Barcelona: The race (Part one of three)
In our sport the name of one release station has a different impact than the other. Believe it or not the following thing really happened.
Once there was a Japanese who wanted to buy a winner from a race from about 400 to 450 kilometres.
Two winners were offered to him: one from Orleans and one from Pithiviers.
Orleans was kind of a lucky contest: tailwinds and showery. One of those races any bird that is not sick can win.
The race from Pithiviers was hard and fair. Still our Japanese fellow sportsman preferred the winner from Orleans. Just because of the name.
It is especially five stations that sound like music in fanciers’ ears all over the world.
Quievrain is a household word to every Belgian, regardless the fact if he is a pigeon fancier or not. Ever since pigeon sport existed, and its roots are in Belgium, people raced from Quievrain, a deserted village near the French border. It is said that there were approximately 250,000 fanciers before and just after World War 2 in Belgium alone. There were towns in which each street had its pigeon club or even more than one. If you know that 90 percent of the fanciers raced from Quievrain one can imagine the meaning of this word in the society. Up to 300,000 birds were released there at a time.
Quievrain also stands for nostalgia. Every holy day there is a race.
Does the King have his birthday?
Or the mayor?
Or Mother Superior of the local nunnery?
Such events are celebrated by a race from Quievrain. What day of the week does not matter. Sometimes no more than just a pie or a half pig is at stake, other times fortunes are to be won.
So Quievrain and pigeon sport? These words will always be combined as long as the last fancier in Belgium does not switch off the light.
Bourges is another station with a great name. It is said to be a long distance race.
Bourges is the first Semi National for old birds (last weekend of May) and another National is organised last weekend of July.
Since it became clear that you do not need typical long distance birds for such a distance (about 450 kilometres average) also not long distance racers participate.
For most fanciers it is the only NATIONAL race in which they enter birds. From Quievrain they compete in different competitions but as for Bourges it is every body against every body: All birds of a whole country are in the same (National) competition, by far the greatest in Belgium. Once about 90,000 birds were entered. Then the Belgians hoped to get a race that could compete with National Orleans in Holland, but the magic limit of 100,000 birds was never achieved.
Concerning these races one should know that unlike Orleans in Holland for
Bourges in July also yearlings and old birds can participate.
In the past it was held on the same day as Orleans (the last Saturday of August) nowadays one month earlier.
The reason is that long distance for youngsters became so popular that more such races were to be organised later in the year.
The Orleans race in Holland that I referred to also has a great impact woldwide.
It was organised for the first time in 1953. There was much opposition in the beginning as the distance (from 400 to 600 kilometres) was supposed to be too far for youngsters. And it must be said: initially those who opposed to it seemed to be right. The first race was a smash with many losses.
The organisers however did not give up and were rewarded for their efforts. Orleans became immensely popular, once over 200,000 babies were entered.
The whole world envied the Dutch for having such a competition.
The release of so many birds was such a sensational event that even the daily press and television stations paid attention to this spectacle.
The noise of so many birds taking the air was deafening and the sky became so dark that it looked like a solar eclipse.
For many years Orleans was the highlight of the year and weeks before fanciers talked about nothing else.
The winner got a lot of money (at least for Dutch standards) and his name became famous in one day.
So there were no doubts any more of young birds were able to handle the distance.
Due to the popularity more long distance races for babies were to be organised, just as in Belgium and consequently we got a new sort of fancier, the so called ‘young bird specialist’.
That was a small group of pigeon men who destroyed the races.
In the beginning they were suspected of having a secret in the form of a drug.
Later on it became clear the secret of those ‘super men’ could be summarised in one word: Feathers!!!
One should know that the Nationals for youngsters are organised at the time they are moulting.
So what did the smarter guys do?
Use cortisone to stop the moult or darken the lofts.
But recently dramatic changes took place. Cortisone became forbidden and young bird races further than 500 kilometres banned.
Orleans is less than 500 kilometres only for those who live in the south of Holland, so only they can fly from Orleans now which means it is not National any more.
- Sint Vincent
The National race from Sint Vincent in Holland also has a magic sound. It used to be the highlight for long distance and especially Japanese have since long been interested in it and battles were fought to buy the winner. It is a two-day race and for many years it was THE two-day race.
But things changed. Nowadays long distance fans focus on Barcelona.
One reason is that the distance is the farthest that is raced in Europe (up to over 1,200 kilometres) and it is an International contest.
Another great difference between Sint Vincent and Barcelona is that Sint Vincent is located in France, just North of the Pyrenees and Barcelona is in Spain, South of the Pyrenees. This mountain range is an obstacle the birds have the overcome directly after the release. That makes it so hard and spectacular.
Talking about ‘hard’: The moment the birds are released they often face a burning heat, they have to fight for every meter and every meter looks like a kilometre. It stands to reason that they have to go down for a drink now and then. For the experienced long distance birds this is not so much of a problem. They know the art of drinking while flying over the numerous little rivers they pass.
Many inexperienced birds though have to pay it with their lives.
But there is not only the Spanish heat and the thirst, also birds of prey are on the alert everywhere.
The greatest handicap however is the very many kilometres the heroes of the sky have to overcome after they have managed ‘to take’ the Pyrenees.
So Barcelona means suffering to the end, even with tail winds the birds do not get even one metre as a present.
But even the heat, the mountains, the birds of prey, the immense distance and the changing weather conditions is not it.
The pigeons are released Friday morning and cannot make it on the day. So they have to spend a night in the open air. On a high building, such as a church or on a farm or whatever with all the dangers involved. Think about the many wires, a hungry cat or a farmer with a deadly gun.
Therefore Barcelona is considered to be the marathon of all marathons.
It is not a race for fast birds but a race for birds with stamina and endurance.
It is the race for survivors that rather die than give up.
And though the history of Barcelona is not real old it is eventful, as I will show in this and two more articles.
The first races from the beautiful Spanish town were held in the late 40-ies. In ‘old books’ we find Mr Berlengee as the winner of Barcelona in 1949.
Two years later ‘Cureghem Centre’ started organising the International contest and from then on this race is an ‘official’ one.
The first time it was held the pigeon world held their breath such as was the case with Orleans for youngsters in Holland later on.
2.039 Birds were entered but what would be the result? How many would come back if any? Josef Boels a mayor with moustache just as impressive as that of Berlengee, was the International winner.
Boels was a famous long distance man and so was the winner in the year after:
Oscar Devriendt from Moere.
In the years that followed the entry went down and down, in 1956 only 885 birds were entered, and there were plans to put an end to it.
But then, in 1957, nobody knew why, suddenly 3,350 birds participated.
1957 was also the first year that the winner was not a Belgian but German Stouth.
In 1958 3,756 birds were entered, about four times more than two years before.
The entry of 3,756 birds was a record, Gilbert van der Weghe from the Belgian town of Olsene had the fastest.
This name resembles that of Dutch long distance star van der Wegen and this caused many misunderstandings abroad.
Even now in foreign magazines these names are often mixed up.
Because of the increased entry the future of Barcelona was saved.
Then, in 1959, the Dutch were allowed to participate and this was the beginning of a great story, the story of Barcelona International.
Super champions were to win the race but also common people.
Super birds would win and... would never come back home.
Reputations were made and reputations would be broken.
More about that in the next two issues.
(to be continued)