The race that keeps everyone under its spell… Barcelona! The double interview with 2 Barcelona toppers! No taboos, no secrets… everything ‘straight from the shoulder’ for you!!

The question that is on everyone’s lips is this… how do the ‘real specialists’ prepare their pigeons for Barcelona… how are their pigeons trained? PiPa went in search of the answer for you, for the ‘how’ and ‘why’…

The annual dream of many fanciers is winning the 1° National or even ‘International’ Barcelona…winning the ‘jackpot’ in the greatest ‘classic’ of the ‘international pigeon sport’! The pigeons were basketted last Sunday… and since then many live under ‘great tension’… experience ‘turbulent nights’ (especially this ‘night’?), because you never know… it has to happen sometime. Because anyone who has pigeons in Barcelona… has a chance. One of the 25.878 participating pigeons will be the ‘victor’… and the ‘hero’ of the day, and will immediately give its owner ‘eternal fame’!

Now… many are called but few are truly "chosen"… although the eventual winner generally comes from an unexpected corner. However, you have those who make ‘Barcelona’ their ‘target’, who will specially focus on this race, who will work their own programme and the ‘management’ of their colony in this direction… as a result of which the outside world soon gives them the predicate  ‘Barcelona specialists’. Many of you will ask themselves how the real ‘specialists’ prepare their pigeons in these races,  how they work towards this classic… because in the weeks prior to this race, no mountain is ‘too high’ and no river is ’too dip’… to struggle over or through and always with that one aim… ‘shining’, and if possible ‘winning’ from Barcelona. PiPa left for Belgium and the Netherlands to visit 2 so-called ‘specialists’ of this moment, and we fired some questions at them… in the hope that you can learn something and help you gain ‘grand distance’ and especially Barcelona success in the near future. We invited Gerard van Tuyl from the Dutch Hellouw and Etienne Meirlaen from the Belgian Deurle-St.Martens-Latem for a cosy chat… admittedly, not just any old fanciers!

-Gerard van Tuyl, 44summers young and a carpenter by trade… has already enjoyed the ‘sweet taste’ of ‘international victory’, because with his ‘Rodico’ he won 1° Internat. Barcelona in 2006… and a good year later the ‘victory chimes’ rang again by the winning of the 1° Internat. Pau 2007 with ‘Foppe’… after already winning 1° National from Brive and Ruffec in the mid nineties. Gerard built up his colony with the ‘old Steenbergs pedigree’… the ancient Jan Aarden pigeons... with descendants of marathon toppers so as Theo Ernest, Anton Ligtenberg, Lazeroms, Vd Wegen , Gebr Hagens etc..
-Etienne Meirlaen is a robust ‘mid 50’s’ who owns his own lead-zinc-sanitary and roofing business… and now and then helps his son Steven, who now runs the business. We can describe Etienne Meirlaen as ‘THE’ great long distance topper of our country at the moment… including 1° + 3° National Ace pigeon ‘Grand Distance’ KBDB 2008, and 1° National Ace pigeon ‘Grand Distance’ KBDB 2009 to his name. The old-‘Gouden Vleugel winner’ BBC can also produce a heap of references… which many can only dream about!
We asked them about their preparation for Barcelona, their approach , and their expectations… we put them on the ‘soapbox’… and fired the following questions at them!

The ‘double interview’ Meirlaen- van Tuyl

PiPa: How many pigeons have you entered for Barcelona 2010?

Gerard: A total of 34 experienced pigeons which were all born between 2003 and 2007. Here no 2 year old pigeons are entered.
Etienne: Here there are an ‘exceptional’ 45 pigeons which have gone to Barcelona… wherefrom  20 two year olds. Normally I would ‘never’ do this’! They are all cocks for whom I didn’t have enough room in my widower’s loft at the end of last year… wherefrom the majority performed marvellously up to Libourne. They were not pigeons that could just be got rid of. That’s why I kept them for pairing with my  ‘Soustons-yearling hens’… the majority of them have a nest. Normally I would have entered them for Tarbes next week, but I already have enough pigeons for that race… the team would then be too ‘large’.. that’s why I decided at the last moment to opt for the ‘short pain’… and test them from Barcelona. Against my custom and principles… you know that…

PiPa: How many cocks and hens are there in your Barcelona team?

