Ghent’s slightly bonkers Six-Days race meeting kicks off next week. But it’s not just about the cycling – many people are here to party. Andy Pietrasik joins them, and also explores this cool but underrated city
Arriving at the velodrome in Ghent for the opening night of the Six-Days cycle races in November is like stepping into the fuggy embrace of a fairground on a cold winter evening. The atmosphere inside the cavernous ‘t Kuipke building is thick with the smell of fried onions, hotdogs, burgers and beer.
The sober-minded cycling fans take their seats at the 5,000-capacity arena, peering down on the steep-banked oval wooden track to get the full sweep of the races. But in the middle of the track there is a party going on. And it is open to anyone.
While the pro cyclists fly around the banks of the velodrome like stunt riders on the wall of death, the centre of the circuit is heaving with bodies drinking and chatting and shuffling around in small circles, in a vain attempt to take in the action. These are men and women in suits, youngsters in fancy dress, groups of guys in vintage cycling kit … it is like a scene from a huge office party. The opening night of the Ghent Six-Days races is a big event on the social calendar of this city in the East Flanders region of Belgium: it is the opening salvo of their festive celebrations. And the party will go on for another five nights.
The racing is fast-flowing and near constant over the evening – 26 riders in teams of two, pedalling in a series of races for almost six hours straight, from 8pm to 2am, each covering close to 100km a night – flat out – for six nights. It is the cycling equivalent of the Depression-era dance marathons made famous in the film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Except that the origins of track cycling date back to England in the late 19th-century, “responding to a popular taste in mid-Victorian England for unusual, sometimes callous, displays of physical strength and stamina”, according to the late Observer sports journalist Geoffrey Nicholson.
Six-day races became popular in mainland Europe in the early 20th century and have been a staple of the racing calendar in Ghent since 1922, with past winners including the Belgian legend Eddy Merckx in the 60s and 70s, and more recently our own Bradley Wiggins – who was born in the city.
“In Europe, the Sixes were much more solidly based,” wrote Nicholson. They are part of the fabric of certain European cities, with people getting dressed up and going for a big night out. “With their heavy background music, cabaret acts and non-stop bars, they became the working man’s nightclub, which fashionable people also patronised, dropping in after an evening on the town for a little earthy entertainment.”
Adding to the carnival atmosphere is the MC’s perpetual commentary, the bursts of disco music, and the singers who come on to the track to rouse the crowd with drinking songs when the riders take brief respites for refuelling and rub-downs in their trackside cabins.
Actually following the racing programme is a dizzying experience, as there are so many different events – team eliminations, individual eliminations, flying lap time trials, madisons, super sprints and derny races. In the latter, the cyclists are paced by orange-shirted men riding little motorbikes who look like motorised Munchkins and take the cyclists up to 70kph in their slipstream. They get a huge roar of approval from the crowd. The overall winner of the Sixes is the team that gains most points in the different disciplines and gains the most laps on the other riders. Last year, local hero (and four-time Sixes winner) Iljo Keisse and his Australian partner, Glenn O’Shea, took the title.Nungwi Village
No matter what your sporting prejudices, this is about taking in a show and having a party. And Ghent certainly knows how to throw a good party. There’s a string of festivals throughout the year and, in late July, everybody stops work to enjoy the free concerts of the 10-day Gentse Feesten – dance music, jazz, street theatre, puppet shows. In January, the city glows not just with alcohol, but with the spectacular LED displays created for the annual Light Festival.
The candle also burns at both ends at the unofficial fans’ headquarters during race week. Cafe De Karper (Kortrijksesteenweg 2, cafedekarper.be) is a big corner bar down the road from the velodrome that is owned by Ronnie Keisse, father of Iljo Keisse. The curtain only really comes down on race nights in the bar when dawn breaks, and the final customer slopes away from the thumping Euro disco for a local pick-me-up of coffee and waffles.
