"I think, I'm the happiest man in the world today! A dream came true... .", it reads on Keisse's Twitter page on the night of 31 May to 1 June 2015. It began to dawn on the Ghent native that he had won the final stage of the Tour of Italy a few hours earlier. In the streets of Milan, he and Australian Luke Durbridge chose the race path at 30 kilometres from the finish. The peloton misjudged the duo and fought for third place. Keisse quickly took the measure of fellow fighter Durbridge in a sprint. "Winning a stage in a big tour as a domestique is anything but easy. Especially in the last stage. Moreover, the Giro is my favourite race. It is also the biggest victory of my career", Keisse looks back seven years after the race.
With his two index fingers pointing to the sky, thinking of his close friend Wouter Weylandt, the citizen of Ghent crossed the finish line. It is exactly in the Giro that Weylandt died four years earlier in the descent of the Passo del Bocco. At the arrival in Milan, Wouter's sister Elke and Keisse's father were present. An emotional moment.
Three years earlier, in April 2012, Keisse scored what he calls the "most special" victory of his road career. He won the seventh stage of the Tour of Turkey. Especially the way in which he did it will be remembered by cycling fans in Flanders and by the rest of the world. Five kilometres from the end, Keisse slipped away from the breakaway group. Victory seemed secure until the last corner loomed and he fell. To make matters worse, his chain was off. Keisse did not succumb to the stress and got back on his bike. Our compatriot toiled to the finish, where he narrowly missed out on the approaching peloton including Kittel and Petacchi. A small miracle took place in Izmir. "When people hear my name, especially cycling experts, it is something that comes to mind. Even though it was 'only' the Tour of Turkey."
Keisse was not a big winner on the road - his record is not in proportion to his qualities - but he was a domestique every team dreams of. He threw away his own chances of winning and did a lot of work at the head, tail or in the belly of the peloton. Keisse got satisfaction from that. It was not without reason that he won the Kristallen Zweetdruppel, the prize for the best helper, three times at the Kristallen Fiets referendum.
He himself describes it as follows: "I can be used on many fronts. I always do everything one hundred percent. Then the team is happy and so am I. It is a fantastic feeling when you start controlling the race from kilometre zero and a teammate ends up winning. Besides, it gives an incredible kick when you put a sprint train on the rails and the sprinter finishes it. That is of course a shorter task, but more stressful. Perhaps the most thankless task is in big races, like Milan-San Remo, dangling in bad weather between the team car and the peloton with water bottles and rain vests. It's a job nobody sees, but one that takes a lot of strength."
Keisse also did not shy away from the role of road captain within Quick-Step throughout his career. "You are the rider who has the closest contact with the car, but also the one who makes the decisions over the radio when things have to go fast and there is no time to talk. When such a choice turns out well, it's a nice feeling."
The shadow of road cycling gives way to the spotlight on the track. His love for the track is almost inexhaustible. "I started my career as a road cyclist. On the track, throughout my career, I could take my own chances, ride my own race. In 97% of the races on the road I ride in service of the team. The other 3% are races where I can slip into the breakaway. After all, you start racing to win races and be in the spotlight. That is always good, in the past more than now. Now I experience it more as a heavy burden on my shoulders.
It's not so hard to understand his passion for the track. As a true citizen of Ghent, he was in 't Kuipke almost every day. He discovered the track through his father Ronie who trained some young riders. The winter trainings took place at 't Kuipke. After school, the young Iljo went to the velodrome to admire the riders and collect autographs. His passion for the track and for cycling was born there. Not knowing that decades later, he would become the Emperor of 't Kuipke. In Iljo's younger years, the Belgian Etienne De Wilde was often the man to beat during the Six Days of Ghent. The nine times winner became a great idol of Keisse.
Keisse made his professional debut alongside Austrian Franz Stocher in the 2003 Ghent Six Days. The duo finished in ninth place, well behind the winning pair Matthew Gilmore-Bradley Wiggins. It is also with Gilmore, a Belgian with Australian former cyclist Graeme Gilmore as his father, that Keisse booked his first successes. In 2005 the duo won the Six Days of Fiorenzuola, Grenoble and Ghent. The fact that Gilmore was Keisse's sporting partner was extra special for the man from Ghent. For years Gilmore was the partner of Etienne De Wilde, Keisse's example. The Gilmore-Keisse duo crowned themselves European Team Champion in 2005. The first of four European titles for the Keizer van 't Kuipke.
The collaboration with Gilmore came to an abrupt end in July 2006. During a kermis race in Ninove, Gilmore hit a pole and suffered an open femur fracture and a broken kneecap. Enter Robert Bartko. In two years time, he won no less than seven six-day races with the very strong German, including two in Ghent. His counter in 't Kuipke currently stands at seven victories. Besides Gilmore and Bartko Keisse also triumphed with Peter Schep, Glenn O'Shea, Michael Mørkøv and Elia Viviani.
With the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Ghent has the start of a Flemish spring classic, but for Keisse the Six Days of Ghent are really his home race. It is all about prestige. Moreover, in 't Kuipke he is treated like a hero. The spectators see Keisse as a man of spectacle on two wheels. With his charisma and swagger he gets the whole audience on their feet. The duels with Kenny De Ketele, among others, are finger-licking and are part of 't Kuipke's glorious past. "As a native of Ghent, the Six Days are important. Essential in the sense that I race there for my own people. I can do my own thing. Within the team there has never been a discussion about whether or not to ride the Six Days of Ghent."
