The Devriendt brothers
“There has been a lot of nonsense about this topic so I don’t really like to talk about it. But you asked me about it so I can give you my opinion, for what it’s worth. To summarise briefly: the West Flemish could hardly win a national victory before the war. This was probably because our pigeons could not or did not want to make that final effort that was needed to take the win. However, as soon as the West Flemish really started to focus on the long distance races, both with their breeding and racing pigeons (you could have your pigeons fly a 600km race every weekend if you wanted to) things started to change. It appeared that there are just as many talented long distance pigeons in West Flanders as anywhere else in Belgium. However, I don’t know if fanciers from other provinces have used the same approach as the West Flemish.
Judging by the results I think they haven’t. I’m afraid that the successors of Bricoux and Duray are less strong. In any case they cannot prove the opposite. I think that the pigeons of our opponents take a rest as soon as darkness sets in, whereas ours are still trying to fly as fast as possible. It seems that our pigeons are much more dedicated to reach their home; they give everything they have. In the early hours of the day our pigeons are restless and nervous so they start flying again as soon as they can, whereas most other pigeons are not awake for an hour or two. If you want to win national titles you need the dedication and the qualities that can be found in the West Flemish racing pigeons: orientation, strength, endurance, character, etc. If you cannot basket such pigeons in the races simply because you don’t have that kind of pigeon in your loft chances are likely that you will suffer defeat.” That was the conclusion of Oscar Devriendt.
He stresses two points: the selection of long distance pigeons and the organisation of a long distance programme. I also asked him about my old friend Georges Fabry and I wrote an article about it. When the pigeons from Liège were racing against their opponents from Antwerp, West Flanders and Brabant in the big national races this season they were left behind every time. This was widely discussed in Belgium: some say that there are no more talented long distance pigeons left in Liège. People consider fanciers from Liège to be inferior. As always, they only take into account the results of the fanciers; they do not care about the circumstances that cause them to get bad results. I think it is too easy to say that there are no decent long distance pigeons in the lofts of Liège. The fanciers there have always had good long distance pigeons. In the period of Alexander Hansenne the very best long distance pigeons worldwide were found there. Collin, Gurnay, Beaufort, Fabry, Peeters etc. are known worldwide. Liège has always had champions that could compete with the best fanciers. It has always been the home of great racers and they have never neglected the long distance competition. So why would there no longer be good long distance pigeons in Liège? Dear reader, in the past few years the Cattrijsse brothers from Moere were indisputably the men to beat in the long distance and extreme distance racing.
There are two reasons why they are so successful: they have a collection of pigeons with fairly clean lines and they did not hesitate to make their breed even purer. The only exception was the 45, who had an overwhelming victory from Angouleme in Hamme-Zogge this season, winning almost 100,000 Belgian Francs in prize money together with his loft mate Angoulemenaarke. These two birds had a 16 minute lead over the third pigeon. Of course every fancier spares his best pigeon from time to time. The Cattrijsse brothers had a strong opponent last season. It seems that there were a few other fanciers with pure lines and they decided to basket their pure pigeons for the races as well. I think, for instance, of the following names: Huyskens-Van Riel, Vanbruaene and the Marissen brothers. It would be fair to say that these three are phenomenal fanciers as well.
Two from Antwerp and one from West Flanders
Coincidence? I think not. The true grandmasters usually come from regions with a lot of decent racers. This makes their achievements even more impressive, especially when they are really dominant. They represent the most successful regions in our country.
In the case of the Marissen brothers it could be possible that they have not yet developed to their best level. On the other hand they still have to prove that their pigeons are just as strong as the Huyskens-Van Riel pigeons in races over 800km. It could very well be, but it is not yet clear. In any case, these fanciers have all managed to beat the fanciers from Liège.
How did they do it?
We had a conversation with one of the most skilled and one of the most friendly fanciers in Belgium last week: Mr Georges Fabry. I would describe him in two words: common sense. You could compare him to Wilfried Staes but Fabry is undoubtedly more proficient than him. He has been a champion throughout his life. Of course, he has had his ups and downs just like everybody but he has always maintained his place at the top. He has a clear view on pigeon racing and he is a respected man. In other words he is an authority on our sport.
This is the view of Georges Fabry: "There are three factors that influence the results: quality, wind and the number of pigeons. Pigeon racing in Liège has turned into a gambling game with a lot of money involved, because of the doubles. In this area pigeon racing is based around the middle distance. That explains why no less than six fanciers from Liège are on top of the results in the middle distance competition very often: Peeters-Beaufort from Herve, Kroonen from Saive, Crustin from Andrimont, Fabry and Brochart from Liège (Campine), and Dechesne from Verviers.