Gerard: The Barcelona team of 2010 consists of 19 cocks and 15 hens
Etienne: Here the 45 participating pigeons are divided over 33 cocks and 12 hens

PiPa: In the Netherlands a lot of fanciers in the ‘grand distance’ opt for the ‘nest game’. In Belgium het majority simply have ‘widow cocks’ and ‘nest hens’. What about you, do you prefer pigeons with a nest or widowhood?

Gerard: The pigeons here are always raced with a nest. It is the easiest system for me and in addition this natural system raises the territorial urge which I think is very important for top results. 
Etienne: My ‘main team’ is in fact formed by 13 cocks in widowhood and 12 hens with a nest… and then there are the 20 ‘two year old’ cocks with a nest, which I have just spoken about.

PiPa: What was your preparation for the pigeons for Barcelona…  which programme have these pigeons had as preparation?

Gerard: For the first trainings races these (experienced) pigeons are only taken away by me once. Then they are entered for 4 consecutive races… 2x from 200km, 1x from 300km and 1x from 460km.
Etienne: all the pigeons raced Ablis (300 Km) in the middle of May, and then the national ‘Bourges 1’ at the end of May (442 Km). The cocks raced a Chateauroux (483 Km) two weeks later… the hens that were given a nest after Bourges, only Ablis. Normally all the pigeons race only an Ablis 9 or 10 days prior to the basketting… but because of the ‘bad weather reports’ it was not so this year. A piece of luck, because the pigeons were not liberated from that Ablis, but brought back to Belgium… so it would have been for nothing!

PiPa: When was their last preparatory competition race for Barcelona?

Gerard: The last preparatory race for my pigeons was Dourdan (Angerville) on the 29th of May.
The distance for this race is roughly 460km.
Etienne: For the cocks it was the provincial Chateauroux on the 5th of June, for the hens the Ablis on the 13th of June.

PiPa: Were the pigeons trained by you or entered for smaller sprint races in-between this last race and the basketting for Barcelona?

Gerard: fter this last race from Dourdan 29/5 the pigeons were not basketted again for a trainings race. I did actually train my pigeons myself 3 times from a distance of about 100km as extra training.
All the pigeons, so both the cocks and the hens were entered for these 3 last training races between the last preparatory race from Dourdan and basketting for Barcelona.
Etienne: due to lack of time I can’t possible do this. The nest game is in fact here ‘of secondary importance’. The widowhood game her enjoys not only the ‘preference’, but also all the ‘attention’… especially in view of the fact that these are ‘busy times’ for those widowers, with teams which also have to be prepared for Montauban-Orange-Limoges consecutively, and the yearlings which have to work through ‘Argenton’ + taking care of these pigeons when they return home from the races! In between there are also the youngsters who deserve attention… that’s why the nest pigeons only train for 1 hour at home… and are not even given any more short trips! And widowers are certainly not given any short trainings races… because it would then be a ‘party’ every day… I think that ‘peace’ in the lofts is still the best parameter for the retention of the ‘condition’ by the widowers… No, I can’t do it due to the reasons stated, and once again… I just don’t have the time.

PiPa: Gerard, do you find the ‘extra trainings races necessary or not? And why?

Gerard: In my system the last training races are very important, especially in keeping the pigeons in their rhythm. By the last trainings race of 100km we liberated the pigeons one for one. The pigeons are further trained well at home. The cocks and hens train here together. The pigeons with a nest are removed from the nest and forced to train.
Etienne: I have to admit that I can totally empathise in the philosophy of the people that do this… it can certainly be useful to use this method to as it were ‘compulsory train’ the nest pigeons, or to keep them in their ‘rhythm’ as Gerard calls it… by giving them short trainings races’! But, once again, I just don’t have the time!

