I haven?t got a bike. I haven?t really ridden a bike since the early 1980s. I?m not especially interested in competitive cycling. How is it then that I found myself in the crowd on day 5 of the 6 Days of Ghent last Saturday night?
It started with a walk
I am part of a group of work colleagues who like to take occasional evening walks to coincide with full-moons and punctuated by frequent ?refreshment? stops. Some of this same group also like to cycle and have an annual cycling trip to Belgium. I was asked a couple of months ago if I would like to join them for this year?s trip. Now, I am never one to baulk in the face of a challenge, particularly one that may involve imbibing Belgian refreshments, so I agreed.
As the date of the trip drew nearer, I started to worry slightly about the fact that I don?t own a bike and had not sat in a saddle for over 20 years (I knew that there was a plan to cycle from Bruges to Ghent on the Saturday of our weekend away).? I run a little so fitness was not such an issue but the prospect of the impact on my unaccustomed backside was more concerning. ?Don?t worry!? I was assured, ?We?ll lend you a bike and it?ll be ?steady-away? anyway.?
Two days before departure I had a conversation about the cycling aspect: should I, shouldn?t I? I decided not to be a cyclist. Instead, I would drive the van from Bruges to Ghent while the other guys cycled it. This seemed like the best idea all round. The van would get moved, I?d get some sight-seeing & shopping in and I?d also avoid saddle-soreness. I did not regret this decision when Saturday morning came around and the reality of 2 ? hours sleep plus the slightly more than 2 ? Belgian beers kicked in.
Wrong end of the stick or just wrong stick?
We all gathered in Ghent later and, not having anything to do with the organisation of the trip, I asked as to the plans for the evening. I was expecting something similar to Bruges; a meal, some refreshments and a good degree of ?craic? (or should I say, ?bonhomie??).
?No, we?re off to the velodrome,? I was told.
?Oh,? I said, wondering what I was going to do whilst my mates tootled round a track on their bikes. ?That should be fun.? I was assuming, wrongly, that the velodrome was open for folks to come along and bike around the track. It turns out I couldn?t be more wrong. I had made an assumption equivalent to believing that we were going along to Old Trafford for a kick-about only to find that we were actually going to a huge European Cup match.
So it was that I found myself joining several thousand passionate cycling enthusiasts for an internationally famous cycling contest, ?The 6 days of Ghent? at the velodrome at Citadel Park.? What a venue! What an atmosphere! We arrived in the middle of what looked like an extended event. I was full of questions. ?Why are some of the riders tootling along while others are really pumping at speed? Wait. Why did they just hold hands and he sling-shot that other rider into the speeding pack? Why did the crowd just cheer like that?? and many, many more. Thank goodness for Tony, my colleague and resident expert who was able to explain the ins and outs of each of these diverse events. I was blown away by the complexity and ingenuity of the different races. The team-work, stamina, strength and passion of the competitors screamed from the track. I was hooked. I loved the ?Devil take the hindmost?, ?Miss and out? race where a rider is eliminated every few laps for being the last in the pack.
However, my out and out favourite was ?The Derny?. I had been wondering about the over-weight, orange-clad layabouts that seemed to have their own private track-side section to slob about in. They only seemed to be missing cigarettes and pints of beer to complete the image. Then to my astonishment, they hopped onto comedy motorbikes and started buzzing round the track, knees-splayed and gently peddling to assist the gnat-like engine. Soon after, the elite cyclists emerged to take up their positions in the slipstream of their motorised partner and the race began. The race itself seemed to be a delicate interplay between team-mates, man and machine. The vagaries were lost to my inexperienced eye but the spectacle was utterly compelling. In what kind of world did this ever become a serious competitive sport? Fabulous!
I loved the fact that the venue afforded the opportunity to not just sit in the stands but also to join (via tunnels) the throng in the centre of the track. Down there, you were able to really get up close and personal with the riders. I could have reached out and touched the sprinting pack as it wheeled past my nose. I got the feeling that this was the cycling equivalent to F1?s pit lane as the riders, teams and equipment were also accommodated in the centre zone.
I got a real buzz from the event. There were all ages in the crowd and the ebbs and flows of excitement through the evening were tangible. We even had a Mexican wave.
I will certainly be hoping to do the same trip next year and will be popping over to the website for Manchester?s velodrome. Who knows, I might even look into getting a bike!