It’s become customary as a keen cyclist to create a ‘bucket list’. I’m not entirely sure why the cycling fraternity do this but I’m not one to break ranks nor shirk tradition. In my case the fabled ‘bucket list’ has taken two different routes. Firstly, the path most widely trodden – eulogising over the famous climbs that I will tick off whilst there remains an ounce of strength left in my legs. You know the usual ones – Mont Ventoux, Alpe D,Huez, Galibier, Tourmalet, Stelvio etc. The second avenue is one perhaps less obvious and that is the travails of a spectator. I am a regular on the UK cycling scene. I can often be spotted at the roadside in the Tour of Britain, Tour de Yorkshire, and The Women’s Tour, most probably shouting ‘allez allez’ to the peloton as it rushes past in a blink of an eye. But until now I hadn’t ventured off shore in pursuit of spectator pleasure. This all changed last weekend when I ticked off my first spectator bucket list entry by enjoying the historic, wacky and downright brilliant Ghent 6 Day.
I have immersed myself in cycling over the past 5 years, unashamedly a ‘Johnny come lately’ that can pinpoint my return to cycling as a pastime during the joyous summer of 2012 – the year when a lad from Kilburn did good. I watched with interest during those 21 days in July, and by the time the Union Jack was being raised on The Mall the following weekend I was hooked. One hastily agreed bike purchase later and I had joined the legions of Brits out on the road in full Lycra. Some five years later and to paraphrase our least favourite Texan ‘it’s all about the bike’ for me. I’ve ditched the car for a scenic carbon neutral commute, I’ve filled my wardrobe with more high-end kit than I know what to do with, I’ve chosen family holiday destinations based on how good the parcours might be, and I’ve even considered going the whole hog and reaching for the razor – surely I could save 10 seconds on my commute with shaved legs? I’ve read widely too. My holiday reading is now Boardman, Obree, Wiggins et al. The more I read about the history of cycling, the more I read about a small city in the Flanders region of Belgium – Ghent. This seemed to me to be the epicentre of cycling. The roads around honed the illustrious careers of Mercx, Museeuw, Boonen, and even our very own Tommy Simpson, his daughter Joanne still resident there. The famous boards of the t’Kuipke has been welcoming the greats of the sport for generations. I’d looked on enviously when Wiggo rounded off his career palmares with victory in last years Ghent 6 Day. The Brits were out en masse to see him & Cav competing. I knew then that I had to go next year.
So our day started a little too soon to the end of the last one. The alarm woke me from my slumber at 3am. The day was Saturday 18th November and my brother Ady (also subject to the same cycling affliction as me) and I were Ghent bound. We arrived at Birmingham airport at 4:30am, knocked an espresso back to try and charge up the batteries, and then boarded our flight. There’s a lot to like about our flight to Brussels. Firstly, it was cheap – less than £90 return, making a weekend of cycling excess within the reach of most pockets. And secondly, it only takes an hour – just as soon as you get to cruising altitude you are descending again. The second point of key importance to my brother…a nervous flyer.
We arrived at Brussels airport 8:30am local time, headed down to level -1 and caught the train from Brussels airport to Ghent St Pieters station. Well to say caught the train isn’t entirely true – we caught 2 trains…the first of which was a local branch line train that was seemingly going to stop at every station in Belgium before arriving in Ghent. We had waffles to eat and beer to drink so this train wouldn’t do. We duly hopped off at Brussels Sud station and crossed to the next platform for the direct train. This one was heaving – ah everyone off to the 6 Day we thought. However under closer scrutiny the majority were Bruges bound, not Ghent. Being foreigners we sat ourselves down in the First Class carriage with our Second Class tickets. Quite pleased with ourselves that we had managed to get most of the way to Ghent before our tickets were checked, we only had to stand for the last 5 minutes before arrival at St Pieters.
