Last year the wife and I decided to do something about it – so we booked a four day trip at the end of November with Sporting Tours International to see the last few days of the Ghent Six Day Event. We travelled on the Friday afternoon by coach from Dover via the cross channel ferry to our delightful base at an Ibis hotel in the centre of Ghent.
On the Friday night we chose to walk into Ghent (10mins) for a meal and a couple of beers in one of the many interesting bars. A few of the other stalwarts in the Sporting Tours party chose to head to the stadium for a long night of watching the racing.
On Saturday we went on an organised trip to Bruges to see the famous Christmas Market – and to have a few more beers! Saturday night was our first experience of proper 'old school' track racing. Entering the stadium is like stepping into the fuggy embrace of a fairground on a cold winter evening. The atmosphere inside the cavernous Kuipke building is thick with the smell of fried onions, hotdogs, burgers and beer.
Riders being introduced to the fans. Spot Mark Cavendish!
Cycling fans take their seats at the 5,000-capacity arena, peering down on the steep-banked small oval wooden track to get the full sweep of the races. But in the middle of the track there is a party going on. And it is open to anyone.
While the pro cyclists fly around the banks of the velodrome like stunt riders on the wall of death, the centre of the circuit is heaving with bodies drinking and chatting and shuffling around in small circles, in a vain attempt to take in the action. These are men and women in suits, youngsters in fancy dress, groups of guys in vintage cycling kit … it is like a scene from a huge office party.
The racing is fast-flowing and near constant over the evening – 26 riders in teams of two, pedalling in a series of races for almost six hours straight, from 8pm to 2am, each covering close to 100km a night – flat out – for six nights.
Six-day races became popular in mainland Europe in the early 20th century and have been a staple of the racing calendar in Ghent since 1922, with past winners including the Belgian legend Eddy Merckx in the 60s and 70s, and more recently our own Bradley Wiggins – who was born in the city.
Adding to the carnival atmosphere is the MC's perpetual commentary, the bursts of disco music, and the singers who come on to the track to rouse the crowd with drinking songs when the riders take brief respites for re-fuelling and rub-downs in their trackside cabins.
Actually following the racing program is a dizzying experience, as there are so many different events – team eliminations, individual eliminations, flying lap time trials, madisons, super sprints and derny races. In the latter, the cyclists are paced by orange-shirted men riding little motorbikes who look like motorised Munchkins and take the cyclists up to 70kph in their slipstream. They get a huge roar of approval from the crowd. The overall winner of the Sixes is the team that gains most points in the different disciplines and gains the most laps on the other riders..
Sunday we were free to roam the beautiful streets of Ghent and then we were back at the stadium for the final day’s racing from midday to 6pm. At this 2014 event we were also able to watch Mark Cavendish who had teamed up with a Belgian professional road and track specialist come second overall.
No matter what your sporting prejudices and knowledge base, the Ghent Six Day Event is about taking in a show and having a party.
And for anyone who has never been to Ghent – please do go it is a delightfully old but compact city with plenty of shops for non-cycling partners to visit also.
I have hopefully managed to add some photos and video clips of this superb experience. John Ross