PiPa: The opinions expressed on this matter are quite divided … basketting nest pigeons with small youngsters (pap youngsters) or ‘end brooding’… What do you think is the best ‘nest position’ for basketting for Barcelona? What is your experience...?

Gerard: I don’t believe in one best nest position. Here all the pigeons have been basketted with very different nest positions. There are cocks in drift, cocks and hens which have been brooding eggs for 10-14 days and cocks and hens with large and small youngsters. All very different then. I also don’t perform any tricks for extra motivation. I have tried everything in the past with varying degrees of success. I really believe that the most important thing is the natural territory urge of the pigeons which they develop themselves through the traditional nest game.
Etienne: The nest hens are coupled in such a way that they usually have ‘small youngsters’ by the basketting. But you can’t force nature… one pigeon lays faster than another. I used to be really busy moving eggs, putting eggs under birds, letting hens peck out later etc… now I don’t even bother, and just let nature take its course. Some hens are at the end of brooding… others have youngsters of 3 or 4 days… a few even have a youngster of 8 days. Experience has taught me that it doesn’t really matter. The hens only used to get a few days rest after returning from Barcelona before they were coupled again so that they had a small youngster for ‘Perpignan’. For the last two seasons I have let them rest longer and only coupled them again once they had fully recuperated so that they have a nest position of brooding 10 to 16 days before being basketted for Perpignan… and they perform yet again. So Barcelona with ‘small youngsters’ and Perpignan with 2 weeks ‘brooding’ with the same pigeons… you see it is all possible, and I think the nest position is not of much importance! My conclusion leans strongly towards that of Gerard… that has more experience with the  ‘nest game’ and that sort of thing… since he only races with a ‘nest’! I think the ‘flying condition’ at the time and ‘wanting to be home’… which Gerard describes so nicely as ‘territorial urge’… is much more important!

PiPa: Etienne, you also basketted widowers... do they get to see their hens on Sunday, or does this happen a day earlier by the homecoming of the pigeons from other races… or are they just 'not shown'?

Gerard: so as I said, I only race with a nest… so I can’t give you an answer! But I am very curious as to how Etienne approaches this… I’m all ears!
Etienne: Ho… quite simple really. They get to see their hen on Saturday, just like the pigeons that arrive home from Argenton and Orange. They are then removed again in the evening. On Sunday morning they are given the opportunity to take a bath… and then just before basketting we force them into the ‘big basket’, like we always do… to then put them in separate compartments in our ‘smaller baskets’ in order of nomination

PiPa: what is the feeding ritual towards Barcelona... should the pigeons be basketted with a 'full tank'... or do you think it better that they acquire some extra reserve in the basket, and so be basketted with a 3/4 full tank, to keep them eating in the basket? How have you addressed this?

Gerard: My pigeons are always basketted with a full tank, seeing that the pigeons here are always given more than enough to eat with  3 standard mixtures of excellent pigeon fodder, namely 1/3 Koopman All-in-one , 1/3 Breed and 1/3 Zoontjes. Starting 3 weeks before the race I make the mixture heavier and heavier by leaving out more and more of the Zoontjes mixture.
The last week prior to the race I don’t think there is any Zoontjes mixture left at all and so in fact they are actually being given for this 1/3-part more fat with a.o. Briljant Mix, Tovo, nibbling seeds and other fatty seeds.  
Etienne: Here they are given the same mixture as for the other long distance races… but they are not ‘fed up’ specially… because they get at least 5 day’s extra corn in the basket. I try to make sure that they quickly eat before being basketted. The pigeons are given half ‘super diet’ and half ‘widowhood mixture’ from the Plus- IC-mixtures from the firm Versele. During the last few days the portion ‘diet’ is reduced somewhat, and in its place a small fistful ‘Energy Plus IC’  + peanuts. But certainly not a full dish so as others do for the last few days… with the intention of keeping them eating.

