Time to catch up, it's been a while. Everything worked out leaving Geneva, getting to Brussels, and on to Gent. I met up with a pretty substantial Blaine contingent, including my parents, Bob, Bill Nicholson, Dave Thimeson, Lionel Space and his wife Noel. All in all we numbered 11 spectators with NSC connections. I was surprised.
Let me state without further hesitation just how great it is to be a cyclist in Belgium. You walk out of the train station in Gent and are greeted by a public square that doubles as sea of bicycle parking. Down the boulevards of the streets that radiate from the square is an even more expansive tangle of bikes. Some have clearly been there for years, and won't be removed until they rust through, but the vast majority are ridden regularly. It was a nice way to be welcomed to the city.
As for the racing. Gent was quite a bit different that either Dortmund or Munich. The German 6-days are known for being a huge party, with the racing occasionally taking on a supporting role to the live music, discotheques, light shows, and other acts. The halls are huge, and lighting verges on seizure inducing, and everything is a polished show.
Gent disposes with all that an focuses purely on the racing. No light show. No temporary discotheque, VIP dining on the infield, or teenie-bopper musical acts. Dave Wiswell summed it up pretty well, saying that Gent is more like traditional 6-days, "all bike racing and beer drinking." And it has plenty of those two things. The stadium in Citadel Park is far smaller than Westfallenhallen in Dortmund, or Olympiahalle in Munich, but it is packed. The seats are filled, and the infield is jammed to capacity. Everyone is there to watch the racing, and go crazy for it.
The fanaticism of the Belgian locals was further fueled by the rivalry that immediately developed between the teams of current World Champs Bruno Risi and Franco Marvulli and the local favorite Iljo Keisse riding with Robert Bartko. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the riding of the British team, Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish, who roundly sucked for the first few days. They lost 10 laps in the first day, and landed in second to last. The second night saw them lose another 7+ laps. The pair finally started to come to life as the week wound down, but they were generally lackluster at best, and disappointing at worst.
I had previously set out the goal of keeping track of all the people I met with Bob in Gent. Some of you pointed out the futility of this task. You were right. I abandoned that about half and hour into the first night.
The Talent Cup saw a bit of drama go down on the American side of things. On the second night, East and Carroll got tangled in an exchange, and Austin went down, dislocating something around his shoulder (maybe it was his collarbone) in the process. Guy rode the third night alone, going in and out pretty much whenever he felt like it, and I think he actually came off the track for the final 15 laps or so. Luckily the officials took pity on him, and didn't take him down any more laps. It was pretty funny. In a simultaneously disappointing and convenient twist of fate, Dave Wiswell, who had been racing sick, withdrew after the third night, so Jackie and Guy were paired for the last two nights. The method that is used to settle the laps in this situation was pretty clever: the laps lost by the two teams are averaged, and then another is tacked onto the total to give the standing of the composite team. I'm not sure how the points are dealt with, but the laps system seems like a pretty good one. On the last night Guy and Jackie made the right move at the right time, taking a lap early in the race while the top three teams shadow boxed with one another. A flurry of attacks in the second half put them on the rivet, but they gutted it out, stuck the good wheels, bridged when they had to, and retained their lead to win the night. It was awesome, and a really good way for the two of them to end what had initially looked to be a disappointing and ill-fated start to the race.
In the pro field it was the local star who triumphed, as Keisse and Bartko took a last-minute lap on Risi and Marvulli to vault into the lead. The crowd went crazy. I'm convinced that there's no place like Gent for this. Everyone was on the feet, cheering and clapping. Bill and Dave remarked that they've never seen any sporting event where the crowd was so enthralled with what was going on, and I completely agree with them. The intensity didn't end with the racing though. The majority of the fans stayed around to watch the awards ceremony afterwards, and the party was still going strong at the bar owned by Iljo's father a full 8 hours later, and went long into the night. If he wasn't before, Iljo Keisse can now be confirmed as Belgian royalty.
Again, there's no better place to be a bike racer than Belgium. When I arrived in Brussels, the immigration official who processed me asked where I was going, and when I replied "Gent," he immediately knew why. He started asking me questions about racing, if I had met Keisse, and commented that Cavendish had come through just 15 minutes earlier. The guy working next to him jumped into the conversation too, and were content to talk about the 6's with me for a good 5 minutes while the line behind me (and the one next to be, consequently) were left waiting. What a great place.