The boards of the Kuipke velodrome will rumble this week as the Six Day circus rolls into the central Belgian city for the Six Day's of Flanders in Gent, Belgium. The event is shaping up to be one of the biggest six-day races of the season - quite literally. The race's organiser this week reported that ticket sales had bucked a trend that has seen lower-than-average spectator numbers at other races this year.
Fans drawn to the 69th edition of the race will be rewarded for their loyalty with one of the highest quality fields assembled this year. Picking a clear favourite for Gent is no easy task, with results evenly distributed throughout the 2009 Six Day season. No one pair has been able to record more than one overall victory in the major Six Day races so far contested in Amsterdam, Grenoble and Munich.
However, based on the most recent results, the Swiss pair of Bruno Risi and Franco Marvulli will head to Belgium on short odds. After a thrilling finale to the Six Days of Munich on Tuesday, Risi and Marvulli will resume their battle with Denmark's Alex Rasmussen/Michael Mørkøv. The latter pair was defeated by a mere three points in Germany after the Swiss triumphed in the final sprint of that event.
For Marvulli, the Munich result was his second trip to the top-step of the podium, after he won the Six Days of Grenoble with Australian Luke Roberts in early November. Risi will continue his farewell tour of the Six Day circuit as the 41-year-old pays his final competitive visit to the Kuipke track.
Organisers are hopeful that Munich will act as a prelude to action this week. "We will have the reigning World Madison Champions Alex Rasmussen and Michael Mørkøv, and after 18 years Bruno Risi will say goodbye to his audience in Gent," said race organiser Patrick Sercu. "It will be a fascinating duel for victory here."
Winners of the Six Days of Amsterdam, Germany's Roger Kluge and Robert Bartko, will also return to action, though after a series of Six Day musical chairs the duo will be racing as opponents this time around. After a year of courtroom drama, Belgian Iljo Keisse will partner Kluge as he attempts to defend his 2007 and 2008 Gent titles. Keisse's partner for those two successive Gent victories, Bartko, has been teamed with Kenny De Ketele in what has the potential to be a strong combination.
"It was puzzle to put together, but I think we can reasonably say that it is the best quality field we've had in years," said Sercu, as he explained the rationale behind the team reshuffles. "With Iljo Keisse and Robert Bartko apart and Keisse not linked to Kenny De Ketele we get two top teams in the instead of one."
Sercu also indicated that Keisse and Bartko's dominance of the past two editions of the Gent Six had played a role in the decision to split the pair up. Despite the air of expectation that surrounds his return to Gent and a third place finish at the Grenoble Six, Keisse told Het Nieuwsblad that he is apprehensive about the week ahead.
"I'm a little scared of Gent and I will be content when it is done," the 26-year-old told the Belgian newspaper. "My general condition and my top speed hasn't returned yet. At Grenoble I raced with Gianni Meersman, who rode well, but hadn't been on the track in five years. In Amsterdam I raced with Kenny De Ketele, but again the speed wasn't quite there."
Keisse will have no opportunity to ease himself back in to the racing in one of the most demanding Six Day schedules of the year in Gent. In addition to the already race winning combinations that will be in action, a number of strong duos could be capable of an upset in Belgium.
Australian pair Glenn O'Shea and Leigh Howard continue their excellent European Six Day adventure, while Leif Lampater and Danny Stam; Leon Van Bon and Andreas Müller; Geert-Jan Jonkman and Marc Hester; Jeff Vermeulen and Peter Schep have all been confirmed as pairs for the competition.