If ever you needed the reassurance that the bicycle is King in Belgium then you should visit Ghent’s rather grand St Pieters station. In front of the station there is a large roundabout that I can only presume has grass or pavement on it somewhere. I can not be sure as every square inch is covered in bicycles. All leaning against each other, all locked to something. It is quite a sight to behold. Goodness knows how your average Ghent commuter finds, untangles, and eventually rides off on his steed at the end of his working day. The other thing I like is the practicality and sturdiness of the bikes locked up there. This is not a place for expensive, lightweight, pristine racing bikes. There isn’t a man or woman in Lycra to be seen. These are ordinary bikes for ordinary people. People who go about their daily lives preferring a mode of transport that is as old as their fair city. It gives you a warm comforting feeling inside or am I just an old sentimental?
From the station we jumped on a no. 1 tram destined for the old town area of the Kornmarket. Trams are no. 2 in the Ghent transport system. Cheap and convenient, they far outweigh cars and buses. My only words of advice …. Don’t stand on the shifting centre floor of a bendy tram. The trams turn left and right as they weave through the old streets of the city. Standing central will leave you at best a little nauseous, at worst on your backside desperately grasping for the dignity that you have left on the tram floor. I went for the former option so was pretty relieved to hop off the tram at the Gravensteen stop. You can’t miss the Gravensteen. It’s a beautiful medieval castle with a fine moat and plenty of history. The Lion of Flanders flag flys majestically from the ramparts. The castle acted as a good landmark for us as our overnight digs was in St Widostraat just behind the castle.
We arrived at the Hostel De Draeke a little apprehensive to be honest. I am a big fan of hosteling, my brother less so. I like the relaxedness of hostels, rather than hotels. There is a friendliness that doesn’t exist in generic hotel chains. A comeraradie that can be shared whilst washing up your coffee cup. We’ve adventured before in this manner and Ady was a little underwhelmed with a previous shared dorm experience he ‘endured’. To be honest our fellow guests probably were also – no doubt dazed by Ady’s full throttle bed shaking snoring. However this time we’d gone all middle-class and booked a twin room with ensuite. This decadence cost us just 55 Euro for the night. We had really lucked out. The room was spotlessly clean, modern in its décor, and toasty warm to boot. I rejoiced in the fact that Ady was surprised, even pleased with the accommodation.
After dropping off our bags, we headed out into the city again. First stop was back to The Gravensteen for a look around. The castle has a one way system self guided tour and costs 10 Euro entry. The fee is worth it for the stunning views of Ghent. The rooftops and church spires, the canals and grand courtyards. The castles inner halls showcase an array of medieval weapons and implements of torture. I left pondering how fortunate I was to have been born in the 1970’s. If you are a history buff you could while away a good few hours here. I tend to glaze over after a while so an hour was good enough for us.
By now it was early afternoon and we were Hank Marvin. There is no shortage of fooderies in Ghent. Cafes and restaurants line the streets with a vivacious al fresco atmosphere, chairs and tables spilling out onto the pavements. This was November however and despite the multiple gas burners tempting us to stay outside we dashed inside a canal side establishment to warm up and refuel. A quick Panini and we were off again, mostly just wandering around the pretty city centre enjoying the intoxicating smell of waffles in the air. When the biting cold air got the better of us again we visited a coffee bar that had been recommended to me. This was Mokabon. The bright neon lights welcoming us. The smell of the coffee beans displayed in the front windows hits you like a wall as you step inside. This really is how a coffee shop should be. It is not pretentious, nor overpriced. A warm welcome awaits and a cosy atmosphere. I had a Chocespresso which was just devine. Somehow I enjoyed it even more when I walked outside and noticed that it’s neighbour was a faceless Starbucks. The rest of the afternoon involved a short boat trip, 7 Euro for 45 minutes of buzzing around the canals. There is a serenity to watching the world go by as you pootle around the picturesque canals. The boatsman proved to be a fine tour guide speaking fluently in Flemish, French, English and German and appallingly in Spanish. The boat trip ended with both Ady and I unsure as to whether our jean backsides were just cold or indeed wet. Unfortunately the latter was true. The boats seats capable of absorbing days old rainfall and releasing it to unsuspecting passengers. Thankfully the walk back to the hostel was short to limit our wet bottomed embarrassment.
