PEZ Goes Gent – Ed’s Full Belgian Weekend

Ed at the Gent ‘6 Days’: Ed Hood has missed out on his trips to Belgium for the ‘6 Days’ of Gent since 2020, but this year was going to be the full Flemish experience. A cyclo-cross, ‘t Kuipke and of course beer and those famous nights in the bars of Gent.

It wasn’t just the Covid, it was more the quarantine we would have had to endure that kept us away from the Flatlands for the 2021 Gent Six Day and 2022 Opening Weekend; but like Kiss said; ‘We’re back, back in the New York Groove’ – let’s make that the ‘Flanders Groove.’

That Friday morning flight time out of Edinburgh was downright anti-social but on the upside it meant our feet were on holy soil nice and early. We missed the frites stand just outside Charleroi Airport terminal, we liked the old, ‘no frills’ terminal; ‘gentrification’ isn’t just a Scottish curse. We got the hire car organised without too much drama and headed north towards Gent via the dreaded ‘Brussels Ring,’ – best avoided at rush hours.

Brunch was at the Centrum Ronde Van Vlaanderen in Oudenaarde, there was only one cobble stone we wanted in the picture: that one from 1961, Tom Simpson – I don’t remember Cav or Brad winning de Ronde?

Across the road is one of our favourite bars on the planet, De Carillon, Dave was telling me that it’s one of Roger De Vlaminck’s preferred watering holes – and we can understand that. It was restored to a design by architect AR Janssens in 1921 after the destruction wrought upon Flanders during World War One. The inside of the bar room is enriched with Art-Deco panelling with floral motifs and painted cityscapes of Oudenaarde, signed and dated Edg. Fobert 1926. A gem.

We headed for Gent, checked in to the Campanile Motel, abandoned the hire car and sampled the lovely draft Karmeliet, an Abbey-style blonde beer by Brouwerij Bosteels in Buggenhout. It’s made from three grains – oats, barley and wheat, which is an authentic beer recipe dating back to 1679.

It’s a fair hike from the Campanile up to the Vivaldi – our HQ in Gent for many years – so it was time for a taxi. The Hostess at our favourite bar provides great music and a great atmosphere; things would get a tad crazy there on Saturday night, but more of that later. If you’re in for the long run best stick to pils; trappistes are beautiful beers but dangerous.

Just along the road and a stone’s throw from the Kuipke is de Karper, Iljo Keisse’s dad, Ronie’s bar. Ronie was manager at the sacred velodrome before he bought de Karper and in the words of Donna Summer; ‘Works Hard for the Money.’ Ronie and his daughter – Iljo’s sister – Drieke run one cool place, 50 varieties of beer, good snacks, good tunes and wall to wall and ceiling to floor Iljo and QuickStep memorabilia. Sadly, if you’re a cycling fan, Ronie was telling Dave that now that Iljo has retired he’s going to change the look of the place and dispense with most of the cycling ‘stuff.’ Eventually we remembered we were here to see some bike racing and headed up to the velodrome.

In the entrance foyer there are pictures of previous winners, I couldn’t resist the one of Alex Rasmussen and Michael Mørkøv, winners in 2009 when I had the honour of being their ‘runner’ – great memories.

Across Europe from France up to Denmark via The Netherlands and Germany the six days popularity has waned – not in Gent, the place is bursting at the seams every night.

As we took our seats, I said to Dave; ‘That dude in front of us is the double of Ferdi Van Den Haute.’ Dave, not noted for his shyness, asked the gentleman and it was indeed the 1978 Gent-Wevelgem, Belgian Road Race Championship, Tour de France and Vuelta stage winner, a nice guy.

We just missed the flying lap – De Wylder & Ghys twice broke the lap record this year, taking it down to 8.332 – but the one we really wanted to see, the Gran Prix Patrick Sercu Memorial Madison turned out to be a disappointment. In this, the 100th Gent Six Day, with the race to honour the greatest six day rider who ever lived and with Eddy Merckx himself firing the starting pistol, we expected great racing. But what we got was a, ‘potato chase’ – that term comes from the old days when the spectators would offer prizes to the riders for perhaps the next lap gain or to be first across the line on a particular lap. Wealthy business men with plenty of Belgium’s finest beer inside them might offer a big cash incentive but farmers would bring along a sack of potatoes to offer up – all they could afford. It was beneath the dignity of the big teams to chase such a paltry prize but to the lesser teams with a family to feed on not much money it was worth chasing.