PiPa:  is a certain medical programme followed in the preparations for basketting? In other words, are the pigeons 'basketted clean'? Or is a certain medicine given just before basketting (think of a tablet to prevent trico or coccidiosis in the basket)? Are certain vitamins or food supplements given to the pigeons in the days or weeks prior?

Gerard: I can be brief about the medical guidance, over the last 3 years my pigeons haven’t had a single cure. I want make my pigeons as strong as possible by keeping things as close as possible to nature to stimulate their own natural resistance. For support I do give extra vitamins and minerals, fresh grit + a condition mix. My pigeons are also controlled once a month by Dr. Mariën from Belgium. If he was to find something important that really needed treatment then I would do it. But luckily for the past few years he hasn’t found anything that needed treatment. For the rest, the pigeons all receive the annual compulsory PMV-vaccination.
Etienne: in preparation for important national races I have… to avoid all risks… my pigeons examined by the vet. His judgement is followed… I think it’s important that the ‘airways’ and the ‘heads’ are clear. That’s why the pigeons are given ‘Soludox’ for four or five days, two weeks before basketting. Two days before basketting they are only given ‘dextrotonic’ in the water… which they also receive when they return home

PiPa: it promises to be a 'tropical Barcelona'... what do you think of the condition of the transport, and the influence this has on the pigeons and the course of the race?

Gerard: I am glad that in such circumstances my pigeons are in the bigger wicker baskets which the Z.L.U. organisation has used for years. These baskets are not only higher and bigger than the aluminium baskets used in the N.P.O. races, but there are less pigeons placed in them. Also the aluminium baskets quickly get very warm in these temperatures.
So I am not worried about the transport .I do however think that when it is very warm ( > 30°C ) the more experienced pigeons will possibly rest first. Perhaps we will have the same progress as in the very tough race, International Dax 2006. The wind force and wind direction during the race will also influence the race. All in all it looks as if it will be a very nice marathon race.
Etienne: so as Gerard says, it will be quite a ‘tropical Barcelona’, and possibly a ‘tough race’ for the second year in a row! It seems as if there is some ‘south’ in the wind, that will be the only real ‘advantage’ that the pigeons can enjoy on the return home… in addition to a possible invigorating ‘thunder shower’ (laughingly) from time to time! All joking aside … I don’t think we have anything to worry about where the care is concerned… some-one like Guy Libotte, who has been primary responsible for the Barcelona convoy for years, has a ‘good record’ at that level. He has ‘more than enough’ experience in caring for the pigeons… No, I’m not worried about that. And after the liberation it is the same for everybody… home as quickly as possible… the weather can only have a ‘local’ difference in character further along the course. Hopefully it will be a competition which won’t be influenced too much by strong thunderstorms… we’ll see. I asked them in my basketting centre to apply the measures allowed by the KBDB, whereby in temperatures of 25° and higher, 10% less pigeons in the basket (so 14 pigeons). That was not honoured by the organisers … I thought that was a pity. I know, it probably costs them more… but it is in the interest of the pigeons and of our sport… in possibly the ‘most important race ‘ of the year they good have given a ‘good example’ of how it should be done… Pity that my request was not listened to… nor by the people of the KBDB… pity, but that’s the way it is!
PiPa: what are the expectations... and how were the results in the loft in the work up to this race (and in other races)?

Gerard: The expectations are high at the moment because I felt that the pigeons looked well for the basketting for Barcelona. Moreover, the first (international) test case of this year was also quite good with a.o. 27th and 80th National Pau.
Etienne: I don’t think I have to advertise my results… you can and know them better than me. Brive was quite good… although you also know as well as I do that the ‘light racing conditions’ from Brive are not really the chosen territory for my pigeons, they have to ‘work’! But since Montélimar it’s going like a train… the pigeons are ‘super healthy’, have the necessary condition… and are of the sort! Then it is a matter of waiting for what comes… my first 25 nominated were the pigeons with which I was going to race Barcelona… so as stated earlier, at the last instance I added 20 two-year olds. I know that they could give a distorted picture of my result… but that is a risk I am prepared to take… who knows, maybe a few of the chaps could pleasantly surprise me… I hope so, otherwise their participation in Barcelona was for nothing!

