A closer look at the organisation of pigeon racing in Belgium (part one)

Pigeon racing is a great hobby! We think many fanciers from all over the world will agree with us. Still, the way fanciers experience the sport will differ a lot from country to country, and the same goes for the way in which the races and the competitions are being organised. You have to know the ins and outs of the sport to get the whole picture.

The problem is that we are usually not familiar with how the sport is organised in other countries. How can we assess and compare the value of pigeons and their achievements in different countries? Every country has a different climate, terrain, geography and size and many other factors are involved as well. How about the number of fanciers per country or region, the transport methods and the distance the pigeons have to cover? Race organisers play an important role as well, and what about the level of competition? Do other countries have an anti doping policy as well? We have no answer to most of these questions.

The way a pigeon race is organised, and the competition as such, differs from country to country, and sometimes there are big differences within one country as well. It is quite understandable that most fanciers have no idea what is going on in other countries. In fact, many Belgian fanciers are unfamiliar with the way the sport is organised in The Netherlands or Germany, and vice versa. We are guessing that most of our colleagues on the other side of the world have no idea what pigeon racing is like over here. The question that arises is how fanciers from other countries are judging our results at local, provincial, zonal or national level and what they think of our ace pigeons and championship titles? This is not an easy matter, especially because Belgium makes a fundamental distinction between the sprint and middle distance on the one hand and the provincial and national races on the other. We will discuss the two competitions separately, highlighting their respective advantages and disadvantages.

1. National competition

The Belgian national race calendar has three different categories of races - the longer middle distance, the long distance and the extreme long distance. Each of these categories is organised differently. The longer middle distance does not only include the national races but also the preparatory and intermediary (inter)provincial races. These provincial races are sometimes organised in just one province, other races are organised by two or more provinces working together (interprovincial). This implies that the size of the region in which the race takes place, as well as the number of pigeons and fanciers participating varies a lot from race to race. In addition, every discipline has several doubles (results) per race. 

- (inter)provincial longer middle distance: these races have a provincial result for the main race, as well as a local double with a result at club level. If the main race takes place at interprovincial level (a competition involving two or more provinces), there is usually an interprovincial result, as well as a provincial double and a local double. This means every pigeon will have a result per province and per basketing club.

national longer middle distance: a national result for the main race and a double per zone (divided over six zones: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2), per province and per club

- national long distance: a national result for the main race and a double per zone (3 zones: A,B,C), per province and per club

- extreme long distance: international result for the main race and an additional double or result per country (= national), province and club. This means there is no zonal result in this discipline!

For the national championships longer middle distance (old birds-yearlings-young birds), long distance (old birds and yearlings), and extreme long distance (olds and yearlings), only the results from the national races are taken into account (click here for the national championship regulations). It is up to the fancier to choose his best result from the national, provincial and zonal results (the latter does not apply to the extreme long distance).

1.1 Changing factors and unfair competition due to different factors

The results do not tell the whole story. There is a significant chance that the strongest pigeons in a race will not appear at the top of the results at (inter)provincial, zonal and national level. One thing is clear: a race that covers a large area (e.g. a national race) will usually be heavily influenced by external factors including weather, location, wind, and flight lines. In other words, a national winner is not is not necessarily the best pigeon of the day. It is always possible but it will not definitely be the case. It is actually quite hard to tell. To what extent is a pigeon from one side of the country or province influenced by these external factors compared to its opponents from the other side of the country? This is even harder to tell at club level, even though the pigeons have to cover a much shorter distance compared to a flight at provincial, zonal or even national level. What makes it so difficult to compare two pigeons is the fact that every pigeon covers a different route or distance, except pigeons from the same loft. In fact, the One Loft Race is the only instance in which fanciers and pigeons are competing on a level field.

The moral of the story is that every race has a number of pigeons with virtually no chance of winning a prize (national, provincial etc.), simply because the racing conditions (location of the loft, wind, weather) are not to their advantage. They face an unfair competition with no chance of winning. This is especially the case for the national races, and it basically means that quite a few of the stronger pigeons will not get the attention they deserve.

We would like to illustrate our point with an example. The fanciers mentioned in the fragment below are used only as an example so we do not want to make any judgements. We think the fastest pigeon in a national race will always be the rightful winner.

