Mark Cavendish and Omega Pharma-QuickStep teammate Iljo Keisse top the bill at the Gent Six which starts on Tuesday night. While Keisse is a former winner of the race on four different occasions (2005, 2007, 2010 and 2012) it will be Cavendish's first time back at a Six Day since 2007.
Despite being the favourites for overall success, Cavendish's pedigree as a track rider and former two-time Madison world champion meant he was relaxed and confident before the race. He confirmed that he has fully recovered from the ligament damage he suffered when he crashed out during the sprint on stage one of the Tour de France in Harrogate. Riding the Gent Six is part of his strategy to get back to his best and prove he is again the best sprinter in professional cycling.
"My last Six Day was in Gent seven years ago. It's been a long time. I'm excited, and I have the best partner to race this with. I'm just anticipating tomorrow (Tuesday). It makes sense to ride here with my teammate, and my friend, and to do my best for a good result," Cavendish said.
"I'm very relaxed right now compared to something like the Tour de France," Cavendish said. "At the Tour de France your whole season is built on it. I'm not sure what to expect at my first Six Day in seven years. So, it's more anticipation to see where I am. Ask me after the first night and I can tell you about my nerves. But right now I just want to see how it goes."
"I'm completely recovered from my injury at the Tour de France and I did everything I could to be in the best condition possible for this race. I trained, obviously I'm not in my July form but I'm trained well for here."
"For next season it makes sense to start my winter a little early on the track. If I didn't think I was in good enough shape I wouldn't be here, out of respect for my team, myself, the fans, and the race. I want to do well again. It's the home Six Day for Omega Pharma – Quick-Step and also for Iljo. He works so hard for me on the road, so it's an honor for me to race here and do anything less than my best with the best condition possible for Gent Six. It's a special atmosphere here. Great riders have raced here, all the good track riders are here. Here in Gent, all the focus is on the bike race instead of all the festivities around the racing. I'm super proud to participate."
Cavendish trained with Keisse on the Gent track a few weeks ago and got a final taste of the tight 166-metre track before his press conference. He compared racing a Six Day to riding an early season stage race.
"A standard Olympic track is 250 metres long, and this is 166, so it's a fair bit smaller," Cavendish said. "The G-forces you experience on a short track like this is like nothing you experience on a big track. You really sink into the bankings, and it throws you out. It's quite physical on the upper body as well as the lower body. It's difficult to ride but that's what makes it quite spectacular."
"This is similar to a one week stage race, except you race at night instead of during the day. You sleep a little bit longer and then kill time before it. It's a bit more relaxed here at the track."
Home hero Keisse
While Cavendish is the big-name attraction, Keisse is local hero as he rides his home event. He was naturally more nervous that Cavendish, knowing nothing less than victory is expected by the knowledgeable crowds that will pack the track centre and bars every night.
"It's always really nervous the first night," Keisse said. "For me the first night, you can't win it that night, but you can lose it. That's why it's so important. Once you get through the first night everything else gets easier. Everyone knows their place a little bit and the young guys aren't so nervous anymore. Everyone gets their nerves out of the way."
Keisse knows that his Six Day experience and Cavendish's speed make a great combination.
"I'm happy that I can race with Cav in two different disciplines," Keisse said. "We worked hard to get ready for this race, and I think with my experience and success at Gent, and with the obvious speed of Cav, it will be a really good combination. I'm looking forward to see what we can do."