What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Previews: The Gent Six Day

The 70th edition of the Six-Days of Flanders, Ghent (Zes-Daagse Van Vlaanderen, Gent) begins in the East Flanders medieval city on Tuesday night. The crowds will once again flock through the doors, the beer will flow and the music will pump as the annual winter cycling fest begins. When the gun sounds, the pedals will turn and the wheels spin as 26 riders begin another race to nowhere.

By Steve Penny

The lead up to this year’s race has not been without its problems although rest assured none of the problems have in any way affected the actual running of the event.

From the perspective of the Six-Day races, and their rich history, the cancelling of the Munich Six-Day after 46 editions was very sad. The Munich Six was for a long time seen as the blue riband event of the season and was described as the World Championship of Six-Day races. This cancellation follows on the heels of the loss of the Dortmund race in 2008 and has left a big hole in the traditional November calendar.

The second problem is actually more of an irritation for the organisation and concerns the lack of parking spaces in the proximity of Het Kuipke, the local velodrome. The city of Ghent has been restricting access to cars in central parts of the city for many years making it very difficult for visitors coming in for the Six-Days to find spaces. The organisation and city council agree that the Six-Days is part of the cities tradition and so discussions between the council (administration) and residents has taken place to find a satisfactory solution for all concerned. As noted this is surely just a minor irritation and the Six-Day supporters will no doubt find ways around any such issues.

The final, and biggest, headache for the Ghent organisers concerned the participation of local hero Iljo Keisse. After winning the event for the 3rd time in 2008 he tested positive for Cathine and Hydrochlorothiazide (HCT). After serving 11 months of a 2 year ban Keisse successfully argued his case that the positive test for Cathine came from a cold medicine and HCT from a food supplement.

The doping charges were therefore dismissed by the Belgian Cycling Federation just before the start of the 2009 Ghent Six. His career looked to be back on the up when he signed with Quick Step for the 2010 road season, but his season was interrupted by a broken collarbone sustained while preparing for the World Track Championships in April. Things got worse in July when a decision from the Court of Appeal for Sport (CAS) reversed the Belgian Federation’s dismissal of his doping charges and Keisse was ordered to serve the last 13 months of his 2 year suspension, seemingly unable to return until August 6, 2011.

Iljo Keisse.

Since July, Keisse has continued to seek legal advice and last week had his ban temporarily lifted by the Belgian Court of Appeals, overturning the CAS decision from July and a final decision will be made in April 2011. With a weight off his shoulders, albeit only a temporary one, Keisse said:

“I’m more than relieved that I can ride again. Unfortunately the decision is not final, but I’m satisfied with what I have and I will ride the Ghent Six-Day with a very special and warm feeling. I have put a difficult period behind me. Since July I couldn’t race and there were some days when I didn’t touch my bike as I had an Achilles injury and some incredible black moments.”

The decision was applauded by the Ghent Six sports director Patrick Sercu who commented:

“This is not only great news for the organisers of the Ghent Six-Days, but especially for Iljo Keisse himself. The public’s favourite is now back in, which is a very good thing. It has all been long and drawn out, but now it has finally happened”.

He had another reason to be pleased saying:

“Of course, ticket sales are rising. With Iljo Keisse, we have added a very big name to the bill.”

Teams and Riders
With the Iljo Keisse situation unresolved the organisation had to wait to announce the 13 teams, 26 riders from 8 countries, less than a week before the start. With the aforementioned loss of the Munich Six the riders come to Ghent without a top class Six-Day race since Amsterdam finished on October 23rd.

Some riders were in Grenoble, which ended on November 2nd but that event has, with all due respect, never been at the same level as Dortmund or Munich were. The lack of build up, and any pointers to form and rider condition could actually help the Ghent Six as a spectacle because the race appears fairly wide open.

Alex Rasmussen and Michael Morkov are the big favorites this week in Gent.