In the national race from La Souterraine in late August 2010, the national winner against 4,778 old birds came from the province of Antwerp (Nijlen); the national winner against 17,017 young birds landed in Gazen, a town along the border of Brabant and Limburg. This means both national winners come from the eastern part of Belgium. We were particularly impressed by a young bird of the Norman family from Westkapelle near Knokke (close to the sea) that day. This pigeon comes from the other side of the country in the west of Belgium, which means it was in an unfavourable position both at national level and at provincial level (in West Flanders). The pigeon took a 146th national prize against 17,017 young birds but it managed to win an impressive second provincial prize against 2,463 young birds.

This is an impressive performance by a pigeon that had to fly home against the wind while not being able to join the main group along the common flight routes, neither at provincial nor at national level. This pigeon from the Norman family was without doubt one of the strongest pigeons in the race, if not the strongest. This is hard to tell of course. One thing is certain, though: it never got the recognition it deserves. Most fanciers will not have paid any attention to this pigeon (146th at national level), especially not abroad. Again, the results do not tell the whole story. This makes it particularly difficult to judge how well a pigeon has performed in a race compared to the others. Judging results is an art.

When pigeons are being released for a race, you can often already predict where and when most top prizes will be won that day, and where the fastest pigeons at provincial and national level will be clocked.

1.2 The number of pigeons, the location of the loft, the wind

If you would draw an imaginary line between the release site and the geographical centre of Belgium, then every pigeon loft near that line would have a great advantage in a national race over the lofts further away from that imaginary line. The reason is that this line will be the main flight route for the given race. Fanciers that live close to the borders are even more disadvantaged, think of the coastal area, the westhoek region, the border with Germany and Luxembourg and the easternmost part of Belgium.

The region where the first prizes will be won is largely dependent on the external factors we described earlier. Pigeons that have to cover a short distance to their loft will likely have an advantage in national races with a strong tailwind. Also, if the wind blows from the west, the eastern part of Belgium (Flemish Brabant, Antwerp, Limburg) will have a big advantage over fanciers from the western part of the country (East and West Flanders and a part of Hainaut). The opposite applies if the wind blows from the east. This also applies to the (inter)provincial races, where a fancier will gain an advantage if he lives near the main flight route. If you are not convinced,  please feel free to reread the opinion piece that was published on the PIPA website, following the announcement of the new national longer middle distance calendar in 2013 (with two series of 7 races, for a total of 14 races). Pay particular attention to the map with the national winners!

It is also quite remarkable that pigeons will find it much more difficult to break away from the main group if the race takes place over a short distance, with a high number of pigeons competing. The location of the loft will be an even greater factor here, considering the flight route and the external influences such as weather and wind. It goes without saying that pigeons will find it hard to break away from the main group in the national flight from Bourges (averaging 450km) against an average of 40,000 pigeons or more, especially if that pigeon has to fly home on its own in bad weather and with a strong headwind. This is an impossible task. 

External influences continue to be a factor in the longer distances (long distance and extreme long distance), even though a long distance pigeon has a bigger chance of breaking away from the main group and adjusting the route, simply because it covers longer distances and spends more time in the air. This is not only because of the longer distance, but also because of the lower number of pigeons competing in long distance and extreme long distance races, especially in comparison with the longer middle distance. 

Belgium is split into three zones for the long distance: A,B,C. The longer middle distance distinguishes an additional three zones: A1,A2,B1,B2,C1,C2.

1.3 Multiple doubes: local, provincial, zonal, national

The results of a race are often somewhat complicated because of the high number of doubles, which will often differ from race to race as well. The longer middle distance, the long distance and the extreme long distance have three doubles in common: the local, provincial and national doubles. In order to take the win at national level, you will first have to claim victory at club level, for obvious reasons. After all, the national winner is always the pigeon with the highest velocity of all competing pigeons in a given category (old birds, yearlings or young birds). However, provincial and zonal races are often a different story. Let’s take a look at each of these doubles.

-provincial double: this is basically the provincial result and it is determined by the provincial borders (in national races).

-zonal double: these zones are determined using straight lines that are drawn from one central point (this is the city of Chartres for now). In Belgium, the long distance races are broken down into three zones A, B, and C. Since the start of the 2013 racing season, these three zones for the national races have been further divided into two, resulting in a total of six zones for the national races (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2). These zonal doubles no not apply in the international races. The international races will only have a provincial, national and international result. (click here for a map with the different zones)

-national: the national result, which comprises the entire country of Belgium.

-international: The international result only applies for the extreme long distance, which comprises the international races from Pau, Agen, Barcelona, St.Vincent, Narbonne, Marseille and Perpignan. This is an overall result that includes all pigeons from all countries that are accepted to join the race (there is a minimum distance). 