After a quick freshen up and drying off, we ventured out for an early tea (pizza…. I know not exactly Flemish local delicacies). Early as we had the t’Kuipke on our minds. Doors opened at 6:30pm with the race card opening from 6:45pm. We hopped back onto the No. 1 tram to St Pieters and had a brisk 5-10 minute walk to the Citadel Park, home of the t’Kuipke velodrome.
Walking through the doors to the t’Kuipke is like stepping back in time. You can feel the history of the place all around you. I’ve been to a few velodromes over the years and I’m pretty regular to Manchester, but this place just feels different. You can imagine this place through the ages and it wouldn’t look any different. From Coppi in the 50’s, to Mercx in the 60’s, right through to Wiggo last year The concourse surrounding the velodrome is littered with memories of the past. There are stalls selling retro posters and postcards, and a photographic wall showing all the 6 Day winning partnerships over the years. I pause to photo Wiggo & Cav. True Brit me. There are small booths scattered all around the concourse. Each with their own snaking queue of likeminded cycling fans. As a first timer I have no idea what they are queuing for. I therefore continue on my merry path towards the bar. Bar found I duly ask for 2 pints. Novice schoolboy mistake made. I’m then informed that you buy tokens which you can then spend on beer or food. I briskly turn around to join one of the snaking queues behind me embarrassed by my naivety. Tokens purchased and swapped for the first (of many) Belgium beers we head up the steps and into the velodrome itself.
The first thing that hits you is the heat. The air is breathless. It’s the kind of temperature that your parents’ thermostat is set to when you visit at Christmas. All around me people are peeling off the layers from a November evening. Coats and jumpers stripped off the minute people get to the top of the velodrome stairs. I understand that this may have something to do with the speed of the track. A warm environment makes for quicker racing. It also makes for faster drinking. So I guess that’s a win-win for the organisers and fans alike.
The cycling is already under way. The race card includes an U23 Men’s and an Elite Women’s category. The young bucks are on track and riding a Madison. I love the Madison. It’s a whirlwind of slingshots and accelerations. You can’t look away for a moment for fear of losing thread of who’s leading. The sheer number of racers on track can be hard to fathom. Thankfully the suited guy standing trackside seems to be following better than most as he points knowledgeably each lap to the front rider. I’ve never ridden on the track. It’s another thing on the bucket list. But it does fill me with fear. The steepness of the banking and the closeness of the wheels. You could bring down the whole bunch with a twitchy front wheel. Unfortunately the U23 race is cut short after such an incident. One rider worse for wear after a nasty fall. I’m in no rush to tick this one off the list just yet.
At 7:30pm the Elite Men come out on track for the Team Presentation. They sort themselves out into number order and trawl around lap after lap. The announcer presents each pair in turn, giving each a huge build up (in Flemish), probably going through every detail of each palmares. The presentation itself looks exhausting. I’m sure by the announcement of the 12th team, the guys must have done well over a 100 laps. There is no Wiggo or Cav of course this year. One retired, one on a team training camp where schedule wouldn’t allow. The main draw of road racing pedigree this year is the enigmatic Elia Viviani. He draws a sizeable cheer from the crowd. I have a penchant for all things Italian so I have my Italian flag in my pocket – waiting for a race victory to launch up enthusiastically. I have even google translated Go Go into Vai Vai so I can sound suave and continental by shouting ‘Vai Vai Viviani’. The Biggest cheers of the team presentation however seem to go to anyone from Belgium mainly, but Flanders most importantly. The crowd do love to back one of their own.
The Flying Lap is a crowd pleaser. Each pair cycle around the track building speed for one fastest lap. The chosen rider being hand slung across the line to start off the frenzy. The crowd cheer each rider around, then a pause for the time to appear on the big screens. Each rider seems to go faster than the one before to rapturous applause. No track record tonight though – that was broken 2 days earlier. Imagine that – breaking the track record at one of the most heroic tracks of all time. That gives you pretty good bragging rights I’m sure. Think of the names you’d have beaten against the clock.
