Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Spektakel in Gent

© Jeff Jones

This blog is dedicated to De Witte. Now you can't say I don't mention you.

A week of holidays. What joy. And what better way to spend it than in sunny Belgium? I know the answer to that question and it is c) Australia. Not that I have anything against sunny Belgium, mind.

Getting there from UK-land is even quicker now on the Eurostar. 1hr50 from London St Pancreas (that's what it should be called) to Bruxelles Midi. And it cost less than 60 quid return, and the ticket will get you to any Belgian station. That's what I call value. Admittedly, living in the UK for a while degrades your standards.

I arrived chez Reinhard at 8pm, Gent time, and it wasn't even raining. 25 minutes later, we partook of a power yoga class at gym down the road. Gab rocked up, straight off the plane from Norway where beer is €10 a pop, and Reiny's associate Gwen joined us for the session and the all-important post-yoga beers. All four of us have some connection to the Commonwealth: the team lives on!

I think I'm reasonably flexible for a cyclist, but that doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of things. A third of the exercises were impossible for me to do without falling over or shaking violently. It does feel good using muscles you don't normally use and at least the teacher approved of my Tom Boonen t-shirt.

What felt better was Chimay in the plural form. Liquid ambrosia. Hell, I even appreciated the novelty of being in a packed, smoke-filled cafe again.

Reiny and Gwen hard at work. Well, one of them is.
© Jeff Jones


Being a citizen of the Grand Duchy of Australia, I was legally entitled to vote in the election. Not that it mattered, because I'm in the second safest Labor seat in the country, but it is always fun voting in the senate.

The difficulty is deciding what party to put last. When you have the choice of One Nation, Pauline, the Shooters Party, the Fred Nile group and parties like LDP that do not explain their acronyms on the ballot paper, it's hard. I know the votes this far down probably won't affect the composition of the senate, which only changes once every six years, but it's the principle of the thing that counts.

For the record, I put One Nation last.

The Zesdaagse

These guys were the hardest workers at the Ghent Six
© Jeff Jones

Amazingly in all the years I lived in Gent, I never saw the Six. I hadn't even seen the track, although I'd picked up accreditation for races like Het Volk from the building it was housed in. So this was a new experience, and a pretty cool one at that.

Gab, Reiny and I had tickets to the middenplein (the centre) and if we were lucky, we could get a seat in one section of the stands. The middenplein was fine: there were three or four stands selling beer, we could get dizzy watching the racing and over the course of the night we bumped into several acquaintances. Karl Becker (who could have witnessed my postal vote, 'cos he's an Aussie), Brecht from CN (who was shockingly drinking on the job), Henk Ballet (of classic fame, who I'd obtained a jersey for), Staf and Andre Boone (larger than life characters and both big wheels in the Gent cycling scene), and several hard core fans that I knew from racing.

Much spektakel at the Ghent Six
© Jeff Jones

Speaking of racing, there was some of it going on. Well, a bit.

Track racing is a brilliant spectator sport and six day riders are skillful masters of entertainment. The good thing about the first day is that they race reasonably hard to sort out the pecking order. The crowd favourites were Iljo Keisse and Robert Bartko and they'd get a huge cheer each time they did something like take a lap in the Madison or win a points race. They were good and Keisse was obviously drawing on all his experience from riding langs de Schelde. He's quick, that boy.

But there were others: world Madison champions Bruno Risi and Franco Marvulli, dynamic Dutch duo Robert Slippens and Danny Stam, Brits Brad Wiggins with his funky white wheels and Mark 'where am I?' Cavendish, and Ze Chermans Andreas Beikirch and Erik Mohs.

A dozen or so teams on a 166m track: it's amazing to watch as they sling each other in through gaps that suddenly appear between other teams. No-one crashed when we were there, but last year Spaniard Isaac Galvez died when he hit the metal barrier that runs around the top of the track. The barrier now has an inch of foam around it. I don't know if that will do any good in case of a similar accident but I'm not in charge of Health and Safety.

By the end of the night, we had consumed enough pils to satisfy our thirst, soaking some of it up with a fine bradwoorst. Gab went back for a second one because he recognised the girl selling them from last year. She recognised him, too. I'm not sure whether that was a good thing but none of us were in a position to judge.

Gabke loves the bradwoorst
© Jeff Jones

Other antics

It is never advisable to drink on an empty stomach. Rochefort 8° does taste pretty good, but it accounted for Thursday evening and a good chunk of Friday. Reiny and Gab had gone spinning so Gwen and I got a small headstart. It ended up being a two hour headstart and it was possible to cover a lot of ground in that time before the cavalry (or were we in Calvary?) arrived. I blame myself as, unlike Gwen, I am old enough to know better. At least I didn't have to work the next day but I was so hungry on Friday morning that I couldn't sleep it off properly.

I wandered over to the Eddy Merckx Centrum at the Blaarmeersen on Friday evening to hook up with Guido, Philippe, Lucien, Jules and their better halves. There's a newish 250m board track there and it's open for anyone to train on at certain times. You can even hire bikes - fairly basic machines but they allow you to do the job. €15 got me a bike and up to two hours on the track.