The fancier is obliged to basket all of his pigeons in one and the same basketing club for both the provincial and the national races. This is not the case for the sprint and shorter middle distance competition (see part two). The pigeons are raced under KBDB regulations and are obliged to race in their own category (old birds, yearlings or young birds).

1.4 The fastest pigeon is not always the winner - a distinction between province and zone

Ironically enough, the winner in the zone is not necessarily the winner (or fastest pigeon) in the club it has been basketed in. Similarly, the provincial winner is not necessarily the fastest pigeon in that province. Any outsider to the world of pigeon racing or fancier from abroad will be wondering why that is. It is a complicated matter for sure and you need to have some knowledge of the national and provincial race rules in order to fully understand it. We would like to make things clear to you using a number of examples.

Some basketing clubs (usually clubs near the border of the province) organise races in a region that also comprises towns from other (adjacent) provinces. In 2014, this will be allowed for adjacent municipalities only. The result of this practice is that fanciers from adjacent municipalities will not be included in the provincial result of their basketing club. It sometimes happens that the fastest pigeon in a given province is simply not included in the provincial results and is thus not the provincial winner. We give you an example from 2013 to illustrate:

In the national race from Tulle on 3 August 2013, Geert Vanrenterghem from Deinze (East Flanders) wins the first prize in Zone A against 2,572 pigeons with Orlandor. This pigeon was also the fastest pigeon in his province of East Flanders (and the fastest in West Flanders as well). Still, the first provincial prize against 1,605 pigeons in East Flanders was won by the winner of the second prize in Zone A (August Verstraete from Adegem). The provincial winner in West Flanders was Rudi De Saer, winner of a fourth prize in Zone A. 

Is this possible? Yes it is. This is determined by the provincial regulations. The fancier Geert Vanrenterghem lives in East Flanders but he had basketed his pigeon in a club in Waregem, which is in West Flanders. That explains why his pigeon is not included in the provincial results of the club where he basketed his club, nor in the provincial results of East Flanders, where he lives. In addition, the results from this race cannot be taken into account for the provincial champions in East Flanders, simply because he is only allowed to send in a result for East Flanders (his place of residence). As you can see, this will also have an effect on the provincial championships and provincial ace pigeon titles.

The following is another example of how difficult it can be to compare pigeons to another in a given race. We will draw a comparison between the performance of two pigeons (X and Y), so the names of the fanciers involved are not important here.

Pigeons X and Y were basketed in the same club for a national race in the longer middle distance. It is important to know that both fanciers live in the same province but in a different zone (pigeon X comes from Zone A2, pigeon Y comes from Zone A1). Pigeon X takes the win at club level, pigeon Y finishes in second against 486 pigeons. Pigeon X and Y finish in 25th and 33rd respectively against 2,728 pigeons at provincial level, while finishing in 395th (pigeon X) and 459th (pigeon Y) against 12,071 pigeons at national level. The strange thing is that pigeon X hac to settle for 8th against 2,797 pigeons in zone A2 (with a coefficient of 0.286%), while pigeon Y takes the first prize in Zone A1 against 3,380 pigeons (with a coefficient of 0.029%).

What would have happened if the two fanciers had sent in their result for the national championships (for instance the national ace pigeon title)? They would be able to choose between the national, the zonal and the provincial result. For both pigeons, the zonal result would be the best choice in this case, which would imply that pigeon Y did better than pigeon X, even though pigeon X finishes before pigeon Y in three out of four doubles. The two lofts are situated near the dividing line between Zone A1 and A2 (with the two lofts on the opposite sides), which runs through their basketing club. This means there is not a lot of distance between the two. Which of the two pigeons is the strongest? We will let you be the judge. We assume that different fanciers will have different opinions, which is understandable.

We can imagine that fanciers from abroad will be wondering why the competition is so complicated in Belgium. On the other hand, Belgian fanciers who are familiar with the peculiarities of the sport in our country will perfectly understand what we were talking about. Things will obviously be a lot less easy to understand for fanciers from other countries or outsiders to the sport.

In addition to the national championships KBDB we also have provincial championships, which are only relevant to the fanciers from the province itself. The reason is simple; every province uses a different set of criteria for their provincial championships, based on the flight calendar. These criteria are often quite similar but they are never quite the same. This makes it particularly difficult to compare these provincial champions to each other, especially in the sprint and shorter middle distance competition. These races are often organised in a different way, based on different regulations. In other words, it is all but impossible to compare the achievements in provincial championships.

In part two we will discuss the sprint and middle distance competition, and some of the big differences with the national races.