There’s iron in the soul of the Flanders character and an independent streak that refuses to be cowed. In Ghent, the overwhelming architecture of the city centre – the huge cobbled squares, towering medieval church spires, and handsome mercantile houses lining the river Leie – can make you feel like you’re in a museum or on a film noir set. But the irreverent spirit of the locals leads to a defiance of any attempts at Disneyfication of the city. The Ghent Free Map, produced by Use-It (use-it.be) and made up of tips by locals, is a good illustration of this irreverence. In its introduction, it explains that brochures from the World Fair in Ghent 100 years ago “spoke about Ghent as a city as beautiful as Bruges, but with real life going on. Which is exactly what we say to attract tourists (and to piss off people from Bruges) today…”
Among the Ghent Free Map’s many recommendations are a mix of stylish new places like Wasbar (Nederkouter 109, wasbar.com), a combination of laundry and retro coffee bar, and the more traditional, like the home-style kitchen at the De Lieve restaurant (Sint-Margrietstraat 1, eetkaffee-delieve.be), which serves hearty beef stews and casseroles. But the map really gets under the skin of the city by pointing visitors to places like The White Cat (Drongenhof 40, whitecat.be), a local dive bar, which plays funk and soul and is “in a medieval cellar without any fresh air. This one is from the 14th century and has a pink ceiling, pink walls and an aquarium as a bar.” It also highlights the “graffiti tunnel next to the tourist office”. Which should please the tourist office no end.
The taxi driver who picked me up from St Pieters station, when I arrived by train from Brussels, explained – as he weaved between the swarms of lunchtime cyclists – that the student population of around 100,000 brings a life and vitality to the city that is possibly lacking in Bruges. What I found refreshing, as I wandered the streets away from the velodrome, was that many of the neighbourhood bars and cafes had the confidence not to gussy themselves up for the tourist crowds.
For example, just down the road from St Michael’s bridge and the impressive Sint-Michielskerk, with its collection of neoclassic statues and baroque paintings, is Cafe Bornhem (corner of Sint-Michielsplein and Ingelandgat). This is a pared-down bar that lures you in with the warm, cosy lighting that radiates from its shop-front-style windows. Inside is a small room with white-tiled walls, ball lights suspended from the ceiling, a few chairs and tables, and a bar off to the side serving a selection of local beers at a couple of euros a glass.
Lepelblad restaurant and koffiehuis (Onderbergen, lepelblad.be), in the university quarter, offers the same simple service – no-nonsense seasonal soups and stews, served at plain wooden tables under homely shelves of tureens and a few pieces of modern art.
Of course you can find more self-consciously styled places, such as the most recent arrival on the cycling scene, Bidon, Coffee & Cycle (Bisdomkaai 25, barbidon.be), a chasmal-sized cafe with wall displays of printed helmets and artfully-placed Pashley bikes. Or the riverside basement restaurant eatlove (Ajuinlei 10a, eatlove.be), which serves oven-fired pizzas in a setting largely fashioned out of industrial chipboard. And then there’s the kitsch appeal of the flea-market-decorated Pink Flamingo’s Lounge Bar on Onderstraat (pinkflamingos.be).Nungwi Village
Arguably one of the nicest eating and drinking experiences that Gentenaars enjoy is a more organic affair. Every Sunday morning at the flower market in Kouter square, you’ll find locals taking a break from buying their blooms to grab a quick glass of champagne and down a few oysters at De Blauwe Kiosk, a little booth set up among the flower stalls.
A couple of years back, Lonely Planet said that “Ghent must be the best European city you’ve never thought of visiting”. But, of course, UK cyclists and cycling fans already knew this. They’ve been coming here since the 1960s, drawn initially by the late, great British rider Tom Simpson – winner of the Tour of Flanders in 1961 – who decided to make his home in the city. They were just too busy partying and enjoying themselves to bother telling anyone else.
• Eurostar (eurostar.com) travels London St Pancras to Brussels from £69 return; connections from Brussels to Ghent take 30 minutes on the fast train and cost €8.70 (belgianrail.be). Accommodation was provided by Visit Gent (visitgent.be) at Sandton Grand Hotel Reylof (+32 9 235 40 70, sandton.eu), with doubles from €129. The 2013 Ghent Sixes (z6sdaagse.be) run from 19-24 November; tickets from €16 a night