I haven't ridden on a track for about 10 years and although it's easy to remember what to do (pedal and turn left), it's still mildly terrifying getting up on the steep bankings. It was a simple session: everyone just rode round in one of several bunches. It wasn't slow either, as we averaged over 42km/h for 1hr15min. The hardest part for me wasn't the speed, it was the uncomfortable position on the bike that was giving me numb hands and a sore hamstring. You can't really relax either, because then you'll find that the bike starts pedaling you and that is not a good thing.

The bike I used at the Blaarmeersen
© Jeff Jones

Riding the boards at the Eddy Merckx centrum in the Blaarmeersen
© Jeff Jones

De Karper, Iljo Keisse's support club cafe.
© Jeff Jones

It was a good way to get rid of the hangover, although we tried to rectify that by going to De Karper, Iljo Keisse's support club cafe, afterwards. The music was classic hits from the '70s, '80s and '90s: Summer of 69, China Girl, Living Doll to I Want to Break Free and so many more.

Jo joined us, fresh from his trip to Bolivia where he met the country's president twice and did a downhill mountain bike ride where he dropped 4000m! He also pledged on a beer coaster that he would ride in Berchem next year.

Guido and Philippe said they've both done around 15,000km this year. That ain't bad chaps - my count is 'only' 17,000 thus far. I'll get close to 19,000 by the end of the year but no more. A far cry from my record of 30,000 a few years ago.

The extra kilometres helped Philippe do five and a half hours for the Velomedian, a really good time for what sounds like a very tough sportive. Unfortunately Guido paid the price for 0.5km too many. On a training ride in June, he had 179.5km on the clock and wanted to make it 180, but was hit by a car just near his house. Fortunately he wasn't really seriously injured, but all the same he has a scar on his forehead that is much better than mine. Alas, the De Rosa is no more.

More on the injury front: Jules had the misfortune to break his hip, which put him out for three months. But Lucien escaped the year unscathed. He has a new Colnago and no scars.

Jules, Guido, Lucien, Philippe and ik at De Karper
© Jeff Jones

Coffee crawl

The best place for coffee that I've been to in Gent is Mokabon on the Donkersteeg. It's a proper old school coffee shop with old school clientele. The decor hasn't really changed since it opened in 1953, the theme being dark brown wood. Now, Belgians haven't yet mastered the cappuccino, but the coffee here is bloody good. It's all about the taste, not the caffeine. And it's not pricey either, with an espresso costing €1.80

Reiny and I visited it as part of a coffee crawl that started in Ledeberg and finished at the Marimain. It was an excellent way to kill a few hours and see how others spend their Sundays. We followed that with a home cooked Vlaamse stoverij (me), vanilla ice cream with Advocaat, chocolate sauce and strawberries (Gwen) and a few quiet ones (all of us). A noice way to end the week.

Gwen, me and Reiny about to sit down to a fine, home cooked repast
© Jeff Jones

By the way, I did spend a large amount of time not drinking and doing something constructive, like writing. But given that alcohol kills brain cells, I might have to do less drinking if I want to get the book finished. After this week, my brain is not half full, it's half empty.

It's time to ride the bike again, too.

More pics

Descending the muddy cobbles of the Kantienberg. I love it.
© Jeff Jones

Wet cobbles and tram tracks. Someone should get onto health & safety about this.
© Jeff Jones

Chocolates from Yuzu on Walpoortstraat. These are brilliant.
© Jeff Jones

Reiny and Gabke warming up before the Six
© Jeff Jones

The Middenplein is where it's at
© Jeff Jones

Gab, Reiny and Staf
© Jeff Jones

© Jeff Jones

Gent again
© Jeff Jones

Guido's Ridley. Note the incredibly relaxed head angle. What the?
© Jeff Jones

Jules, Lucien, the ladies, Philippe and Guido are thirsty
© Jeff Jones

Enjoying a Westmalle with Jo
© Jeff Jones

The markets in Ledeberg were pretty crap
© Jeff Jones

Sunday lunchtime in Ledeberg
© Jeff Jones


Anonymous said...

Thanks to mention me once!
Sometimes we think that you forgot us completely, but we will not forget you.
I wish you the very best in United Kingdom, and we hope to meet again in Belgium.
the only real Schelde-terrorist
De Witten

Jeff Jones said...

Don't worry, I'll be back. And I'll bring my bike next time.

Enjoy the winter!


Anonymous said...

HI Jeff,

Accidently I met De Witten this morning in an extremely great shape.As usual he took in a charismatic way, the lead of the bunch, controlling and killing every-break away and this in extremely bad Flandrien weather circumstances, a tempest swept over the Schelde ;=)), but he kept going.
And gentle he is, he told me, while riding 49 km/h that he was very pleased he had been mentioned in your blog.

Nice fellow, de Witten.



Reno said...

Let's talk about drinking while being on the job for CN... although there's not much too say. I'm a Belgian, so I can handle it! ;-)

Jeff Jones said...

You most certainly can. In fact, it should be compulsory while at the Gent Six to get the true feel for the spektakel.