Dreams, we all have them, but most of us don’t realise them. When Kenny De Ketele was a boy, he’d go to the Kuipke velodrome in Gent to watch the Six Days and dream of riding and winning on the hallowed boards. And he’d look at the World Champions in their sparkling white rainbow jerseys and dream of the day when he could pull one over his head.
But unlike most of us, Kenny has realised his dreams.
Last November, partnered by Robert Bartko he took the honours in his home Six Day and earlier this month, on the boards of the Melbourne velodrome, he became a World Champion for the first time.
In this exclusive English language interview Kenny tells us about his brilliant winter season – and stepping out of the shadow of Iljo Keisse.
De Ketele seems to have been on the Six Day scene forever, but he’s actually only 26 years-of-age, hailing from the heart of bike racing country, Oudenaarde in West Flanders.
His first big results came in 2003 with second in the European junior points championship – behind Dutch flyer Wim Stroetinga – and second in the junior Ronde Van Vlaanderen.
The following season he was on top of the European podium – winning the U23 madison with a certain Iljo Keisse.
That year he also part realised a dream – winning the UiV U23 race at the Gent Six with Steve Schets.
For 2005 the top spot of the European U23 madison podium was to be denied De Ketele and Schets by a team that’s now one of the very best – Michael Mørkøv and Alex Rasmussen of Denmark, with the Belgians taking home silver, but they did capture the Munich UiV race.
A year later and the Flandrians were crowned European U23 Madison Champions.
In 2007 De Ketele became European U23 Points Champion – endorsing the versatility which has seen him win Belgian titles in the pursuit, team pursuit, scratch, kilometre, points, omnium, madison and omnium.
The Olympics saw him just miss a medal – finishing in fourth spot with Keisse behind Curuchet and Perez’s surprise but dogged win in the madison for Argentina, but they went on to take an Elite European madison title.
A win in the Hasselt Six Day and European Derny championships were the highlights of 2009.
It was a change of partners for the 2010 European madison – where he took silver with Tim Mertens.
Last winter saw him re-take the European madison title, with Keisse, win at Gent and set things up nicely for the win of his life in April 2012.
Congratulations on a great winter, Kenny – the best winter of your career.
“Thank you, I knew that I had to have a good summer in 2011 to prepare me for the winter boards.
“The summer of 2010 was compromised for me by a bad crash and that reflected in my winter performances – so last summer was very important.
“I knew I was on the right track because I was riding very well on the road, I didn’t get wins, but I knew I was in good condition.
“As soon as the Six Day season began I could feel that my recovery was good – and so was my speed.
“I was very excited going into the European madison with Iljo and confident going in to the Gent Six Day.
“Everything happened like it was supposed to and I gained a lot of confidence for the Worlds.
“For the final month going in to the Worlds, all I did was to train, eat, sleep and breathe cycling!”
Your partner in Melbourne, Gijs van Hoecke is not a rider I’m familiar with.
“He’s twice been second in the World Junior Madison Championships and was also the bronze medallist in the Omnium Worlds in Apeldoorn in 2011.
“Do you know that the World Championship was the first time we rode together in a madison? We didn’t even practice any changes in training!
“I’m used to riding with a lot of different partners in the Six Days, but when I changed with Gijs there was just a natural understanding between us.”
What was your game plan going in to the race?
“I referred Gijs to how I rode the points race – I started easy, trying to pick up points without sprinting, following wheels.
“I was trying to make points without using energy.
“You could see that the guys who raced hard in the first half were caught by the guy with the big hammer in the second half of the race.
“The really hard part of the madison is the last 60 laps – and you could predict that the Aussies would try to take their lap, there.
“I knew that we’d have to suffer, but we had a points advantage on the other teams and at the end there was no need for tactics – just defend!”
The quality that struck me about your ride was just plain stubbornness.
“I had the same feeling with the points race but I over cooked it; I took four sprints in a row but I went too deep for the fifth one and couldn’t respond when Meyer went.
“But I had better legs in the madison than I did in the points.
“The hardest moment of the race was when we went alone and took our lap – the Aussies came up level and tried to go again but we countered them.
“After the race, the Aussies came up to us and said that if it wasn’t them who won, then we were the team that they thought deserved to win.
“That’s a big compliment coming from those guys – they’ve won the event twice, remember.”
Do you think the Aussies got their tactics wrong?
“It’s very hard for them – they can’t spring surprises anymore, everyone is watching them.
