A couple of weeks ago I went to the Ghent Six Day cycle race with my Dad for my second immersion in this Flemish temple of cycling, cycle sport turned into pure entertainment.
And once again I was captured by the atmosphere, the chance to wander the track centre as a blur of riders whirled around our heads.
On show were such world class performers as Elia Viviani, the Olympic Omnium champion, who showed what a class act he is by featuring at the front in many of the races.
But like thousands of other British fans my father and I had made an extra special effort to be here in 2016 because we wanted to be present at one special moment, possibly the last career race of one Sir Bradley Wiggins, riding in a team with his mate Mark Cavendish.
We have had this date in the diary since the Rio Olympics when Wiggins was talking to the press after his gold medal ride and said that he intended to ride just twice more, ending in Ghent, the cycling mad Flemish city where he was born.
It was a tremendous day’s racing with the three leading teams going head to head over four hours, with the other nine teams almost as spectators. But all the time there was this one personality seemingly dominating the place. When the teams warmed up there was one moody looking figure who came onto the track after everyone else and then rode his own path while 23 other riders circulated on the other side.
When the teams prepared for their two-up events it was like Cavendish disappeared behind his “big brother”, and together they forced the crowd to watch even as other teams were racing. And in the high speed derny where the riders follow roaring motorbikes round the cauldron it was Wiggins who could be seen shouting “faster, faster” in frustration at his pacer, bringing the crowd to their feet as three teams went shoulder to shoulder around the final laps at around 80 kilometres per hour.
And then it went to the very final race.
After 6 days the riders went into the final one hour Madison with everything poised. The three top teams were level on laps, but just a few points separated the top Belgian six-day superstars Kenny De Ketele and Moreno De Pauw from local Ghent hero Iljo Keisse and the flying Viviani. Lurking behind them were Wiggins and Cavendish, probably too far behind to win on points so they needed to finish an unanswered lap ahead of the others in order to win.
The final hour was the best Madison race I have ever seen, live or on television. The top three teams were like counterpunching boxers, Wiggins and Cavendish stealing laps and the leading two responding. Of all six riders it was clear that there were five world class champions but Wiggins was in a league of his own, nobody could take such distances out of the others in a single burst.
But as it came down to the final fifty laps the teams were still level on laps and we started to lose hope of the fairy-tale career ending. The final fifty laps of a Madison have ten points on offer every ten laps and the De Ketele-De Pauw, Keisse-Viviani pairs needed every point to try and take the win so they drove the pace of the race up to a ferocious level. There was surely no way back for anyone else?
Until 17 laps to go, just minutes from the end. As the two leaders took a moments’ breath a white-clad rocket shot from the pack. Wiggins handed on to Cavendish and within just a few laps they had lapped the field despite furious chasing by their rivals. Too late, the precious lap was taken and the Brits in the audience raised the roof with our delight, knowing that we had witnessed one of the grand champions pull off another of the extraordinary feats that have marked the latter stages of his career.
I have watched it back on Youtube – the whole sequence took about two minutes, and in another minute Wiggins had sprinted to the front again to allow Cavendish to lead the race over the finishing line.
Here is a thought.
I started writing this blog in 2012, the year of the London Olympics.
Wiggins actually had six Olympic medals by that stage making him one of Britain’s best Olympic sportsmen ever, plus he had begun to make a mark in the Grand Tours with a fourth in the Tour de France and third in the Tour of Spain plus numerous other wins.
But if you had asked a member of the British public at large to name a famous cyclist they would have picked out Chris Hoy, maybe Victoria Pendleton and perhaps even Mark Cavendish for his Tour de France stage wins. Even in hindsight I am pretty sure I was one of those cycling fans who probably thought that this somewhat prickly track rider had peaked in 2010 and missed his chance in 2011 with a Tour de France crash so our eyes were elsewhere in this Olympic year.
First British Tour de France winner I wrote in July 2012. Olympic champion in August 2012, I know because I was there. By 2016 he has also become an 8-time Olympic medallist and world hour record holder, achievements that place him beside the greats of the sport.
Paralleling the timeline of Idonotdespair is a public personality who has grown beyond his cycling achievements to become a national treasure, a symbol of quirky Englishness. “Sir Bradley” indeed.
After the success at Ghent he and Cavendish took to the podium for their celebrations and then took the microphones for a few last words. Wiggins was his mixture of grace, wit and thanks, but we knew what it meant when Cavendish came to the microphone rubbing the tears from his eyes, hardly able to speak.
Since the race Wiggins has stepped back from his “last race” statements, clearly reluctant to retire when his 39 year old legs can still carry him past much younger men. But if that Ghent Six Day win was the Grand Finale then I can just say “thanks”, the last five years have been a complete blast and I am so glad I was there for that incredible last ride.