This winter I set off to the Gent, Six days full of enthusiasm and excitement, its somewhere I have great memories off, somewhere I have passed down many a story about to my friends, family and anyone else who would listen. But there is a problem, a worry stuck in my head I think the world needs to know, but first I better tell you why I qualify to worry about the six days.
The Kuipke track has always been close to my heart, in truth it’s the whole reason I got to ride a bike for a living. As a young kid my parents took me across to Gent to watch the six day with Ben Swift I remember us both sitting there staring in amazement as the six day rolled on and on into the early hours of the night and the party in the middle of the track got more and more wild and out of hand. I made a decision there and then that I wanted to ride the six days, I wanted a piece of that atmosphere to be part of the whole circus, it felt a lot more than just a bike race is was entertaining and a real show.
The thought of riding at Kuipke in the six days didn’t leave me and a few years later I moved to Gent to live with a Belgian family in the heart of cycling land. Riding for the Kingsnorth International team I spent three years riding on the kermis circuit out in Belgium, a great experience. One that taught me how to be a racing cyclist in truth and in 2007 I was finally lucky enough to get an invitation to ride the Noel Fore Memorial event on the Kuipke track. It had taken some getting there but I had made it onto the track in Gent. Even better was that after a good performance riding with Peter Williams against mostly national squads we received an invitation to the UIV amateur six days of Gent. It was the best news ever; I was to be involved in some small way in the six days! I remember the six nights well, it was hard, a real learning experience, some nights went well others went awful but it didn’t really matter I was part of the six day show, full of adrenaline and excitement.
After that first amateur six day, over the next three years I was lucky enough to ride twice more in Gent and once in Amsterdam, Dortmund and in between took in International events in Alkmaar, Munich and on the new Eddy Merckx track in Gent. Every event was a new experience, a new place, different people a proper adventure, you didn’t always know how you would get from place to place. Once along with Tom Smith I was stuffed in the back of Iljo Keisse’s car along with his huge number six flower after been left stranded in Amsterdam! But that was all part of been immersed in the six day circuit. Although I never got to step up to the professional six day circuit I am happy that for a small while I was part of it, even if that part was pretty small.
So what’s my problem? Well, the atmosphere at Gent this year was pretty subdued, the showmen or orchestrator of the sixes seemed to have disappeared (granted Keisse who is probably the current star of the sixes wasn’t able to take part) and the crowd seemed more interested in the bar than the track. My theory on the reason for this is the changing face of track racing, something that was once fairly individual that didn’t rely on you been in a big backed trade team or part of a national set up now seems to be exactly that. Add to this the exclusion of the Madison from the Olympic Games and it seems like while track racing is becoming universally more popular and important the six days is not been pulled along with it.
In my last year of riding the amateur six days it became more difficult to gain an entry as a result of not been the ‘national’ selection of your country, it had changed from riders who had done it off their own backs, who wanted to be there and be part of it, people who travelled in the back of transit vans from event to event all to be part of the six day circus to deadly serious national selections who the majority of the time while respecting the events were gearing up for bigger and better things on an international stage. This year when I went back and saw the UIV amateur six it was exclusively national selection teams, that’s not that there’s a problem with those riders I’m sure they want to be there and enjoy the experience but in reality there going to move on from the six day circuit to focus on World Championships, Olympic Disciplines or a road career, leaving little for the professional six day circuit to pick from when they look for new riders.
I think that’s the problem, while as the sport gains in popularity the professional six day’s may have to come in line with new format’s that interest a wider audience but the amateur six days should always allow entries from those who have their own dreams and ambitions and follow them. These people are where your characters come from after all. The current six day star Iljo Keisse grew up riding on Kuipke, his dad owns a bar just round the corner from it, he’s a true six day rider who grew up watching the six days and wanted to be part of that, take away the possibility of that happening and in effect your killing the six days slowly. True there are still some rides left, Franco Marvulli and Danny Stam spring to mind, but what happens when they have hung up the wheels, where are the next true six day riders coming from?
Sport’s grow, evolve and change, the UCI in their wisdom have proved this by booting the Madison and individual pursuits out but some things should stay the same for their own good.