The Six Days of Ghent is a pretty incredible coming together of lots of people, bikes and beer in one fantastic city. Taking place towards the end of November, the multi-day competition has been held since 1922 in the Kuipke velodrome based in the Citadelpark. Though the exterior looks a bit like a run-down convention centre in the middle of one of Ghent’s many green spaces, the 167m track annually comes alive with thousands of enthusiastic Belgians and international visitors.
On the surface it’s a pretty straightforward concept, but there are six days to choose from and the information out there is both limited and… in Belgian. So for anyone thinking of heading over to watch the cycling, see the sights and savour some pretty phenomenal beers, here are a few tips.
- Book early
While the Six Days of Ghent still feels like bit of a hidden gem and rather like the awesome party your friend invites you to in a weird dilapidated building on the edge of town, it is becoming more popular. This is especially true of the Saturday night which is essentially a chance for A LOT of English cycling fans to descend on one average-sized event space in a foreign country and create a huge party. That’s not to say that the Belgians don’t make a party of their own, but if you buy a Saturday ticket then expect to be surrounded by Brits. Also good to know is that the Thursday night is student night. This is definitely something to behold, but prepare yourself for racing interludes that are filled with Belgian pop stars and lads taking their tops off.
Booking early also applies to accommodation, with it being a good idea to stay somewhere that is walking distance from both the velodrome and Gent-Sint-Pieters station (more on that later). Whether you’re opting for flights or a road/rail trip, travel is generally pretty cheap, but again should be booked in good time if you’re not doing it under your own steam.
Tickets for the Six Days can be found on the z6s-daagse site.
- Bring your beer tokens
When the organisers post out your all-important tickets, they also include a bunch of beer tokens for the night. Ok, so it’s not a make-or-break thing… but it’s a cool little token.
- Get yourself to the UCI Cyclo-cross
Let’s imagine you’ve only bought a ticket for the Saturday night at the track. Instead of committing your trip to just the one event, it can be a Belgian cycling extravaganza thanks to a round of the UCI World Cup Cyclo-cross taking place about an hours train journey away in Koksijde. To get there, all you need to do is hop on a train from Gent-Sint-Pieters station (thus the need for proximity mentioned earlier). The station staff can give you a hand on which train to get, but with not that many per hour it might mean a slightly early start to make sure you catch the women’s race and have time to fully wander around the bonkers sandy course.
With an enormous beer tent and fully committed crowds, the cross is an absolutely brilliant day out to get you all warmed up for the track (despite the fact that you’ll be standing in the cold, in November, just a mile or so from the North Sea). At a couple of pounds to get in and about the same for the train, it’s a pretty valuable addition to the weekend.
Full information on the racing is listed on the Velo Club Koksijde page.
- Pay (some) attention at the track
So this is what you came for; a night of high-octane track cycling within a compact little velodrome. Doors typically open at six-ish and the night starts with racing from the juniors, but with events programmed through until 1am it’s a good idea to pace yourself. Eating before you go in is also a good plan, as despite the smattering of food stands it can be easy to get caught up in the racing from early on.
Ticket-holders seem to steadily drift in over the first two to three hours, but this is actually a really good time to have a wander around and watch some of the frenetic racing before it gets too busy. By 10pm the venue is looking decidedly different, with a sea of people in the centre of the track resembling a strangely well-lit dancefloor. With an absolutely brilliant atmosphere, it’s actually possible to miss some of the racing in favour of the ‘entertainment’ that springs up on the inside of the track. Though I didn’t see any tops off, the Saturday night crowd can certainly rival the Belgians for making the most of the event.
One final thing to mention (without giving it all away) is that the teams’ pits line the sides of the track centre and you can therefore get pretty close to all of the riders. Situated pretty close to the area that Iljo Keisse and Mark Cavendish had claimed at the 2014 Six Days, we got an idea for just how demanding each of the night was. It’s also an incredibly social event, with riders and spectators chatting throughout. In 2014, this included an off-season Tom Boonen who had dropped by to see the show.
- Explore Ghent
The final thing to say is that the Six Days obviously takes place in the city of Ghent – and it’s a great place to spend a weekend regardless of some of the world’s best happening to be racing at the velodrome. Capital of the East Flanders province, Ghent has a huge student population which has resulted in a vibrant spread of bars, cafes, restaurants and museums. It’s also really easy to get around, with everything reachable by foot but also shortened by a tram, bus and train network.
The architecture is incredibly varied and being a port city, there are lots of waterways to explore. When the sun goes down (which is relatively early in November), the old quarter comes alive with beautifully lit alcoves and pavement bars everywhere you look. One particular favourite for us was Jiggers cocktail bar. It was a local recommendation and difficult to find if you weren’t looking for it, with only a taxidermy black panther in the window suggesting it wasn’t a normal apartment entrance. On ringing the doorbell, you are greeted and checked over by one of the kooky waiters as they apparently only let nice people in (as warned by the locals). It’s worth the challenge though, as cocktails were pretty darn special.
Also worth a visit – and very relevant to the trip – is Cafe de Karper which is owned by Iljo Keisse’s dad. Whether you head in before or after a night at the velodrome, you’ll get an incredibly warm welcome and an encyclopedic knowledge of beer from Iljo’s sister who was behind the bar when we headed in. Open when the velodrome kicks out, the party rolls on to the bar which presumably closes when the last man standing calls it a night. Luckily they have what seems like a lifetime’s supply of monkey nuts to feed late night revellers.
So there you have it! Hopefully this has been helpful in giving a couple of extra layers to the Six Days of Ghent and provide a bit of a steer as to how to approach a visit. With a lot left to explore though, it’s safe to say that this will probably be an annual trip for years to come – in the same way that it is for many cycling clubs, stag parties and cycling enthusiasts from across Europe.