One Night at the Six Days

It’s hot in here. It smells like a grease fire. A euro-pop remix of Sweet Car­o­line rings out above the hub­bub and every­one in the place – all of whom, hav­ing pounded lager af­ter lager, are caught up in a com­mu­nal, red-faced eu­pho­ria – is singing along. Oh, and there is a bike race go­ing on. Wel­come to the Ghent Six Days.

The derny race at the Ghent Six Days. (Image by the author.)
The derny race.

’T Kuipke (“the dish”) sits at the edge of Ghen­t’s Citadel­park. On Sat­ur­day evening, at the start of the penul­ti­mate night of rac­ing, we joined a steady stream of other race-go­ers mak­ing their way into the anony­mous, blocky build­ing. In the dark­ness and the quiet of the park it was dif­fi­cult to get much of a feel for where we were headed, but the ranks of parked omafi­ets and a dis­creet pub­lic pis­soir lent pro­ceed­ings a low-key, low coun­try feel.

Tick­ets shown, wrists stamped, and we were into the un­der­croft, all curv­ing cor­ri­dors and en­croach­ing ceil­ings. Above our heads were the grand­stands that looked down upon the track so that their oc­cu­pants could look up to the rid­ers. We had tick­ets for the in­field, but first we needed food and drink, and here we found out that the bars and food con­ces­sions did­n’t ac­cept money but rather meal tick­ets bought for €1.35 apiece.1 Choices were ex­pen­sive and sparse – bratwurst or burg­ers, lager or strong lager, red or white wine – but, if you could make your peace with that, they fit­ted the pro­ceed­ings just fine. This was cy­cling as darts tour­na­ment, and it was a thing to be­hold.

I have never seen so many sweaty white men in one place. Down in the in­field, the mosh pit, all eyes were fixed on the rac­ers as they whipped round the track, so that the choice was to ro­tate bod­ily in place or fol­low them with your head, whip­ping it back around when it would­n’t go any far­ther. It was ex­hil­a­rat­ing and lightly nau­se­at­ing at the same time. In the seats above the track, things were more gen­teel: the ra­tio of men to women dipped be­low dou­ble fig­ures, the av­er­age age skewed up­wards, and heads fol­lowed rac­ers with­out fear of whiplash. In all ways, the stands were el­e­vated.

When not on the track, the rac­ers were squeezed into a nar­row band be­tween the in­field and the côte d’azur, close enough to touch as they warmed up on rollers. A few bold fans leaned against the bar­rier that sep­a­rated us from them, up in the rid­ers’ grills as they sweated and spun be­tween races. And the races, my God, the races. The madi­son. The derny race. The su­per sprint. The points race. The elim­i­na­tion race. I’d read Li­onel Birnie’s ge­nial guide to the Ghent Six a few days be­fore we ar­rived, with its coy sug­ges­tion that there may be an el­e­ment of stage-man­age­ment to the fi­nal out­come of the tour­na­ment, but to watch the rid­ers flash round at al­most 70 kilo­me­tres per hour was to be con­vinced that it re­ally did­n’t mat­ter.

The Ghent Six is all about rit­ual. The drunken lads stack­ing plas­tic beer cups into sway­ing tow­ers. The Bel­gian folk songs that had the en­tire au­di­ence, whether down on the in­field or up in the stands, on their feet. The podium girls (!, ?) and vic­tory laps af­ter every race. The derny rid­ers put­ter­ing round in for­ma­tion be­fore their big mo­ment, nod­ding sagely to fa­mil­iar faces in the crowd. At the start of one race, Mark Cavendish, this year’s big star, led his fel­low rid­ers in a neu­tralised ten-lap pro­ces­sion while whip­ping the crowd into a frenzy to the sound of We Will Rock You. (He lost the race.) Be­fore an­other, the rac­ers formed a guard of ho­n­our for Moreno de Pauw, re­tir­ing from pro cy­cling at 28.

As the night wore on the tem­per­a­ture rose in­ex­orably, dri­ven up­wards by per­spir­ing bod­ies and siz­zling hot­plates. Had we been in France, I might have made a tired joke about boil­ing frogs; here, in Bel­gium, we were more like steam­ing mus­sels. We ca­pit­u­lated just be­fore mid­night – the rid­ers would race on un­til 1am – and the win­ter cold was a re­lief when we stum­bled out­side.

It was awe­some. We’ll be back.

  1. “Last year’s tickets (€1.25) NOT accepted!”, warned a sign at one of the bars, and I was tickled by the idea of veteran six-dayers banking spare tokens in the hope of using them again at next year’s event. Perhaps the caterers are more lenient during recession years?