PiPa:  are there experienced clappers for the race, pigeons that already posses a nice Barcelona honours list in which you have high expectations?

Gerard: In the current Barcelona-team there are only a few pigeons with 2 or 3 prizes in the previous editions of Barcelona. Various pigeons have already won 1x prize from Barcelona. The pigeons from 2007 are now having their Barcelona-debut. The majority of pigeons in this team have more than proved themselves in the other marathon races so as St. Vincent, Perpignan, Dax etc. But Barcelona is something special where it appears that no every pigeon is suitable for.
My first 3 nominated pigeons are all hens:

1.    The first nominated is one of the most experienced pigeons going to Barcelona, it is the Dauwtrap-hen who firstly won a first provincial from Limoges with no less than a 1 ½ hour lead. She also won a.o. a 34th National Pau, 101st National Perpignan and a 161st National Barcelona. She is a granddaughter of my “Donkere Brive” x “Twin” ( see photo & pedigree ).
2.    A daughter of my stock hen “Perpignan 27” stands as 2nd nominated
she previously won 3x prize from Barcelona. She is also a half-sister of my toppers “Nachtvlinder” and “Miss Lee See”.
3.    The third nominated is a half-sister of the “Dauwtrap hen”

These are the pigeon which I have the most confidence in . However, once again I would like to be surprised by a different pigeon! The “Rodico” won the 1st International Barcelona for me in 2006 and he wasn’t by my first three nominated. 
Etienne: I only have very experienced Barcelona racers in the basket, but this is no guarantee of course… but I have ‘good hoop‘!
1.    My first nominated is the ‘Barcelona 240’ B03-4364240, a cock that will be racing his 6° Barcelona. He has already won 2 x ‘top-100’ National and 4 times at least per 10… normally a fixed value … but it is and remains Barcelona!(see website Et. Meirlaen on PiPa)
2.    My 2° nominated is the ’19-Hen’ 719/05… who is going to Barcelona for the fourth time
3.    My 3° nominated is then a son of my ‘1° nominated’
For the rest, my 8° nominated (a cock from ’02) is racing his 7° Barcelona, a ‘Sister Luka 578/05’ is on her  4° edition, and the ‘449/04’ is also going to Barcelona for the fifth time. As you see, I have ‘experience’ sitting in the basket… although that is absolutely no guarantee of success! Yet I am hopeful. If the fixed values don’t disappoint me, and I can make a few new discoveries, then all will be well!

PiPa:  how have these pigeons spent the winter months (whether or not bred for the season, only brooded, and when coupled for this)?

Gerard: After the races my pigeons remained together until the end of October. Only then are they separated. Depending on the weather in the Spring, the decision is then made when they will be coupled. This year the pigeons weren’t coupled until the beginning of April because last winter lasted very long. The pigeons then all raised 1 youngster.
Etienne: All the cocks of the Barcelona team were coupled on the 2nd of February and allowed to raise their youngsters. They then went straight into widowhood. I think this gives the advantage that they have now shed their 2° pen… in other words they are ‘in form’ early! The hens on the other hand have ‘not’ bred before the season. They reside together with the yearling hens (for Soustons), 80 hens in total, in a loft where there is really only room for 50 (previously the youngsters loft in the attic). When they are so tightly packed… some just stand on the floor… then they don’t easily pair with each other. This is how they are for the preparatory races. After ‘Bourges1’ they are coupled in the adjacent loft and where possible brought into a suitable nest position!

PiPa: why do you prefer the 'grand distance' and so also 'Barcelona'?

