Brothers in arms

In the booth with Sir Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish at the Ghent Six Day.

Is this the end?

“Well, it might not be.”

Sir Bradley Wiggins smirks. We’re sitting in a cramped trackside booth that he’s sharing with Mark Cavendish, his partner for this week’s Ghent Six Day. It’s half an hour before the second day’s racing begins and cycling’s favourite double act are in a playful mood.

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“Hopefully he’s ending his f*cking career!” calls out a voice amid the din of the legendary Kuipke velodrome. A grinning Cavendish pokes his head out from behind the modesty curtain; Wiggins ignores him.

“I didn’t realise that I’d still be going as well as this back in Rio,” says Wiggins of his stated intention to retire this weekend. “I just thought that post-Olympics my form would dwindle away, but I’ve managed to keep a good base fitness.”

He continues: “I love doing this. The road was never my love; I just got good at it. But the track is what I always wanted to do back in the day and I’m still really enjoying it. I feel the same thrill now as I did when I was 19.”

It seems that not even Sir Bradley Wiggins knows if he’ll retire on Sunday. But why stop when he’s having so much fun? He and Cavendish are the prize draw here, and when their participation was announced in August, tickets sold out immediately. Last year, the place was half empty on the opening nights. Tonight, on day two, Kuipke is packed to its rickety rafters.

The British ‘brothers in arms’ are racing all week in special Rapha kit – an aero jersey adorned with the rainbow stripes of world champions and black madison shorts without shoulder straps, as tradition dictates. “Just riding here with Brad as world champions, that’s a big enough motivation for me, regardless of it being his last race or not,” says Cavendish. “Emotionally it’s pretty special.” The Manxman has had a long and spectacular season and looks tired, but having never won the Ghent Six Day like Wiggins, he’s still got the fire.

With only ten minutes until the gun, the two are still relaxed. Wiggins pulls out his phone and shows Cavendish an old photo of Eddy Merckx wearing a Molteni wool jersey and track pants. The Belgian’s getup was the inspiration for an off-bike rainbow stripes outfit that Rapha has made for the pair as a gift. They’re both wearing the long sleeve jerseys now: 100% luxury merino with their names and rainbow stripes across the chest, made in Italy.

Paying homage to the past is important to Wiggins. He is one of a few riders trying to maintain the ethos of past legends like Merckx who could seamlessly cross between the track and the road, the grand tours and the classics. “Obviously you don’t see the big road stars – the Froomes, Contadors and Valverdes – doing the track like they used to. It’s quite nice for track cycling that the likes of me and him [points at Cavendish] are out here, holding our own,” he says.

An iconic home to Six Day racing, Ghent holds a special place in cycling history, as well as that of Wiggins’ own life. He was born and lived here for two years while his Australian father Gary traded blows with the European trackies in the ‘80s. It was also where Brad raced his first professional Six Day meet in 1999.

“Nothing’s changed,” he says. “I’ve got a picture of me as a baby sat in this very cabin in 1981. That’s what’s so special about it. You’ve got the same people coming in and telling the same stories of watching Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx and Patrick Sercu racing together. The last Tour and green jersey winners to race here before us were Sercu and Merckx, so that’s really nice.”

Trumpets sound on the PA system and the British duo make their way up onto the frayed wooden boards. “Have you ever been in a racing car?” is Cavendish’s take on racing the very short 167m-long Kuipke track and its steep curves. “It’s like going from 150kph, which might feel fast, to 200, 250kph. Your mind can’t focus quickly enough at first and it’s stressful for the first couple of nights but then you get into it.”

Wiggins is straight into the action, winning his first sprint of the night against Olympic Omnium champion Elia Viviani, who has a gold bike, shoes, helmet, and glasses. He looks part Roman gladiator, part Elvis impersonator – and that’s no bad thing here. Not that the crowd is paying attention yet; the atmosphere buzzes with chat and there is an overpowering whiff of deep heat and hot dogs. Trying to follow the action is dizzying enough, even without the industrial amounts of strong Belgian lager on offer.

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This is the late night cabaret of cycling; a joyously garish and unfashionable evening of entertainment not limited to the racing. Indeed, a B-list Belgian celebrity in a cheap blue suit suddenly appears at an interval, crooning his way through the crowd in the track centre. In the old days, the racers used to sing – and Wiggins would probably do a good job – but the fans still sway along with Mr. Blue’s performance, which is as smooth as his slicked back hair.

They might be getting roaringly drunk, and some might be dancing, but these cycling fans are some of the world’s most knowledgeable. A 40-something ticket usher tells us she took a holiday from work to take a job here – “I have the best view in the house!” – while the man selling beer tokens stares distractedly at the racing out of the small window in his cabin. They all know who Wiggins and Cavendish are.

With six nights and over a thousand kilometres to race against 11 other pairs, it will be a tough ask for the Brits to win. Belgian track superstar Iljo Keisse has partnered with Viviani, and he looks in fine form. A natural showman, Keisse is a much–loved local boy whose dad owns a pub within spitting distance of the velodrome. During the madison he takes a crucial lap of the field with just two to go, wheelies across the line, coasts past the field and then takes the final sprint for good measure. By the end of the night, his beaming mother has enough flower bouquets to decorate a wedding reception.

The sense of theatre continues as the lights dim and the Ride of the Valkyries crowns the arrival of the derny bikes. Wiggins rides away from the field, but then gesticulates wildly to his oblivious driver to go faster. In the confusion, Kenny De Ketele catches and pips him on the line, leaving Wiggins shaking his fist. Was it a little pre-arranged drama befitting six day racing’s reputation for jiggery-pokery? Regardless, the jeering Belgian crowd plays its role in the pantomime. By the end of the night, Wiggins and Cavendish have moved from 3rd to 2nd position overall behind Keisse and Viviani. It’s been a good first two days.

When the racing does end on Sunday, the two won’t even be able to celebrate together – Cavendish has to drive straight home to swap suitcases and hop on a flight to his Dimension Data team training camp in South Africa. Wiggins has his own team to think about, with new riders, new ideas and what to achieve next in the sport he loves, over a few Belgian brews of course: “I’ve got into one called Omer; a really nice beer. I’ll be taking a load home in the car, too.