Let me remind you that Liège has done a good job in the race from Chateauroux, even though the wind along the line of flight was not in their favour: the first prize was won by Labeeuw from Bissegem. This would not have been possible with a strong north west wind. That was the case in Angouleme ’39, when the well known Stier of André Vanbruane (West Flanders) had a 45 minute lead but who could only win a 200th prize in Liège. Yet, the fanciers from Liège have made the mistake (if you can call it a mistake) to keep their middle distance pigeons at home in the races over more than 500km. Huyskens-Van Riel and their friends have made this mistake last year, as a result of which the Cattrijsse Brothers have been dominating the field since then.
I read your article about the modern day racing pigeon and I think there is a lot of truth in it. It is true that times have changed. The pure sprint races form the basis for the greatest sports performances today. The general advice is to add endurance to your sprint racers without getting rid of their drive. The pigeons in your loft that are able to fly at the front in races over 300km, in difficult conditions should be basketed for longer distances. You will notice that some of these pigeons will, in fact, do even better from Libourne. We have to go back to the complete racing pigeon, a pigeon that can win a first prize over 700km as well as over 200km. With a well thought out breeding method that is based on scientific principles it should no longer be necessary to breed pigeons that are specialised in only one discipline.”
Huyskens-Van Riel lead the way
This loft uses the same pigeons for all disciplines. It seems that Liège will have to come up with a different type of pigeon if it wants to win prizes in the future. Fanciers should keep their unmotivated and lazy pigeons at home; instead they should basket the pigeons that have been successful at the middle distance. The question is whether they are willing to do that but I think they have no other choice. If we cannot manage to adapt to the changes in pigeon racing we risk losing our money and our reputation.
Georges Fabry understood that. There is no doubt about it that Liège still has some very good long distance pigeons. Last year he basketed a one year old hen for St. Vincent. It was a very fast pigeon and no fancier would ever decide to basket her for a race over Paris. She flew with a two hour advantage over the rest of the yearlings and she won a fourth national against 2,200 pigeons.
We can be convinced that he has not wasted his money or lost his reputation with the decision to basket this hen. The bird that is most suited for the distance, the weather and the circumstances in a particular discipline wins the race. Of course there is no doubt that the winning pigeon has a good day! People keep saying that the prime requirement for the long and the extreme distance is to have good quality pigeons. I agree and I would like to add that the rest is just a side issue. Some of you are probably wondering: what do you mean by good quality pigeons?
Without these qualities it would be useless to basket our pigeons for Dax or St. Vincent. It is always difficult to compare a racing pigeon to a road cyclist but it is still a common practice. Today there are, for instance, plenty of fast pigeons that are given the name Coppi! The cycling classic Bordeaux-Paris is compared to the extreme distance in pigeon racing. All newspapers wrote about the amazing feat of cyclist Van Est, who had finished the extremely demanding trip past the Loire and in the Chevreuse valley in scorching heat and who was remarkably fit and fresh when he arrived in Parc des Princes. After the race the strong rider from St. Willebord was almost afraid to admit that he had not had a single physical breakdown in those seventeen hours. He had been quite nervous because his manager, Lomme Driessens, had been holding him down like a skilled jockey to make sure that he would attack Somers, the leader in the race, only in the final 10 kilometres. Which of the two had showed more willpower, Van Est or the rider who finished second, is not a forgone conclusion. One thing is sure: Van Est did not have any real problems during his physical performance but the French rider who finished second definitely used all his energy during the race: when he arrived at the finish he fell off his bike, completely exhausted. There was another rider in the race worth mentioning: Raymond Impanis, who was in a good shape in the last few weeks. Karel van Wijnendaele, an acknowledged authority, has always believed that this rider is just as strong as Van Est. Yet, it is doubtful whether Raymon Impanis would have been able to finish this race. He has the physical abilities to finish the Tour de France but he does not have the mental strength. From a physical point of view nothing is too difficult for him. He still looks young and he has always been healthy and strong. Strong as an ox. You could compare the cyclist Van Est to pigeons like Jonge Stier of Andé Vanbruaene (in the race from Pau) or Zwartenband of Oscar Devriendt (winner of a first national Angouleme with a 22 min. lead and a first national St. Vincent with a one hour lead – only two pigeons have been clocked on the day of the liberation!). They can suddenly break away from the pack just like Fausti Coppi did in Lugano when he took the rainbow jersey. The pigeons that can win first prizes or at least top prizes, those are true Van Est pigeons. These phenomenal birds can and will take the victory. When they arrive at the loft there is no sign of fatigue. In fact, true champions do not often arrive at the loft completely exhausted.