"Through the years I have learned that I don't have to ride four or five six-day races. My trainer in the team is Tom Steels. He is in favour of me riding the Six Days of Ghent. Moreover, it is interesting in terms of publicity, especially as a Belgian. For me, it is also a good thing. It has never caused any restrictions in the road season. Because of the Ghent Six Days I don't sink too deep into the winter period and I can perform at a high level the whole season."
Overall, Keisse captured 16 Belgian titles on the track, four European titles and won 28 Six Days. A glorious rider who has the misfortune to race in an era where more and more Six Days disappear from the calendar. Otherwise his record would be even more impressive.
It doesn't always go smoothly for the Ghent native in 't Kuipke. In 'his' velodrome in November 2008 the darkest and most uncertain period of his sporting career begins. Keisse wins at the side of Bartko, but during the final day he tests positive for the stimulant cathine and HCT. Keisse vehemently denies this. This leads to a conflict with his father Ronie, who doesn't believe his son at first. His former team Topsport Vlaanderen also reacts. It dismisses Keisse.
Keisse continues to maintain his innocence, four turbulent years are ahead of him. In November 2009 the Belgian Cycling Federation acquits Keisse. The positive test would have been the result of a contaminated food supplement. Not entirely to the liking of WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency. The latter lodged an appeal with the International Sports Tribunal (TAS) and in July 2010 this body imposed a two-year suspension on Keisse. The Brussels Court of Appeal questioned the procedure applied by the TAS. After legal wrangling and a game of cat and mouse with the UCI, Keisse was allowed to start racing abroad again on 7 August 2011. In Belgium, this was only possible in January 2012.
However, the Brussels Court of Appeal ruled that the UCI had wrongly banned Keisse from racing. In order to compensate for the financial loss suffered by the citizen of Ghent by not participating in races, the UCI had to pay Keisse 100,000 euros in damages.
Since 2010 Keisse rides for Patrick Lefevere's Quick-Step. He came to this in a difficult period, in which it was unclear whether Keisse was allowed to race because of his suspension. "It was a rollercoaster, which lasted very long. There was a period I was only allowed to ride races abroad, then only in Belgium. It was a mess. Patrick, lawyers and I couldn't make heads or tails out of it. The first years were anything but easy. I had signed a contract for the 2010 and 2011 seasons, but I could hardly get noticed because of my suspension. It was therefore doubtful whether I could re-sign in December 2011. It worked out and since then everything has been going better and better."
Keisse will have been with the 'Wolfpack' for thirteen seasons in total. "I can look back on a very successful period with the team. I experienced beautiful victories and unforgettable moments with the best riders in the world in the best team in the world. The staff is very important in the team. They stay and form a regular clique that creates this unique atmosphere. In many teams, the staff comes and goes. This is not the case with the 'Wolfpack'. Moreover, Patrick knows as no other which riders he has to attract. He also takes into account if a rider fits in the group. Also outside the race we have to be able to enjoy ourselves. That is for me the biggest difference with other teams and the basis of our success.
Within Quick-Step, Keisse got to know a lot of riders. One of them is sprint bomb Mark Cavendish. The Briton rode for Lefevere's team once before from 2013 to 2015. In 2014 the Keisse-Cavendish duo won the Six Days of Zurich. Both riders created a bond. Keisse also played a role in Cavendish's return to the 'Wolfpack' in 2021. "In the months before, I had a lot of contact with Mark. We started racing almost at the same time and have seen each other a lot over the years. We always had a good understanding. It seemed like it was the end of his career. A minor one, because he had shown little or nothing for a few years. While I had the feeling that Mark was not finished yet. I knew that there were talks between Patrick and Mark, but I also knew that there was little progress. Patrick asked my opinion and I told him honestly that I believed he could still win races. Of course I didn't expect him to win four stages in the Tour de France, plus the green jersey. You could see from day one that he was very motivated. He has been working on his way back.
Daarnaast speelt Keisse een belangrijke rol in de evolutie van Remco Evenepoel. Hij probeert zijn jarenlange ervaring door te geven aan de jonge snaak. Tijdens stages en koersen zijn beide renners vaste kamergenoten. Zo ook bij de eerste grote ronde van Remco, de Giro in 2021. Daarnaast beschermt Keisse Evenepoel richting de buitenwereld. Met kleine tips brengt hij de Vlaams-Brabander ook naast de fiets veel bij. Remco heeft in Keisse een vertrouwenspersoon gevonden.
In a few months, the Ghent native will retire as a professional cyclist. Despite some difficult periods Keisse looks back on a successful career. "I think I have achieved the most I could. Even more than some people ever imagined." One dream remains for him. "I would like to finish well in Ghent. In the Six Days I want to go for a win one last time with a good teammate." A beautiful farewell he will undoubtedly get, but with a victory 't Kuipke will really shake on its foundations. Remember Kenny De Ketele last year.
A farewell as a rider does not mean a farewell to the world of cycling for Keisse. As of 2023, the man from Ghent will work as a sport director at Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl and will contribute to the rejuvenation of the staff. "I know all the riders and everyone knows me. My role as road captain, which I have fulfilled in recent years, is somewhat similar to the role of team leader. I get on well with young riders and have experienced a lot over the years. I also know a lot of people outside the team, which is definitely an advantage as a team leader. Moreover, it is an easy transition after my active career. But first I will work hard as a rider until December 1st," Keisse concludes.
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