore, back in 2005.
The Gentenaar had a two page preview spread on the big Saturday cyclo-cross at Koksijde.
There was also a two page spread on the Six, but most was given over to the memory of Spanish star Isaac Galvez who died here in a horrific crash, five years ago.
And there’s a picture of Iljo; naturally – and he gives his take on the race.
Back from the paper shop, wander up to the track from the steel container that is our salubrious headquarters.
What are they doing buzzing around the track at this time of the morning ?
And there’s Philippe Gilbert and former Belgian elite champion, Jurgen Roelandts lapping steadily behind the little motorbikes.
‘Phil’ and Jurgen have a challenge pursuit match tonight over three kilometres – I can hear you thinking; “what would entice Gilbert to do that?”
How does 60,000 euros sound ?
And there are rumours that he’s on five million per year with BMC – all a tad crazy when you think about the good riders who can’t get a contract for 100 Euros per week.
Shopping time, those ‘renners’ need fed and watered – the Citadel Park is on it’s best autumn behaviour as we stroll to the supermarket – but Jeez! those six packs of Coke bottles are heavy.
In the afternoon there’s a little time for the internet as ‘civilians’ get to try out the 166 metre bowl.
The guys arrive to get fed at 16:00; mozzarella and ham salad, spaghetti and grilled chicken.
The U23 UiV six kicks off at 18:00 – the GB pair of Owain Doull and Simon Yates look unassailable.
Way back in 1975, British rider Maurice Burton was leading the amateur six going into the last night – but he couldn’t understand how his partner was going so badly and allowed a two lap lead to dwindle away and Van Den Haute and Hoste to win.
Then he found out that his partner had sold the race . . .
‘Venus’ by Shocking Blue hammers out as we get near to the 20:00 rolling presentation – the riders pair up, side by side in team number order and do one or two laps on the front as the speaker ‘bigs them up;’ then they peel off and rejoin the back of the string until all of the teams have been introduced.
Some riders like it, some don’t, if you’ve been on the track in the afternoon then it’s just more uneccessary laps of the track – but if you’ve been lazy and ducked training then it’s a good warm up.
Sprint series, Jesper gets ‘flicked’ for a couple, he’s philosophical; ‘that’s what happens when you’re the young guy.’
The devil goes down to Marc Hester and Franco; we get a nice little tactical sprint to decide it – like the ones you don’t get at the Worlds anymore.
Franco wins – flowers for the cabin.
The flying one lap time trial, 8.81 for Kenny De Ketele and ‘Big Bob’ Bartko, aka ‘The Potsdam Bear’ or ‘The Terminator’ – although it has to be said that he’s looking a little less Cyborg like, this season.
Peter Schep – who won here last year with Iljo – is the smoothest rider on the track, he leads Dutch compatriot Wim Stroetinga tight to the fence – the sling is good . . .
Stroetinga isn’t the smoothest of sprinters, but his hunch backed, elbows out style is effective – 8.76, which is 68.490 kph.
Chase time, 45 minutes duration; but it’s ‘not professional’ to stand track side before 15 minutes have elapsed if you’re a soigneur or runner.
It won’t go down as a classic chase.
Once, at ‘t Kuipke back in the 70’s Freddy Maertens offended Merckx by going against protocol in a madison and taking a lap when he shouldn’t – despite the fact that it was late, late at night Merckx insisted that the field go back on to the track.
The organisers remonstrated; ‘we race or I go home’ said Merckx.
Race they did, in front of a handful of fans; the death race went on until Maertens cracked and lost the lap – honour restored, Eddy allowed the storm blasted field to come down off the boards.
This chase wasn’t like that !
Tosh Van Der Sande and Leif Lampater win, despite Tosh’s mechanic taking a dozen or more laps to change a rear wheel puncture.
Tosh does the sensible thing and takes a seat whilst the spanner man’s face gets redder and redder.
Time for the Gilbert v. Roelandts pursuit; Phil in the home straight, hardly visible in the media scrum.
On the back straight with a guy to hold him up, one commissar, one photographer – and me.
Gilbert won – but Jack Bobridge will still sleep well tonight, when he sees those times.
Derny – Steven De Neef wins, this is his farewell race and he couldn’t be any more chuffed if he’d just won the Worlds.
The second chase is pancake flat – time for the singer.
I missed his name, but he sang in French – never a great idea in Flanders – and he wore a red suit.
To quote Bart Simpson talking about his dad; ‘right now I don’t love the man, but that’s a suit !’
After that there’s another Derny, a devil, another Derny and a more sprints.
The crowd thins, race by race, Kris heads down to make the toasties, I hold the fort and tidy up as the guys drop their kit where they stand and bolt for the showers.
As the say in Hollywood; “it’s a take !”
The finale summed it up, De Ketele/Bartko were one lap up and went for another with around ten laps to go – if the choreography had been right then they’d have made the junction just as the gun fired, executors of a splendid two lap triumph.
