Thursday, November 06, 2008
When I finished up a cyclocross race on Sunday afternoon, I knew it was only a matter of time before my digestive tract reaped its revenge for the strain that I’d just put my body through. The pattern has been a constant throughout the years, and after races, when the grumbling begins, I always think back to sitting in a musty rider cabin with Freddy Stevens in Gent’s Kuipke velodrome in 2001. I was there to do a story on the Six Days of Gent, and Freddy, a “runner” for 6-day legend Etienne DeWilde, was showing me what riders typically eat during these relentless affairs. One element of that demonstration was a half-eaten bowl of what he described as “baby cereal,” about akin to cream of wheat in these parts. “Easy on the gut,” he nodded, with the typical reverence that Europeans have for their digestive experiences.
Thinking about that on Sunday reminded me that, while we’ve pointed out that brief overlap between the road cycling season and the winter cyclocross season, we hadn’t touched on the “other” winter discipline: the 6-day track race. The sixes don’t receive the coverage that we see with cyclocross and road racing, mostly because they’re a pretty fringe element of the sport, but also likely because they’re harder to relate to. There are sixes in Europe for amateurs and espoirs, but by and large, they’re a professional show, and a form of cycling that exists only in competition. And as Peter Nye’s relatively recent book chronicles, the sixes were big in the United States once, but that was a long time ago. That experiential separation from the amateur riders that make up a vast portion of cycling fans here seems to make them a bit less accessible, and a little more mysterious and foreign than road or cyclocross have come to be. And that’s what made me pitch the Gent story to VeloNews in 2001.
Once I was on the ground in Belgium, I found the reason you don’t see more coverage of the sixes here, or anywhere, for that matter. They simply don’t translate. Not to television coverage, not to written race reports. There are simple reasons why that sort of coverage would be tough — there might be 8 different races covering 4 track disciplines on a given night, with overall leaders determined by a not-terribly-complicated but not-terribly-clear points system. But those issues are far from prohibitive.
The real reason coverage of the sixes doesn’t work is that you have to be there, plain and simple. They're a total experience, and just writing about guys racing bicycles doesn’t cut it. Like learning a foreign language, immersion is really the best solution, since it’s the crowd, the noise, and even the smells that make them what they are. And what they are is just about the most fun you can have watching bicycle racing. Recognizing the difficulty of translating that experience into words gave me a great deal of apprehension in writing the article, and the hangover didn’t help either. But I had to pay the bar tab, so I gave it a shot. An edited version of the article posted below was published as part of a track cycling special in VeloNews in February 2002.
Six Days and Six Nights
It's Night 5 of the event alternately known as the Zesdaagse Van Vlaanderen-Gent to the Flemish and the Six Days of Gent to English speakers, and the can-can is blaring from the PA speakers, a signal that French Cofidis pairing Robert Sassone and Jean-Michael Tessier are about to take the track for one of the time trial events that fill the space between the madisons, miss-and-outs, and derny races.
Saturday is the last true night of the race, and probably the pick of the litter- one last raucous party that will see the enthusiasm inside the arena housing one fairly old, extremely smoky, steep and short 166 meter track mount to the fever pitch. This night is, in essence, the Fat Tuesday of the Ghent six. Sunday afternoon will see the actual final showdown, at a time convenient to and respectful of the county’s heavily Catholic population, which can roll in after church to see how the battle ends and still be in bed by nine for a good night’s sleep.
By now the show should seem routine, but even after four nights, the excitement that grips the race seems to renew itself while the spectators sleepwalk through the dreary Gent days. Each evening begins with a leisurely, rolling rider introduction at 7 or 8pm, with each two-man team coming to the front of the line as their names are announced, hugging the rail and acknowledging the applause of the crowd. Each early morning it ends with a mad, back-arching, bike-throwing dash to the line, either behind a roaring derny bike or ahead of a charging field in the final Madison.
As it has been each night has been since Thursday, when the weekend began for University of Gent students, it is difficult to tell that a sellout crowd is in attendance. At the six, the spectators, like the riders, are in constant motion about the arena — a vacant seat is not necessarily an empty one. Cafés line the outside circumference of the track, doing a land office business in a bit of coffee and a lot of the fermented staples of the Belgian bars — Jupiler, Stella Artois, and Hoogegarten wheat beer, as well as pricier champagne for the more distinguished corporate clientele who shuffle back and forth from the VIP areas. In total, Gent boasts roughly twice as many meters of bar frontage as bicycle track, including the octagonal center bar serving another local favorite — straight shots of regular or flavored gin.
“So this is our culture. What do you think?” asks Bart, a cycling writer for the local paper who has emerged from the Delhaize Supermarket-sponsored café for a bratwurst at one of the food stands before hitting the trackside seats. “The food, it’s all bad for you. We don’t really care. These races are just a lot of fun. You come, have some beers, talk to people. Maybe watch some bike racing.” Underscoring his point, he nods toward Nico Eeckhout (Lotto-Adecco) who is lounging against a column chatting with Jose DeCauwer, the Belgian national team coach. A few feet away, shaved-headed Geert Van Bondt, liberated from the Mercury debacle by a contract with home team Domo, stands a few feet away sipping an off-season beer with friends.