Gerard: The preference for the grand distance and in particular Barcelona arose from the fact that by other sports I also prefer to watch endurance sports so as the marathon, Tour de France etc. Also I can’t muster the energy (anymore) to care for the pigeons all week for a race which is finished in sometimes 5 or 10 minutes. An additional advantage is that through the specialisation towards the extreme long distance, the racing season is shortened for me, which gives me more time for my family.
Etienne: in the initial years after my restart in 2000 I reserved my best pigeons for Barcelona. Luckily, I have abandoned this. Why put all your eggs into one basket? If such a race is disappointing for some reason… then your season is finished. That’s why I’ve divided up the teams, so that I have a team ready for all the races on the national long distance calendar to measure myself against the best… and so we have pleasure from our pigeons all year round. Hence the distribution … Although I now have an ‘exception’ with 45 entered (you now know why)…but I suspect this will be a once off! Although I will always be very fond of Barcelona… it is and remains the nicest race of the year for me!

PiPa: Have you any wishes for the near future within the framework of the pigeon sport?

Gerard: I would like to win International Barcelona again of course, even though I know the chance of that happening is very small. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the new winner of International Barcelona 2010! As far as I’m concerned this is the most impressive and most honest international race there is and the nicest marathon race to win. In addition, the winning of International Barcelona opens doors which otherwise would probably remain closed. I do however hope that Cureghem Centre, as organiser of this race, maintains the policy of always liberating so that normally no pigeons can arrive home in the evening.
I also hope that the various (inter)national racing pigeons organisations are able to keep the pigeon sport affordable for the man in the street. I also hope that everyone keeps aiming to organise as honest as possible international competitions where the liberating policy, transport, controls with as much as possible equal opportunities for all .
Etienne: I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say that I secretly dream of ever winning an ‘international Barcelona’. Although an ‘international victory’ in the other classics (so as Perpignan) would give me just as much satisfaction. Two years ago I was very close with ‘Starlight’ who missed the 1° Intnat Tarbes by 25 seconds, after he wasted one and a half minutes here through our own stupid fault! I have been within the ‘national top 10’ loads of times in the national races… so I cherish the hope that it will happen someday… but it certainly doesn’t keep me awake! Pigeon sport is and remains a sport, a pleasant hobby and a good pastime… something which is always ‘welcomed’ and ‘accepted gratefully’…but here nothing is compulsory’!
And where the affordability of the pigeon sport is concerned, I can only agree with Gerard. In the future we will have ‘less’ numbers… it will be a matter of trying to keep it affordable for everybody… otherwise our pigeon sport will go downhill even more quickly! In the first instance we will have to have ‘less’ races… but in which there are a respectable number of pigeons, so that it remains viable!

PiPa: have you any more tips for the other pigeon fanciers?

Gerard: My best tip is “Keep it simple”. In my case the care is based on a relatively simple system, and I believe as a result of which you can’t make many mistakes. Try to keep the care of the pigeons as close to nature as possible. Search for it in the excellent quality of your pigeons together with a strong natural resistance. An old teacher once taught me the principle of        Pedigree / Routine / Ration
Etienne: nothing wrong with that… I fully agree! What I would like to add… don’t lose sleep over the pigeon sport… if it isn’t going so well, try to put things right… and there are enough professionals who can help you. Everyone has a setback at sometime… so as losing a ‘top pigeon’… but also here, don’t lose sleep over it… in the end, it is only ‘a pigeon’. As long as you and your family are healthy, that is much more important… and then you are able to work to the future, to overcome the setbacks.

Gentlemen, thank you for your spontaneous testimonials and co-operation in this double interview, let’s hope that the people learn something from it! I know they will… they both said in unison! And then they were gone… into the darkness … on their way to Hellouw and Deurle… in search of new Barcelona success, who knows, maybe tomorrow, Saturday the 3rd of July! We hope it for them…
On behalf of Etienne & Gerard, and the entire PiPa-team… we wish everyone great Barcelona success this weekend… you can read everything about it, with ‘up to date news’ on our website WWW.PIPA.BE ... Follow all the news closely, ‘live’ on screen… with the first arrivals… the first reactions and photo’s of the winners etc…! Success!