Danish Dynamite
Despite the lack of Six-Day racing last year’s winners Michael Morkov and Alex Rasmussen from Denmark will start as the clear favourites, the 2009 World Madison Champions won 3 of the 5 Six-Days they raced in last season. Both riders have just completed their 2nd full seasons on the road with Saxo-Bank and won the ‘summer’ Fiorenzuola Six-Day in July. As well as winning a World Scratch title on the track Rasmussen gained some time trial and sprint victories in races such as the Four Days of Dunkirk that has earned him a contract with HTC-Columbia for 2011.

Morkov has had more of a team role with Saxo-Bank but still finished his first grand tour at the Giro and has another contract with Bjarne Riis’ team for 2011. With the increased focus on the road and the lack of big Six-Day races on the calendar it is unclear if this pairing has much of a long-term future on the track, but they’ll come to Ghent with the aim of performing well and winning.

Late last week I asked Michael Morkov how he’s feeling and about his preparation and motivation for Ghent:

“I’m excited to be get back onto the track after I had 3 a week break following the road season and I started my training again on November 1st. I do feel pretty good now and with a race here in Copenhagen and the Manchester ‘Revolution’ event on Saturday the form should be back. I’m definitely motivated as Alex and I had a sweet victory in Ghent last year so we are coming back to win again. I’ve been looking at the peloton and there are a lot of good teams!!! So I’m looking forward to doing the Six-Days again. I have a lot of friends in Belgium and since we won last year, this race is important for us. Also as we are only going to do 3 Six-day races this winter our chances for wins are limited.”

Return Of The Kaiser
As reported Iljo Keisse has had a difficult year but the ‘Kaiser of the Kuipke’ is in the field and will, as always, be looking to show well. Without any racing on the road or track for a long time how well he’ll go is unclear although the adrenalin will get him through the first few days at least. The long Ghent programme will test his reserves but as the other riders have not raced all month that may help a little. He will team up with Dutchman Peter Schep who is himself a strong classy rider with a very good engine.

The weakness for Schep is his lack of speed however on paper that makes the pairing look good as the main Keisse strength has always been his speed, so important on the short 166 metre track. But without the racing in his legs getting that top end speed back, as well as the stamina, is going to be hard for Keisse so a place on the podium rather than the overall win is probably their aim, although they’ll surely be doing all they can to win.

At the recent event press conference here is what Keisse said about his return in Ghent, about recently becoming a father and his condition:

“Ghent is mentally and physically a very difficult race and it’s hard to say how I will feel but I will ride with the support of the audience and adrenalin from the feelings of becoming a father. A burden was lifted from my shoulders when I heard that my suspension had been suspended but I have another burden, that of having to perform. That was never much of a problem in the past, but the situation is different now because I’ve had so little preparation. Bear in mind that I have not raced since June, and Ghent is my first Six-Day so after the first hour on Tuesday I’ll know more!!!”

The Other Belgian Challenger
The number two Belgian Six-day specialist and a very popular rider in his own right is the 25 year old from Oudenaarde, Kenny de Ketele. Over recent years in Ghent he has got stronger and stronger and looked to be in with a real chance for the home win when he was paired with Robert Bartko last year. Unfortunately Bartko came into Ghent having crashed in Munich and was unable to finish the Six-Days.

The dream team for Kenny and the local fans would have been a pairing with Keisse but with all the problems and the need to maintain fan interest he is paired with Leif Lampater. The 27 year old German is a laid back character but a strong endurance rider with 6 victories at Six-Day races to his credit. He and de Ketele will be a strong team and should show well but neither of them is a strong sprinter and they’ll struggle to score big points so to win overall they’ll have to gain laps on the other major contenders. Nevertheless Kenny de Ketele will as ever be giving 100% effort something the fans see and appreciate.

The ‘other’ Belgian: Kenny de Ketele.

