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Gent Six warm-up session

News feature, November 21, 2006

A day before the 66th Zesdaagse Van Vlaanderen-Gent, or Ghent Six Day, begins, Cyclingnews' Laura Weislo headed to the 'Kuipke' to watch a warm-up session with some young American hopefuls who will be taking part in the Toekomst-zesdaagse, the under-25 version of the event. Alongside the four amateurs, rode Belgian six day star Iljo Keisse, who made his way into the pro ranks through the same program. Will these young riders make the grade?

Entry into the Toekomst-zesdaagse does not guarantee a six day ride. The amateurs will not have days to earn points or take back laps - racing will be desperate from the start because out of the two heats of ten teams only six will advance to the 'big show' - the final two rounds this weekend. Are they intimidated by the short, very steep track? "It's pretty steep, but it's kind of like Detroit", said a nonchalant Jackie Simes, whose family has a long history on the track. Simes is the son of the US bicycling hall of fame inductee Jack Simes, and grandson of Jackie Simes, also a hall of famer and a champion racer whose career was cut short by an accident at a six day race in San Francisco in 1937.

Simes and his partner Taylor Brown, both from Pennsylvania and 18 years of age, are tackling their first six day. When asked what their goals are, they laughed, "to hang on!" The two are US junior national champions in the team pursuit, and placed a respectable 7th at elite nationals this year, but are realistic about their chances. They're using their holiday break from school to come to Belgium for the week and gain some useful experiences with the help of Bernard Moerman of the Cycling Center in Hertsberge.

The more ambitious pair is 22 year old Kevin Suhr and 21 year old Ryan Luttrel. The under-25 age grouping is new, and Suhr is happy that they've chosen this cutoff rather than the usual under-23, "because then this would be my first and last year to do the race".

Kevin is excited at the prospect of racing six consecutive nights of his favorite race, the madison. The under-25 riders will not have the variety of events that the pro's do, because there are two heats due to the large number of teams, and will race only the Madison each night. He feels like this event is their strongest, so six nights is perfect for them. "There are only a few events in the US that are madison based," he said, "the six days, you know, is a completely different level of competition compared to a one night race. This is what I've been training for all season.. Hopefully it'll pan out and we'll make the finals". Luttrell is happy just to go up against an international field, and said, "Every time I race with the European guys, it's like a whole other level of racing you don't get in the US. It makes you that much better and ready to step it up".

Without a comparable event in the US for training, he and partner Ryan Luttrell spent quite a lot of time with specific speed training this year, putting in "lots of motorpacing... I can't count how many times I've been behind the motorbike this season". Surh said, "We've definitely trained all year, and put in a lot of time for this. Hopefully we'll match up quite well".

Although the two are from Colorado, not far from the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs, training for this event hasn't always been easy, especially since summer ended. "We've actually gone out a couple of times to Colorado Springs, the OTC has opened up the track for us," said Luttrell, "but it's hard - it's like 20 degrees out plus like 30mph wind chill... [it's like you] get wrapped up, kinda go out for 20 minutes, then go in and try to get some feeling back in our legs..."

Without specific track training, the two had to find alternatives. "We've been mostly on the road for the last month or so, maybe not as much as intensity [as you need for the six day] - it's winter in the US, so there's no track racing... it's hard - all we can do really is 'cross [to duplicate the intensity of the track]. But you just don't get the leg speed like you get during the track season - so it might be a little rough the first day or so."

Having never experienced a six day, what do these riders think it will be like? "I can imagine the chaos - I mean, the 200m track in Detroit was pretty chaotic, we had 12 teams on that. After the first day or two when everyone figures out what's going on, it's like being a fighter pilot. You get in the zone, and after you figure out what to focus on, you can thread the needle and go to the front, maybe take a lap" said Suhr.

His partner Luttrell agreed, "It's gonna be fast, that's all I know. The euro guys are always really strong... so it'll be fast. We're definitely ready for some pain."

The real test of these young riders may not be their fitness, but their nerves. The velodrome will be packed full of a thousand fans, with disco music and rock concert lighting. Will they be able to perform in this environment? "It's going to be awesome - I'm so psyched for this race!" said Suhr, "The crowds have never bothered me before, but I'm sure this is going to be an entirely different level. Hopefully I can block it out and focus! It's going to be great - I hope we can do well and have a good time."

Catching up with Keisse

During their warmup session, the four Americans found themselves on the same track as Belgian six day star, Iljo Keisse, and his trade teammate Dimitri De Fauw. Keisse himself came up through the under-25 program, and is now one of the favorites to win the overall event. The six men traded the lead during the warm-up paceline, then took part in a mock 'race' to practice their exchanges.

Keisse had this advice to offer to the four younger men, "The first day you have to put your cards on the table... the first day is important, then Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The more people there are [in the stands], the harder the race is..."

Keisse just returned from the Munich six day, where he and Franco Marvulli took second place to Erik Zabel and Bruno Risi. As defending champion of the Ghent six, Keisse is heavily favoured, and feels good about his prospects. "This is my home six day, so I am looking forward to it, and I've been training well, and am happy that I have good condition." he said, but since his normal partner Matthew Gilmore has been out all season after crashing in a Kermese and breaking his leg, Keisse has had a new partner for every six day.

Gilmore had surgery to put a rod into his leg, and is currently in rehabilitation. "I hope he's coming back" Keisse said, "He's training hard for it. He's very motivated to come back for the Olympics, and I don't know if he's going to be back this season. He said he wants to be back for Zurich (in January) but we'll have to see about that. He's not putting a date on it because he has some good days and some bad days."

Changing partners each races has its problems, because the event relies so heavily on well-timed exchanges and drawing on each other's strengths to gain maximum points. "Every race I got a new partner. It's not a good thing. I had Villa, I had Marvulli, and I had Stam, so it's not so easy" said Keisse. But as a relatively new pro, he is learning quite a bit from each new partner. "I like to race with Marvulli because he takes a lot of points, but I also like to race with Villa, he has a lot of experience, same with Stam. They're all big names, a lot of experience. I'm just a small boy in comparison."

"I hope my partner will be good," Keisse said of Bartko, "He had a crash in Amsterdam, and wasn't too good in Dortmund, not even in Munich, but he's promised me he would do his best to be 100% for this race. We'll see after tomorrow night".

Other picks for the win are Franco Marvulli and Alexander Aeschbach, Marco Villa and Mark Hester, world champions Isaac Galvez and Juan Llaneras, and Danny Stam and Peter Schep. "There are going to be five teams, and they'll be looking at each other." said Keisse, "It's not just the laps but also the points are important."

Like the young riders, Keisse knows that the key to a successful six day is a high tolerance for pain, and he counts this as one of his best qualities. "I can take points, I'm not the fastest in the peloton, but I can fast enough to take alot of points." he said, "You have to be fast, but once you're over the limit you still have to keep going and that's my strong point. Like we say in Belgium, 'embrace the pain'."


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Images by Laura Weislo/Cyclingnews

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