“I said to Gijs; ‘be sure that when your legs are burning, that’s when the Aussies will make their move!’
“But we let the other teams close them down and rode our own race, taking points and letting the others bring the Aussies back.
“I think they waited too long, neither of them is really a sprinter in a madison – Howard is fast but not so quick in a madison – so they didn’t have the points.”
Swift and Thomas were strong, too.
“They were really good, Swift won gold and two silvers – he was really fast in the points.
“I knew from the beginning that they’d be in it – but to tell the truth, I didn’t see much of them during the race at the hard moments.
“They made a big tactical mistake when they missed the Aussies coming across to us with the Czechs and Dutch – chasing on their own killed them.
“They levelled with us eventually on laps, but we had a big psychological advantage with our better points total.
“They rode a really good race but missed that vital move and paid for it.”
It must be hard going onto the big Worlds gears after a winter on Six Day gears?
“I rode 53 x 15 for the first time ever – I used to be afraid of 52 x 15, never mind 53!
“For the European Championship we rode 48 x 14 and I ride even lower in the Six Days.
“You just can’t ride big gears in the Six Days, they kill your legs.
“After the Copenhagen Six Day I had a month on the road, training for power – I found it easy to adapt.
“And I was training with the team pursuit squad on 53 x 14, so when I went to the 15, it almost felt easy!
“The team pursuit training makes you strong, builds your power.”
You didn’t ride your Sphinx bars at the Worlds.
“You’re not allowed to ride them, anymore.
“Also, there are restrictions on the position – the front part of your bars can only be 50mm in front of the front axle – on the Sphinx it’s more like 100mm.”
Were you a little disappointed not to be riding with Iljo?
“Yes, well, at first I was disappointed about his decision to go for the road with QuickStep.
“But as soon as I knew that, I focussed 100% on proving what I could do – and I almost made it a double world championship, if my legs hadn’t blown up in the points.
“In the past, when we won the European for example, people always said it was; ‘Keisse taking De Ketele to a higher level.’
“So, I was very happy to prove myself – when you’re World Champion, you’re world champion!
“I was happy too about the two teams we beat to win – all four riders are from Pro Tour teams.”
Have the Belgian Media been making a fuss of you both?
“Yes, it’s already been a busy week with interviews and photo shoots – but yours is my first interview in English!
“You can spend a lot of energy on these things but I find that every time I point on the rainbow jersey it’s like a shot of energy going in to me, really boosting me, I don’t get tired of it at all.”
You had quite an adventure with the Euros, too?
“Yeah, yeah – Iljo and I finished the Amsterdam Six Day at midnight on the Saturday.
“Iljo won, so there was all the stuff that goes with that – presentations, interviews, control, showering, getting the bikes packed.
“You know what it’s like at the end of a Six – you can’t be away in ten minutes.
“Our first goal was to qualify for the European final; the heats were at 10:00 am, so it was a short night.
“But we both felt good and if you’re mentally good it’s amazing what you can achieve.
“We had four or five hours sleep, had some breakfast, we were relaxed and got through the qualifying.
“Then we slept for one hour, ate then slept for another 90 minutes before we started the race.
“We were fresh until half distance – then we started to feel it!
“But if you do all of the things which a pro is meant to do – train properly, get plenty of sleep, eat well and rest, then you can do great thing with your body if you really want to.”
Why the track, Kenny? I thought all young Belgian guys want to be Tommeke?
“That’s easy to answer – when I was young, I always used to go to watch the Six Days of Gent and thought to myself; ‘that’s what I want to do!’
“When I was 15 I began to ride the track and the road; but the track presented more opportunities to travel and race at high level – in the Europeans and Worlds, for example.
“I won the European Madison Championship and went to Beijing on the track but rode on the road for six years in the summer.
“I decided that after Beijing I would like to ride more on the road but my form was compromised by crashes and illness, so I’ve not had the chance to prove myself before it was time to set out on the road to the London Olympics.
“I want to have a good winter in the Six Days with the rainbow jersey on my back – especially to defend my title in Gent – but after that I want to see what I can do on the road.
“But remember that I’m a professional and I have to look at the best way to earn my money.”
Is you road team supportive of your track ambitions?
“I’ve been with them since 2004 and they’re very supportive – the team is structured to help young riders make the step from U23 to a big team.
“To give them a taste of the real life of a pro – but also to support Belgian track riders, a road programme is part of your preparation.”
No madison or points at the Olympics, Kenny.