The transition from the relatively subdued conversation of the café and expo-area, through the tunnel under the track and into the Middenplien is striking. Here, in the proverbial cheap seats, it is 90 degrees and standing room only, all on top of a thin layer of discarded plastic cups, and it is the place to be for those who come for the racing. Perhaps as a result of that same floor debris, the spectators down on the floor tend towards the less subdued than those in the seats on the outside. A giant black on yellow “Lion of Flanders” flag swings from a constantly swaying pole passed between a flock of equally swaying Etienne DeWilde fans, who proudly and noisily sport their man’s Deschacht team colors on hats, sashes and jerseys. Whenever a Belgian makes a good move or takes a lap, be it DeWilde taking a flyer in a Madison or young Nicky Vermeersche’s remarkable effort to take a lap in a derny race, the infield erupts into the nation’s wailing, swaying soccer anthem, followed by “we’ve go the best damn team…in the land,” to the tune of “He’s got the whole world in his hands.”
Part of the charm of the six is that, for nearly every knowledgeable old-timer Flanders native on the infield, there are folks like Natasha Robertson from “just south of London,” who are there to take things in. As Belgian Lorenzo Lapage follows the wheel of derny driver Joop Zijlaard through traffic on his way to a close and much needed win in the 75 lap derny race, Natasha is ignoring the rushing wind and head splitting motor buzz to check out the infield action from the rail. “My mate’s really into the racing. I just came along,” she confides, nodding towards the cabins, “There’s good beer, and fit men in tights getting massages. It’s not a bad time, really. I‘m actually really starting to enjoy racing as well.”
To be able to look past the spectacle of the derny races takes a certain dedication of its own, as six competitors a time follow mostly portly middle-aged Belgians and Dutchmen astride what amount to reinforced, powered beach cruisers whose unmuffled 5hp booster engines and 80-12 fixed gearing combinations allow their pilots to provide a remarkably high-speed, untiring draft for their riders.
“You get to know the riders, what they can do.” says Bruno Walraaje, the man the other derny drivers call “the captain” for his 30 years as a professional. “Some you can do a sprint with at the end, others need to come around more steadily. The directors assign us our partners, but they know who we usually work well with.” As if to prove his point, Walraaje takes his regular partner Jimi Madsen, who he describes as, “a very strong rider, but not a sprinter,” to the victory in the last derny of the event on Sunday afternoon, leaving a final blue cloud of diesel to dissipate into the haze of cigar and cigarette smoke that pervades the arena.
While the can-can signals the arrival of the French, and for some unknown reason the Chicken Dance announces Dutch duo Robert Slippens and Danny Stam, Gerd Dorich, the big-jawed German rider, has heard his signature tune — the modern, thumping dance version of the traditional Austrian folk song “Anton aus Tirol,” — played all too little since Wednesday night, when partner Luc De Duytsche abandoned with an infection. Despite being out of the race unless another abandon left him with a new partner, he settles into a role which gets Anton some airtime regardless — band leader for the Supersprint. It is an odd name for an event that is not heavily contested and nets the winner only 5 points on the overall, but the Supersprint does get all 23 riders on the track in a single line behind Dorich. There, he conducts a hand-waving invitation to crowd participation as he leads the line through no-handed, swooping, and diving lines up and down the banks. Smiles cross the riders faces as bodies are bent low over bars, and then lifted in sequence in a rolling wave as the crowd follows along in the stands. For 18 laps, it’s a dance party between the riders and the crowd, before the pressure starts to build from the back, and a two lap scramble for position ends in a bunch sprint. This time, South African Jean-Pierre Van Zyl takes the first place points as a small consolation for an otherwise anonymous performance.
On Sunday, the afternoon program and impending end bring a bit of sobriety and desperation to the proceedings, as the final push to pick up or safeguard placings comes to a head. During the final Madison, bolstered for the finale by an extra 15 minutes and points sprints during the closing laps, local boy DeWilde continually hurls himself off the front in desperate attempts to gain a lap on first placed pairing Matthew Gilmore and Scott McGrory and Swiss duo Bruno Risi and Kurt Betschart. The stakes are high for DeWilde, as the 43 year old legend of Belgian cycling is racing his last “home” six day at the Ghent track before returning here a final time to end a career that has spanned generations of other riders. The roar of the crowd at his every acceleration is deafening, and for once everyone has returned from the bars and cafés to fill the seats and see firsthand if he can make it an even ten wins in Ghent. There is something sad in the effort, as DeWilde, seemingly running on pure desire, continually rips open gaps which his partner Andreas Kappes cannot help him hold or advance. Ultimately, they will settle for the same third spot he started the Madison with, but DeWilde, somewhat tellingly, is handed the microphone before the winners on the podium.
Unlike road stage races which often end in a whimper, the Ghent Six comes to a close with three stacatto bangs from a .35 caliber pistol, signaling the final end with ringing ears and a puff of gunpowder smoke. “It’s a tough track,” says a tired but victorious Scott McGrory, who with partner Matthew Gilmore used strong, consistent Madison riding and blinding efforts in the time trials to take the race going away. “The short laps make it easier to take a lap, but for the same reason, it’s always attacking, attacking, attacking here.”
“In Germany,” he continues, “there are all of these oompah bands and entertainment and you get a break. But here, it’s just on-the-track-off-the-track-on-the-track all night long. Endurance and experience pays in the six day here.” As he says so, the crowds are filing out, past the hordes of Belgian press surrounding his partner Matthew Gilmore. And at that Sunday evening moment, it ceases to be the swansong of the 76th "Workingman's Six" and becomes 24 hours until the workingmen appear in Zurich to start the show all over again.