The rainbow jersey means you’re the on the throne; and it’s much more practical than a crown. But just because you’re Champion du Monde – it doesn’t mean you’re King of the Kuipke.
Kenny De Ketele and Gijs Van Hoecke wear the rainbows; but the Kuipke is Iljo Keisse’s Kingdom. His father managed the track, Iljo played in the velodrome as a child; four times he’s stood on top of the podium – his Gentenaar subjects love him.
And he loves them.
Kenny De Ketele is from Oudenaarde, Flemish bike racing Heartland, just along the road.
It’s been cold for Kenny in Iljo’s shadow; but last year he stepped into the limelight, winning in Gent with Big Bob Bartko as Iljo sat it out in the stand – the QuickStep man hog tied by a spiteful UCI after a convoluted ‘contaminated supplement’ debacle.
And then came Kenny’s crowning glory, the rainbow jersey with Gils Van Hoecke at the Worlds in Melbourne.
For the Four Days of Grenoble there was a truce as Kenny and Iljo joined forces to rout the upstart young French men, Kneisky and Coquard.
But it was only a temporary alliance – there are different battle lines drawn for Gent. An arranged result ? Don’t make me laugh !
Speak to Iljo about Gent and his eyes mist over, ask Kenny the same questions and his brows drop and his voice changes.
They both want it – bad.
Proceedings start at lunch time in the Kuipke on the last day – in the ‘good old days’ this was to allow the ‘squirrels’ to drive half way across Europe after the race to start the madness which was the Six Days of Zurich, on the Monday night.
Zurich’s popularity with the public was in part due to the fact that the local licensing laws were strict; but there was drink on sale at the six day until 03:00 am – and on some days, 05:00 am.
The ‘board warmer’ on Sunday at Gent is the UiV cup – the U23 six day over 240 laps. We made the effort to get up there early for the best part of the youngsters’ madison.
But not before we’d taken in some of Gent’s beautiful old merchants’ houses on our stroll up to the track. Built in the Art Nouveau era when Europe was alive with literature, design, music and promise – only to be ripped apart by World War One – your house was your Mercedes, or Colnago.
The symbol of your success. Belgium – and Brussels in particular – was a centre for the flowing, organic shapes, large glazed areas and use of new materials which characterize ‘Nouveau.’
Many of the three and four story town houses have been sub-divided into student flats – but still retain their elegance.
There are almost as many student flats in Gent as there are student bikes – but not quite !
The reason for our interest in the U23 race was that we have a friend in the field. A slimmed down Jakob Morkov, the third of the brothers, was racing with partner Bigum.
Eldest bruv Michael is on the brink of really big things with Saxo-Tinkov; whilst ‘middle’ bruv Jesper was second recently in the European Derny championships.
Morkov/Bigum won the Friday night madison but Jakob had a bad crash and had to be happy with fifth overall.
There were no presents for the ‘minnows’ as the pros took to the boards – ‘points make prizes’ was the motto for the big teams as Iljo Hoovered up the points race, devil and Derny heat.
But not the flying lap – which once more went to the Suisse duo of Marvulli/Marguet. It was quick at 08:67 but not perfect, Franco wasn’t quite high enough off the banking and Tristan’s line wasn’t the best.
The music for the time trials is cool – Dick Dale, Van Halen, Bob Sinclar and Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You.’
With the base thumping and a couple of thousand people clapping along as the renners track the fence, readying themselves for their plunge to the timing strip, it’s a wonderful spectacle.
De Ketele won his Derny heat, setting things up nicely for a Kenny/Iljo Derny final.
The final was Joop Zijlaard’s last ever race as a Derny pilot. This rotund little fellow has been driving Dernys and ‘big motors’ since the beginning of time – but I guess all good things must come to an end.
The Derny drivers don’t have much time for runners; possibly because the runners don’t share the drivers’ belief that the six days revolve around the little motor bikes.
Despite the smiles for the camera, it’s a closed, hard little world, sitting on the droning 50cc French beasts – and the drivers aren’t averse to sabotaging a new guy on the scene’s Derny if his face doesn’t fit.
But Joop gets the laps of honour; and he has been a part of the circus for a long time. He’ll go back to his restaurants in Rotterdam, now.
The riders are always nervous for the last chase; they’ll ‘ping’ their tyres, check their chain tension, fiddle with their mitts and helmet straps, apply a last dab of chamois cream and dash back to the cabin for a last gasp pee.
The stadium is packed, there’s tension in the air, the gun fires and in one hour we’ll know – Rainbow Boys or Prodigal Son. But it’s Big Bartko and his willing and strong partner, Dillier who fire the first salvo, taking the lead early.
But we all know that this one is all about two teams and the German/Swiss duo succumb as the Kenny and Iljo and their respective henchmen attack, counter and defend.
A game of chess at well over 50 kph on the narrowest and hardest of tyres on the steepest of bankings. Approaching the last 50 laps, there’s a lull as everyone realises it’s going to be a points shoot out over the six sprints between 50 to go and the gun.
Kenny is behind on points – it’ll be an uphill battle, but they take the first couple. The gap narrows, Iljo comes back at them – it’s all on the last sprint.
Three laps to go, Kenny slings Gijs – disaster ! The tall Belgians back wheel steps out, the bars fold in, his foot comes out and he’s on the boards.
He’s stunned, but back on his feet; Brent, the mechanic grabs the spare bike, Gijs saddles up and heads back in to the maelstrom.
But it’s too late, too late.
Iljo launches off Glenn’s sling, he sails across the line his arms in a jet plane gesture, the pistol cracks, Kenny’s head drops between those strong shoulders.
Hail the Prodigal Son !
Iljo ! Iljo ! Iljo ! echoes around the hall.
Dillier and Bartko are happy with a podium.
De Ketele and Van Hoecke are stoic in defeat.
And it’s a bonzer result for O’Shea.
He’s back on his throne – “it’s normal, eh ?”
He thanks his subjects.
And has to meet the needs of Belgian TV.
And then it’s time to celebrate:
Iljo’s dad owns the De Karper (the fisherman) bar in Gent – the post race parties when Iljo wins are legend.
Here’s what Ronnie had to say about his son’s win;
“I’m very, very proud – but De Ketele and Van Hoecke were strong. Kenny we know, but we weren’t sure how Van Hoecke would stand up to a six day.
In the end, I don’t think their crash made any difference – Iljo and Glenn would have won, anyway. I have to tell you though, the first two nights, I didn’t think they’d win – the world championship jerseys give riders strength and heart. And they’re local guys who want the win.
But on Thursday I knew Iljo would win, he got so angry – he was clenching his fists and saying; ‘we have to win !’ I’ve never seen him so mad!
Can he win 11 times in Gent, like Patrick Sercu ? No, no ! Patrick Sercu is a monument, the biggest of them all.
Iljo listened to him, watched him and learned from him – but Patrick’s record will always stand.”
Meanwhile Iljo watched himself win, up on the big screen.
And Glenn O’Shea discovered that beer in Gent is served in slightly larger measures than a ‘tinnie.’
Gent – it’s the best.
Zurich next, see you there?