As it was, they couldn’t get the lap and finished in ‘no man’s land’ – winners but not in the manner they wished.
The race has been like that – ‘nearly but not quite;’ the venue is legendary, the crowds have been good but the pixie dust just hasn’t been sprinkled.
The entire six day circuit – including Gent – misses Bruno Risi; but the lack of homeboy Iljo takes the void to black hole proportions.
There were European, world and Olympic champions aplenty on the 50 degree bankings but precious little charisma.
But maybe it’s just me and my memories of dazzling final chases at ‘t Kuipke ?
If the crowd goes home well oiled and happy; and the accountants are happy, who am I to be coming on with the negative waves ?
Sniff and the Tears, ‘Driver’s Seat’ – a good tune for the under 23 riders in the UiV Cup to race to.
I ask the big, chisel jawed German guy who’s looking after the youngsters Hesslich/Barkschat; ‘is this rider related to Lutz Hesslich ?’
He fixes me with a Teutonic stare; ‘I am Lutz Hesslich !’
I practically bow with respect; world and Olympic sprint king in the late 70’s and early 80’s – he went in to politics after he finished his career, but I get the impression that he’s not on for a chat, so I go back to getting the cabin ready.
The GB lads Doull and Yates prove unbeatable, winning the madison and the overall classement – I give them a shout and a thumbs up; ‘nice one, boys !’
Steven De Neef’s career as a rider ends today – maybe he’ll go into cage fighting ? he has the upper body for it – but one wonders what’s going through his mind.
He’s 40 now but still very competitive, second place this season in the De Grote Prijs van Geraardsbergen with it’s multiple ascents of the Kappelmuur under scores that fact.
There are sprints, devils, Dernys – but really it’s all about the last chase, tonight.
The GB U23 lads do their lap of honour – on their road bikes, with mudguards.
And then it’s time for Danny Stam to say ‘goodbye’ to Gent – although he still has the rest of the season to ride and will take his final bow in Copenhagen.
The riders line up, the mechanics do the ‘wheel arch’ thing, there are presentations – and Patrick Sercu even smiles.
I spoke to Danny after it; ‘I want to go whilst I can still ride well enough, I was at the top, now I’m somewhere in the middle – but I don’t want to go any lower than that.’
Then De Neef takes to the track, you can feel the emotion.
He gets the same treatment, but when he’s presented with a robust looking trophy, there’s almost a ‘thinks bubble’ above Madame De Neef’s head; ‘what the hell are we gonna do with this thing ?’
Kenny De Ketele wins the Derny final – my ! what a surprise !
He’s paced by Michel Vaarten who was an Olympic kilometre medallist and six day man, ‘back in the day.’
Kris tells me something I didn’t know, (for the hundredth time) which is that the Derny drivers are subject to dope tests too – it’s a good job alcohol isn’t on the UCi list, in that case.
By the time the last chase approaches the ‘house full’ signs are up, the Europop is at its worst and the place is like a sauna.
My amigo and PEZ co-pilot on the Grand Tours, Martin Williamson is out there, with wife Gillian, chum John Anderson – and a sore head from Saturday night.
There’s just a scratch race before the 60 minute ‘ploegkoers’ which will decide things.
Usually they leave the sprint late to make it look good for the crowd – but De Neef takes off with four to go, no one chases and the hardman from Brabant goes out in style, with a mile wide grin on his face.
Even though it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion who’s going to win, the riders are nervous going in to the final chase – all except the Czech Hacecky.
His partner Martin Blaha went down with a bad stomach and whilst Hacecky rides all of the supporting races and gets his contract fee, he stands grinning beside the track as the chases grind past.
Despite the fact that it’s not the hardest ever Gent Six, there are some tired boys on that track, big Robert Bengsch grounds a pedal and slides spectacularly down the banking – but he’s soon up and away to a round of applause.
And Tim Mertens’ hand slings are looking decidely weary, despite the fact that partner Stam is one of the lightest men on the track.
The laps count down, the bell rings, the gun fires, Kenny De Ketele spreads his arms wide, the crowd cheers and Bob Bartko wins for the third time in Gent.
No presentation pictures from Ed, I’m afraid; the runner only gets to mess around like that if his bosses are on the podium – there’s a camp to break.
Our best is Franco with Christian Grasmann in fifth spot – second were Schep/Stroetinga and third Kneisky/Hester.
Strip the cabins, load the camper, help Franco with the bikes, grab a quick pic of Kenny – and when it’s all calmed down and the riders have driven off in to the cold grey dampness of a Gent Sunday night, wander along for an omelette at the student cafe.
No beers at De Karper for us, the adrenalin’s all gone and we have a long drive to Zurich, tomorrow.
Kenny, congratulations – but Iljo, we miss you.