The racing is thick and fast. The race card gives very little time for riders to recover. No sooner they finish a Madison, then they are back out on track for an Elimination Race. This may be end of season to most pros, but these guys are really earning their appearance money. It’s clear that the riders are loving it though. There’s plenty of showmanship. Riders cup their ears as they cycle past the baying crowds. Even the Derny riders are playing up to the masses. The atmosphere builds as the evening gets later. The music certainly helps to create a jovial, fun-loving ambience, a feeling unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in a velodrome before. The DJ skilfully ghosting between MC Hammer’s ‘Can’t touch this’ and Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’. Both to much raucous singalong. But I guess the other thing that helps the atmosphere is the Belgium beer. The beer is really flowing. The concourse a well trodden route for all nationalities. Seat to token booth to bar to seat. Enjoy, drink, repeat. The seated masses sedate in comparison to the huge volume of people track centre. The Mexican wave attempts of the seated proves nothing compared to the latest track centre entertainment. There’s a defined narrow clearing appeared in the heaving swirl of people. Dead centre of the clearing is a stack of empty plastic beer glasses, a wobbly 4 foot high. The nearby crowd sense the anticipation as one by one intoxicated people run at and attempt to jump over the leaning tower of plastic. Each contestant protected by the beerish invincibility that they possess. Time after time somehow the jumper gets clear. Maybe there is something special in the Belgium beer? Unfortunately as could have been predicted it ends in tears as one jumper falls awkwardly. The First Aiders are on site in a flash and the empty beer glasses are confiscated to a round of boooo’s. Still, no bother, the crowd just need to drink more to start the stack again. It doesn’t take long.
The Derny races prove to be the most popular. An exquisite example of the quirkiness of cycling. 6 riders at a time on track, each paced by a Derny motorbike. The racers riding within an inch of the Derny bike, barking instructions to the driver – faster, faster. The crowd get louder as the laps tick down. Viviani times this one to perfection taking the lead some 6-7 laps out. The speed is so high that nobody can come past him. The G-force on these elderly Derny riders is unimaginable. How do they keep control at such speed on such tight bends? And why do they all look comfortably post 60? Viviani clinging onto the back wheel. Everyone’s up on their feet as he takes the win. Here’s my moment. I dig inside my jacket pocket for the Italian flag. I shake it out and wave it proudly. For a moment thinking I have the inhibitions of a native Italian. I quickly however realise I’m British and sit myself back down again.
By the time the last Derny race finishes it’s gone 1:30am and my brother and I are slowing down after our earlier 3am start. The track centre revellers are still singing, dancing, and occasionally watching the cycling that is going on around them. But our time has come. We drink up, layer up, and head back out into the cold. A sharp intake of breath as we go from heated velodrome to sub zero Ghent. We decide to walk back to the hostel. We sway through the streets, warmed by the beer, following our Google Map trail back to our digs. By the time our heads hit the pillow we’ve done a 23 hour day. Now that’s what you call a full day. I’m only glad I wasn’t wearing a pedometer.
Our first t’Kuipke experience now behind us. Before we leave the hostel the following morning we’ve already agreed that it won’t be our last. The Lottto 6 Day website enticingly states that they would like to bring Cav back next year. Maybe he could team up with fellow Manxman Pete Kennaugh as they successfully did for a very creditable 2nd place in the earlier London 6 Day. Now that would entice a few more Brits over to Flanders I’m sure. Quite simply it’s been a great weekend in the home of cycling. If you like cycling, and we are now mainstream, then you really do have to go to Ghent. Don’t take my word for it though, come and see for yourselves. Tick it off your bucket lists. Just one thing though – If you do go next year look out for a couple of grey haired mid 40’s guys. One of them will probably have an Italian flag in his jacket pocket.
Steve Carter 24/11/17