Oscar Devriendt has plenty of those pigeons in his loft. After all, he is someone who can easily win the first five national prizes in a race. Some pigeons arrive home completely exhausted yet at the top of the results. All they do is bring the ring home. I would not compare these pigeons to the French cyclist Diot; that would be an insult to a very talented Frenchman. But you know what I mean. We are talking about pigeons that have more energy and determination than power and calmness. These pigeons have gone over the limit. Their mental strength helps them to reach the finish line alive. The pigeons of Huyskens-Van Riel are magnificent pigeons in all disciplines from Cormeilles to St. Vincent. They are no Barcelona pigeons, especially compared to the Delbar pigeons. Still, they were able to take the lead in the difficult race from Spain. However, they are put under too much strain. Frans Huyskens had one hundred grams of feathers in his hands when he clocked Zestien; Zotteke followed one hour later. Thanks to their mental strength they managed to reach the loft and to bring home the ring. The Montauban of Bruno Waelkens from Waregem is also such a type of pigeon. He is an amazing and a very fast pigeon in the one day long distance distance and he performs even better in hot weather but he is not a Barcelona pigeon. Barcelona is a bit too far away for the Stichelbaut breed. However, the Trimard of Oscar Devriendt, who has Vanderespt origins and who is closely related to the other big champions of the respected long distance loft in Moere, has won a fourth international from Barcelona. It seems they do not know their limits when it comes to endurance. Still, they perform very well season after season.
The long and the extreme distance competition always has a whole lot of pigeons that arrive home when the prizes have already been awarded. I am not talking about pigeons that gave everything they had but who could not manage physically. In fact these pigeons should not have been basketed for an (extreme) long distance race. I am talking about the category of pigeons that arrive home completely relaxed and who can only think about eating and playing with their hen. It is a good thing that these pigeons can be basketed in such races as Barcelona and Bilbao: in Spain it does not matter if they have to race an extra day.
What are the qualities that make the true long distance racing pigeons stand out, even in difficult and demanding weather conditions?
There are plenty of fanciers who have been wondering about this. Uneducated people have tried to address the issue with common sense. Other fanciers have used a more scientific approach, which means they have studied the facts and findings of people who have conducted research. I think we can all agree that a good quality long distance pigeon needs more than just a good sense of orientation. Most decent pigeon breeds will likely have this characteristic. However, it is also likely that there are plenty of strong and healthy pigeons closely related to good breeds, that are simply not smart enough to find their way home in a short period of time. Some fanciers speak about willing pigeons; pigeons that come home every time, even in a long distance race and even in the worst possible conditions (there are always exceptions of course). Willing pigeons: I think this is a good choice of words. In any case they do not lack a good sense of orientation. Their willingness is not really about speed but rather about strength and force. It is about their endurance, nerves of steel and character. Maybe the most important thing is what's in their minds.
1951 was a season with a lot of difficult races, which was often the result of abnormal weather conditions. The Belgian champions that were the most successful in 1951 have pigeons that have first of all, a great sense of orientation. These are, so to speak, very willing pigeons. It was no secret that the pigeons of Devriendt have this valuable feature as well. This feature significantly increases your chance of success as a pigeon fancier.
We often hear that the pigeons of Devriendt have a sixth sense. This is obviously exaggerated but it illustrates that a lot of fanciers appreciate the unique feature of these pigeons not to lose touch with their home base, even in the most difficult conditions. In 1952 he won the first international from Barcelona with a newcomer! It seems that the Barcelona racers of Jos Boels have that extraordinary sense of orientation as well.
How can we explain this feature?
“If this feature is not embedded in your breed after several years of breeding and selection, there will be a lot of disappointment”, said Oscar Devriendt. Oscar marks the spot. A good sense of orientation is an innate characteristic, that is passed from generation to generation. Nobody can tell us what it is exactly. Scientists have not yet been able to explain this either. We only know that there is some type of extraordinary sense of orientation that is passed from the parents to the youngsters. Fanciers who were able to embed this feature in their pigeon breed are happy to take advantage from it.
In the most demanding races, Oscar Devriendt has no reason to worry about his fairly small team of nominated pigeons, even when the biggest champions have basketed tens of their strongest pigeons. There is of course the so called appearance of a pigeon: Devriendt has wonderful pigeons that look strong and balanced and they have a wide wingspan. I believe they are not angry either: these are calm and quiet pigeons well suited for the long distance. You can tell that they are willing pigeons; they have a good temper. They have already raced from Arras. They have similarities with the Janssens pigeons from Arendonck (take a look at the achievements of, for instance, Denis Vanderlinden in Brussels!). Still, the Devriendt pigeons are a lot more versatile and they are as specialised in the long distance as the Vanderlinden pigeons are in the sprint competition. The Devriendt pigeon has a fairly light skeleton with a good structure. Their breastbone protrudes a bit, but it sits very tight: you cannot move it at all. I have noticed a few times that this is an important characteristic for a good long and extreme distance pigeon. Pigeons with a breastbone that can be slightly moved are generally not successful in longer and more demanding races. Needless to say that Devriendt races on widowhood only. In the aviary of the hens grass grows quickly. There is a 30cm layer of grass during the summer.
After the magnificent victory of Oscar Devriendt from St. Vincent, I paid him a visit. These are his prospects for the future: as long as he is healthy he will continue to basket his very best pigeons in the races, no doubt about that. This is guaranteed by a successful career of more than 50 years.