1976 was the last time I took part in all national races on the racing calendar. I won five first prizes in Dendermonde: from Limoges, Brive, Barcelona, Narbonne and St. Vincent. I won these victories with only four pigeons. I had seven old birds in my loft at that time and I think my list of achievements is not too bad at all. I do not claim that there are no other methods that work equally well. Pigeon racing is a complicated matter and there are many factors involved. The weather conditions for instance, play a key role over the course of the season. And of course we have the pigeons and the bloodlines themselves, which are often the decisive factor.
It is hard for me to cope with the stress involved with pigeon racing over an entire season. So I have no other choice but to pick out a few of the most important races. I focus mainly on the most important race of the season and its inherent risks: Barcelona. Over the years I clocked three pigeons in the national and international top 100 and believe me it was not a walk in the park.
Preparing in winter
A fancier who wants to race the extreme long distance needs a group of pigeons with an excellent pedigree. If you want to compete with the best, your pigeons need a lot of energy reserves. That is why the pigeons need time to rest during the winter. Some fanciers say that prizes are won over the winter but I am not in favour of widowers that have to train too hard during winter; I would rather have them save their energy for the racing season itself. In fact I try to keep them quiet until they are two years old but that is a different story.
In springtime the pigeons are paired between 15 and 25 February and they are free to do what they want. This means they can work their muscles without being tied to training schedules. Pigeons that are looking for a nest tend to fly around quite often. They take off and land constantly without taking a rest; this is a very busy time for the pigeons. I think this is sufficient enough for my pigeons in the winter season. During the breeding period they make trips to the woods and the pastures and the birds make regular trips from their loft and back, especially when raising and feeding the youngsters. Over the years I have experienced a single disadvantage with De Tube, the best pigeon in the loft and winner of first Cahors, first Brive, second Montauban and second Marseille. He got infected with tapeworm by picking up snails that carried tapeworm. However, I think these worms are no reason to restrict their freedom. A medical check up shortly after the raising of the youngsters allows us to monitor the health of our birds.
The pigeons are placed on widowhood between 15 and 25 April after 8 to 10 days of breeding. One hen lays its egg sooner than the other so we try to find a happy medium to decide on a date. How does that work? Usually I simply remove the pigeons from their nest bowls in the evening, which is easy and practical. You can just lift them out of their bowls. I open the windows early next morning and I chase the cocks out of the loft. This means it is time for training.
They do not have to stay outside the loft for very long; I just need some time to clean the nest bowls. There is not much cleaning to do because most of them have been brooding throughout the night. I also take some time to add some sweet seeds to their feeding tray. After about half an hour I reopen the windows and the pigeons storm in. This is when widowhood begins. The pigeons get a frugal meal and some purifying mixture is added to their shared feeding tray.
My pigeons do not have a lot of distraction during the day so the windows are open all day (wooden slats with triangular openings). There is also a small corridor in front of the loft that is also equipped with small wooden slats. My pigeons are not locked up in their living boxes. I choose to have the windows opened simply because it increases ventilation. Remember that pigeons consume quite a lot of fresh air. Every fancier can increase ventilation in his loft simply by keeping the roof windows open.
In addition I also use a method that I have adopted from the Cattrysse family. The pigeons are trained and flagged and we push them go fly faster (in case they are not going fast enough or when they are not planning to take off). My oldest son Kristof is actually my best trainer! The pigeons perform at their best every time he pushes them. In the first week they only have to race about 45 minutes. In the second week training flights of one hour to one hour and a half are on schedule; they only train in the evening!
We begin with their preparatory flights when the pigeons have had their first eight days on widowhood. We keep things very simple. Instead of having the pigeons train at home, in the evening we basket them and we release them ten kilometres away. What comes next? When they arrive home they continue to fly until they have been in the air for at least a full hour. We do not take them away very often. We usually basket them three times: usually two flights of 10km and one of 20km, all in a single week. The pigeons have been on widowhood for fourteen days when they are basketed for the first time.
How do we prepare the pigeons for the races?
First of all I want to point out that we never use hens to motivate our racing birds in the months before the racing season: we never show the hens before or after a flight. We try to keep the pigeons as calm as possible until the season kicks off.
My pigeons are usually taken away to Lessen, which is a distance of 50km. The pigeons have to stay in the basket for one night. Sometimes we basket them for Quiévrain instead, which is 80km away. Still I prefer a flight of 50km from Essen, because this flight is always on a Monday and on the following Sunday I basket my old birds for Noyon (180km) every season. The yearlings are basketed for Lessen, Quiévrain and twice for Noyon. The yearlings are not raced!
In the first part of the season the yearlings have no partners. This means I want my pigeons to be at their best later on. The old birds are basketed for Noyon (180km) as always and then they are taken away to Dourdan or Etampes for a trip of 320km. They are not raced so they have no hens either. I admit that our focus is on the first national race from Brive (or Limoges this season), which is usually on the first Saturday of June. This means we train the pigeons until they can cover a distance of 320km. Then they can stay at home for at least 14 days before they are basketed again on the first Wednesday of July. That is when they can see their hens for a very short while. Meanwhile we continue to train them here at home.