Late on the Sunday afternoon Iljo Keisse and his strong partner and compatriot, Jasper De Buyst pull off a ‘doublette’ – two lap gains in quick succession – in this 100th edition of the Gent Six Day race.
I start to worry that we’re going to get served up a ‘fairy tale.’
But it’s an aberration, I can relax; leaders Rob Ghys & Lindsay De Vylder and their closest challengers Yoeri Havik & Fabian Van Den Bosche restore the status quo as the two strongest teams on the track and ‘Keisse de Kuipke Keizer’ and his solid partner, De Buyst return to third place on the big score board.
And that’s how it ends.
It’s a fair and honest result and only the most feral Iljo-ista would have expected him to win at 39 years-of-age, two decades after his first ride on this hallowed hardwood in the Gent Six Day – and against much younger and fresher opposition.
It was Keisse’s destiny to become a track man, father Ronie was once manager of the Kuipke velodrome.
Ronie now owns the famous De Karper bar in Ghent just minutes from the Kuipke, I interviewed him a few years ago and asked him;
‘When did you first think that Iljo would be a racing cyclist?’
“When I had a hamburger van, which I took to sporting events, he would come with me and see the different sports – he played soccer and squash.
“But it wasn’t until I took the job at the velodrome that he got into cycling – no nerves, no fear, soaring on those boards at seven years-of-age.”
That seven years-old went on to have an exceptional record over the last 20 years of the Gent Six Day:
- 2002: 13th with Jean-Pierre Van Zyl, the South African who held the Gent track record for many years.
- 2003: 9th with Austria’s Franz Stocher, who was Worlds Points Race Champion that year.
- 2004: 2nd with German, Andreas Beikirch who won the Six Days of Bremen, Dortmund and Stuttgart as well as the European Madison Championships.
- 2005: was his first win with Aussie gone native Belgian, Matt Gilmore, son of Tasmanian Six Day legend, Graeme. Gilmore Junior was World Madison Champion with Etienne De Wilde in 1998 and won 17 Six Days off 107 starts.
- 2006: the race was stopped after the tragic death in a crash of Spaniard, Isaac Gálvez with Keisse/Bartko leading the standings.
- 2007: win number two with, German ‘Terminator,’ ‘Big Bob’ Bartko who was Olympic Individual and Team Pursuit Champion in 2000 in Sydney and won 21 Six Days off 79 starts.
- 2008: win number three, again with Big Bob.
- 2009: 2nd with ‘Big Bob Bartko replica,’ Germany’s former European and World Madison ‘Big Rodge’ Kluge.
- 2010: win number four, with classy Dutch 2006 World Points Race Champion, Peter Schep who won 13 Six Days off 56 starts.
- 2012: win number five, with Aussie, Glenn O’Shea the 2012 World Omnium Champion.
- 2013: 2nd with Dutch Six Day stalwart, Wim Stroetinga who was a National, European and World Champion as a junior and was European Omnium Champion at elite level.
- 2014: 2nd with Mark Cavendish – no introductions necessary.
- 2015: win number six, with Danish Olympic Madison Champion, Michael Mørkøv and along with Keisse, Kluge and Havik one of the few ‘specialist’ Six Day men left.
- 2016: 3rd with Italy’s former Olympic Omnium Champion, Elia Viviani.
- 2018: win number seven, with Elia Viviani
- 2019: 4th with Mark Cavendish.
- 2021: 4th with Mark Cavendish.
- 2022: 3rd with Jasper De Buyst who has twice won this race, with Leif Lampater in 2013 and with Kenny De Ketele in 2014.
Keisse’s overall Six Day stats are impressive; 28 wins off 87 starts with 16 different partners, his strongest pairings being seven wins with Robert Bartko and four each with Matt Gilmore and Niki Terpstra.
He won in Amsterdam, Bremen, Copenhagen, Fiorenzuola, Gent, Grenoble, Hasselt, Munich, Rotterdam, Stuttgart and Zürich.
On the championship stage he won multiple national titles across disciplines as diverse as Scratch, Kilometre, Madison, Derny, Points and Pursuit as a junior and elite rider.
At European level he’s been Madison and Derny Champion.
The coveted World Madison eluded him but there was always the conflict with his road program as an issue.
However, there was Worlds silver to Spanish Legend, Juan Llaneras in the 2007 Worlds Points Championship.
But Patrick Lefevere didn’t pay him to ride round in circles, his role was that of a team player who should give his all in the first 100 kilometres of those tough, cobbled Belgian races.
That said, he had his moments on the road; possibly one of the most exciting finishes to a race I’ve ever seen came in the 2012 Tour of Turkey when a solo Iljo, with a screaming peloton just seconds behind him, crashed on a bend made dangerous by melted tar inside the last kilometre, getting back up to win the stage as the sprinters hurtled past him just moments after he crossed the line. We spoke to him about this amazing finish afterwards.
Then there was the final stage of Giro in 2015 when a ‘suicide’ break of Keisse and big Aussie Luke ‘Turbo’ Durbridge held of the peloton with Keisse way too quick and clever for the Aussie at the death.
There was a podium too in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in 2007 and wins in races like the Textielprijs, Vichte and GP Lucien Van Impe.
However, his career was not without controversy; whilst the Belgian Federation refused to recognise a suspension for a failed dope test, accepting the Belgian’s explanation that it was a contaminated food supplement the UCI were less understanding, banning him from UCI races, and Keisse shared his thoughts with us at the time.
But it’s hard to keep a good man down and Keisse launched himself into a campaign of non-UCI, Belgian kermises to keep his fitness, winning some 11 races for John Saey-Deschacht-Hyundai.
The complex affair rumbled on through all manner of appeals and hearings before Keisse could get back to competing at the top level.
The last we heard, the legal wrangling was still not concluded.
But when the Gentenaar emerged from his nightmare and could race again at the highest levels, he signed for Patrick Lefevere’s QuickStep team for 2010 and has been there for 12 years; after his formative years were spent in the Chocolade Jacques team, the forerunner of the current Sport Vlaanderen team.
And whilst he may now be retired as a rider his career continues with QuickStep as a DS in the team car.
However, the Kuipke just won’t be the same without Iljooo…