I asked him last week how he is feeling about his team and what it means to him to race in Ghent:

“I feel very confident about my team. Leif went really well in Amsterdam and he knows how to race on the Ghent track. I think we have a really good chance to win, and too at least end up on the podium!!! The Ghent Six is of course very important to me because I can show my abilities in front of my home crowd. It is also the best time for me to show off my team’s sponsors in the media……”

Other Potentially Strong Teams
The field this year is deep but without many other clear favourites in the field. The experienced Swiss team of Franco Marvulli and Alex Aeschbach could be contenders for the podium, but won’t start as real favourites. At 32, Franco Marvulli is no longer a young gun, but with 31 Six-Day victories from around 95 starts he has a very good winning percentage and is the rider with the most wins still active on the circuit. Take into account that 18 of his victories came with recently retired Six-Day legend Bruno Risi, whose shoes are impossible to fill. Stepping in though is fellow Swiss Alex Aeschbach who at 36 has been around a while first racing at Ghent back in 1998. They know each other well and just won for the 5th time in Grenoble, but Grenoble is not Ghent so the bottom step of the podium would be a great result for the affable Swiss team.

Editor’s note: Not everyone will agree with Mr. Penny’s opinion on Marvulli’s chances or abilities at age 32. I would assume that we could spark up a heated debate between Mr. Penny and PEZ’s man in the Six Day trenches, Ed Hood. Either way, Marvulli and Aeschbach will certainly run into a major road block toward victory in Rasmussen/Morkov.

I asked Alex last week about his pairing with Marvulli and their chances in Ghent:

“I like to be paired with Franco and we have shown in the past that we can do well as a team, we also want to be able to continue to ride together in the future. In Ghent we have a chance and have shown ourselves by winning in Grenoble already so we will be giving it 110%, also because we have Zurich starting straight after. Ghent is a really beautiful Six-Day one I have never won and it would be amazing to stand on top of the podium just once in my career!!! But the race in Zurich is really our number one objective and we want to work well together in Ghent to make sure that we are totally ready and don’t make any mistakes at Zurich the week after.”

Alexander Aeschbach.

The vastly experienced Dutch pairing Danny Stam and Leon Van Bon, both 38, are racing together at all the Six-Days this winter. They finished second in Amsterdam and Grenoble so will come into Ghent reasonably confident. The more experienced in Six-Day terms is Stam who won in 2005 with Robert Slippens. They combined really well with Stams engine and Slippens speed being the main ingredient, Slippens retired due to injuries in 2008. To have a chance to win Van Bon, a rider with a very good road career behind him, would have to match Rasmussen, Keisse or Marvulli on the short and fast track which seems unlikely however they should not be written off. On many occasions Stam has shown that he can attack and chase as well as anyone in the Madisons.

Danny Stam.

The other team that the organisation is billing as a favourite is Robert Bartko and Danilo Hondo. The track specialist Bartko has won in Ghent twice with Keisse and comes in having won in Amsterdam with Roger Kluge. If there is a stronger man currently riding in the Six-Days than Bartko he hasn’t yet shown himself but despite that, and those previous wins, the short and tight track is not ideal for such a big man.

He needs to be with a fast man, but with Kluge not contracted to ride, he teams with sprinter/roadman Hondo. The Ghent debutant is a rider with some track experience, as well as a doping ban in his past. He is more of a lead out man on the road and without racing many Six-Days in his career it would appear that he is here for nothing more than a good pay day. Stepping into the much younger, but vastly superior in track terms, Kluge’s shoes, as Bartkos partner will still be interesting to watch and if the Lampre roadman finds his track legs to match his road strength the Germans could yet make the podium, and prove me wrong.

Elsewhere In The Field
The rest of the field seems to be fairly evenly matched this year so the battle for places from the middle to bottom of the standings on Sunday may be quite close.

The Belgium international rider Tim Mertens is one for the future and has shown well on his previous appearances in 2007 and 2008. He missed last year with a health scare and has had a couple of decent showings in Amsterdam and Grenoble so far this season with Kenny de Ketele. He is paired with young Dutchman Pim Ligthart and who had a good 5th place in Amsterdam. With the right condition and Mertens obvious home race motivation they could upset some of the more established and well known names to challenge for 4th-7th places.