It was a ‘flat,’ disappointing chase with Dutch lesser lights, ‘ploeg 11,’ Vincent Hoppezak & Philip Heijnen running out winners. Next up was the ladies points race, with just a dozen riders on the track 120 laps seemed like overkill, half that distance would have been fine.

We watched the Derny and then did the sensible thing – headed for the Vivaldi, where some of Gent’s most attractive young ladies were attending a birthday party, downing copious quantities of pils and Prosecco – and dancing on the bar top. Wild!

We weren’t too delicate on Saturday morning and decided to head up to the famous Plum’s bike shop. In recent years it’s been in a bit of decline but the new owners have given it a makeover and it looks sharp and every inch the modern Belgian bike shop. We liked the little ‘museum’ with old machines and some great images, including a big cut out of Peter Post pushing Rik Van Loy into the fray.

Next up was the ‘Strawberry Cross’ up at Merksplas, if you’re a regular reader then you’ll have seen our report, with both winners in a class of their own, Ceylin Alvarado went off like a rocket and was never seen again.

It was a similar story with, ‘cross man of the moment, Sweeck’ albeit Van Der Haar, Vanthourenhout and Iserbyt never stopped chasing hard.

The man in the rainbow bands was still finding his ‘cross legs in this, his first race of the X season and would finish seventh. The tunes on Radio Nostalgie Belgique were top quality – predominantly 70’s soul – as we headed south and we were back in Mecca, sorry, Gent in no time.

As you enter the Kuipke, there’s a nice tribute to Isaac Galvez, who lost his life in a horror crash here in 2006. Rest in peace, sir.

Just a row behind us at the Kuipke were u23 Gent winners in 2003 and regulars on the six day scene a year or two, before it imploded, Germany’s Hans Pirius and Sebastian Wotschke. I had the pleasure to be their runner at several six days – great guys.

All that Merksplas fresh air had honed our appetites; vegetarianism isn’t a big thing in Belgium – those burgers were flying over the counter. And check out those sauce pumps – they’re ‘full pro.’

Meanwhile, back on the boards there was a surprise result in the Derny with Iljo winning. . .

The Saturday night madison was a much better affair than Friday’s ‘potato chase,’ with Havik [who we interviewed recently] and Van Den Bosche, who was third to Havik in the Worlds Points Championship taking the honours. A little later the question was asked, ‘Puntenkoers Dames’ or Vivaldi – you know the answer.

Sunday and we had a rendezvous with Ronie Keise at the bar at 10:00 am to receive our limited edition de Karper casquettes – very nice they are too. Bedankt, Ronie!

We caught the whole six hours of the last day; we were keen to see the final u23 chase but it proved to be a bit of a damp squib with hardly a lap taken – a glorified points race with Belgian duo Milan Van Den Haute and Jasper Bertels running out overall winners on their 52×16 or 49×15 gear ratios. They were presented with their prize by Belgian legend Stan Tourne, World Amateur and Professional Points race champion, ‘back in the day’ and twice a winner of the Gent Six.

Eventually it was the moment the afternoon was all about; The Faithful unrolled a huge Iljo tribute banner – don’t ask me what it said, I was underneath the damn thing.

Iljo’s dad, Ronie was on the boards as part of the, ‘ciao Iljo’ ceremony – not a dry eye in the house!

And there was the inevitable ‘tunnel of wheels,’ with Iljo’s family joining him on the boards.

What was pleasing though was that there was no, ‘fairy tale’ ending to the last chase; Iljo and De Buyst were third, which was fair – De Vylder and Ghys were good winners and Havik was the strongest man on the track, in second place with Fabio Van Den Bosche.

Next year? The website has already ‘crashed’ with the amount of ticket enquiries for 2023 – Iljo has retired but The Six Days of Gent marches on. . .

See you there?

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