Keep an eye out for Tim Mertens.

Another Dutch team is Wim Stroetinga and Jens Mouris. Both went well with other partners in Amsterdam and they are a classic Six-Day pairing of sprinter, Stroetinga, and pursuiter, Mouris. Both of have ridden at World Championships on the track and Stroetinga has been making a career on the road without any significant results so far. This is a team that could start well and enter the weekend close to the lead but I think they’ll probably fade away and end up racing for 6th-10th place.

Danes Jens Erik-Madsen and Marc Hester had a good race in Grenoble and will help to make up the strong peloton in Ghent. At 25 and with over 50 Six-days behind him Hester is an established member of the blue train without ever having challenged for a big win. He and, Danish Team Pursuiter, Madsen should be competitive but will likely compete with the aforementioned teams for the middle ranking places.

Unknown Quantities
An interesting looking team is Dutchman Jeff Vermeulen and Sebastian Donadio, the first Argentine and South American to race at the Belgian Six since the Curuchet brothers back in 1996. An Argentine of Italian descent Donadio has won at Italian Six-Day races but is untested in the unique environment of Ghent. His partner Vermeulen showed well during the early stages of last years Ghent Six before going out with an illness. He looked like an exciting prospect and how he gels with Donadio will be interesting to watch.

Australian Luke Roberts returns to the Six-Day scene after a year back on the road in the Pro-Tour to team with another Ghent first timer Morgan Kneisky, the 2009 World Scratch race champion. The experienced Roberts is a solid track rider and will have been paired with Kneisky because the Frenchman is another one who is untried at this level of Six-Day racing. How they’ll fair is unclear and only when the racing starts on Tuesday will we know.

Andreas Muller.

Another team featuring an experienced and inexperienced rider is Andreas Muller and young Belgian Tosh Van Der Sande. The experienced Muller has close to 60 starts, including 4 in Ghent, behind him but this is a first for Van Der Sande. He was Junior World Champion in the points race as well as a winner of the Ghent Six amateur race in 2008. He’ll turn just 20 on November 28th, the final day of the Six. It may well be a baptism of fire for Van Der Sande but director Patrick Sercu has given him the nod ahead of other older Belgians such as Nicky Cocquyt and Ingmar De Poortere who have struggled mightily on the occasions they started at Het Kuipke. The 30 year old Andreas Muller is a German from Berlin who now represents Austria in international competition.

Last week Andreas sent me an update on his progress, his thoughts on his team and the Ghent Six-day race generally:

“Of course the basis for a good Six-day is always hard training. So far this year I won the 3 days of Aigle (Switzerland) as well as 3 titles at the Austrian Track Championship. I was also racing at the international Grand Prix Vienna (Austria) and will be at the Revolution Series in Manchester on Saturday. So I feel well prepared with enough track racing behind me.”

“I think it’s always a good idea to combine a young rider with an experienced one. We all started like that and learned the Six-Day business from an older cyclist. So I am happy to hand over some of my skills. If Tosh (Van Der Sande) and my legs are good it is possible to race for a good result. In 2007 I was with Tim Mertens at his first Ghent Six-Days and we finished in 6th place overall, so anything can happen!!!”

For several years now Ghent has been my favourite Six-Day, even though there is one in my home town of Berlin!!! I like the very special, traditional atmosphere in Ghent as the people are more focused and interested in cycling than in any other country. And finally I always have my birthday during the Zesdaagse Ghent!!!”

Lastly, and without wishing to tempt fate, the Belgian Steves Schets and De Neef will be trying hard to avoid finishing last in the standings. They have struggled over the years, especially Schets, but with a few more inexperienced riders in the field this year they might manage to dodge taking the wooden spoon but it’ll be a major surprise if there final placing is a single digit number.

Six-Day Season so far:
Amsterdam – 18-23 October 2010
Bartko / Kluge (Ger)
Grenoble – 28 Oct-02 Nov 2010
Marvulli / Aeschbach (Swi)

Steve Penny
21 November 2010

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