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The Huyskens van Riel Story (part 1)

Union Antwerp happily lets everyone call it the “High School” of the International pigeon sport. The fanciers in the Union don’t mind one bit. After all, who wouldn’t mind having people think that the area in which they fly, has the best and toughest competition? That the press in the province of Antwerp, with great zeal, makes use of and cries loudly we are the “High School” is not surprising.

Some are commercially minded and have a definite interest in upholding the fame of the Antwerp pigeons in their reporting. But, not all agree with the Union, not even in Belgium. Pigeon enthusiasts from Lier and the surrounding area believe they are the best. Those in the Turnhout, de Vlaanders, Limburg etc., think the same.

The Antwerp Union flyers will never be able to prove that they have the better pigeons, others of course, cannot confirm the contrary either. Pete de Weerd claimed long ago in his book “Suizende Vleugels,” that it is questionable that the “High School” is synonymous with intense competition. “They fly with too few pigeons”, he wrote in …1954!

However, what cannot be denied is that “Antwerp” has produced many names that will live on forever, in the pigeon sport. For decades the races were organized by the “Union Antwerp,” as a rendezvous where the Aces with international reputations, crossed swords.

Names such as Bremdonckx, Mariën, Havenith, Bros. de Scheemaecker, Louis Vermeyen, Havermaet, Jef Hermans, Corneel Horemans, Bros. Marissen and from a more recent time Gustje Ducheyne, van Rhijn Kloeck and Renè Somers will be remembered for a long time.

All of them radiated stardom, oneshone as brightly as the other then and now. But the biggest star of all, and even the hardest critics agree, was the combination of Huyskens van Riel. News of their performances directly after the second world war dumbfounded the pigeon world travelling far beyond the countries borders uncontrollable.



Huyskens van Riel


The combination was formed in 1945, in the time that the “three H’s”, (Haddock, Hermans and Hamilton) were the much-discussed names in the pigeon world and were considered as number one. But, soon the reign was taken over by the combination Huyskens van Riel. Because, whether it was from Sint Quentin (barely 200 km) or Barcelona (1,000 km) there was no way of competing against their often dark chequered pigeons.

-Six pigeons sent to Tours and (Provincial), winning 5 positions in the first 10 against a field of thousands of pigeons. In 1949 this didn’t surprise anyone.

- Thirty-three sent to Cormeilles and winning 32 prizes? That could only be Huyskens van Riel.

-They won the first four positions in Provincial Orleans. The “first time in history” they wrote at the time.

-Their most memorable result perhaps was the one from Libourne. There was “pigeon weather” predicted and the tandem entered 14 birds. Those 14 birds, provincially won, against 2,000 pigeons: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 9 and all 14 were in the result. Nationally their seventh pigeon classified 25th! De Weerd in his earlier mentioned book wrote: “the most startling results ever achieved.”

Anyone with some understanding of the pigeon sport knows that an overflight of nearly 100 km and a headwind give the competition not only an advantage but that they should destroy him entirely. During those years, fanciers asked themselves how they would have fared if they had lived near the French border, flying their all-rounders. Although we still encounter the name Huyskens van Riel in advertising and reports, especially in America, it should be clear that it is primarily their memory that still lives on.

Jef van Riel passed away. His son Georges took over. But not with the old pure strain of course. They only have those abroad, they say!

Jef van Riel was born in 1899. When he was 22, his father took up the pigeon sport. At that time the pigeon sport as a hobby, a way to pass your free time, was exploding. It had become a fashion and a fad. Jef had become fascinated by the hobby through his father and was his most fervent supporter. Few would have suspected that the name van Riel, at the hands of his son would become a legend.



Waiting for pigeons at Huyskens van Riel

After his marriage, Jef raced independently. As was usual at that time, he only flew Vitesse. At that time “pure vitesse” were flights from Quievrain, barely 100 kilometres. As exceptions, some incidental races from St. Quentin and Noyon, about 200 km were flown. By the way, that was not so strange. In those days for just about everyone near “den Donk” meaning Ekeren Donk which lay near Antwerpen having pigeons “vitesse” was the game. Already in 1933, barely 34 years old, van Riel was known as THE “vitesser” in the area. What was less well known then, was that he had a secret weapon: “the widowhood method”! He was one of the few who took the time to read pigeon material. In the “Groen Boekske” had read about a method used in the area around Liège.

A system so different and with such fantastic results that van Riel wanted to try it. The result was breathtaking, and it is understood that he was as silent as the grave, when asked what he was doing with his pigeons. That’s just the way pigeon fanciers are. The pigeons were kept high in the ridge of the house and had to enter through a small sliding door. That was usual for the time, the entrance had to be as small as possible, which was better for trapping nest pigeons. But, van Riel flew widowhood, and he had read that large windows were better for trapping as you could gain time. Noone could believe their eyes when a part of the roof was removed, “what is the Jef doing now?” someone joked.

The large window was installed, but the pigeons refused to fly in through the gaping hole. Jef got angry, and the massive window was bolted. “Jef locked his stall” they laughed in Ekeren. They wouldn’t laugh long. After a while, he tried that large window one more time. This time the pigeons were more accustomed to it, and in no time van Riel was playing cat and mouse with the competition. Till the resistance became so high that the clubs directors politely asked him to fly elsewhere and forced him to go to the neighbouring Mariaburg club. But there the fun was also short-lived. After they had a look at the new member from “Donk,” they thanked him profoundly for the lessons he had given them and asked him to move on. They wanted to keep the pigeon sport a fun sport, and with van Riel dominating, the fun was gone.

With so many limitations and exclusions, he had no choice but to change over to middle distance and measure himself against the “the big bosses with thick necks in the Union.” So “above the border” it will be. Whoever thought that at the middle distance he would meet his doom with his “vitesse” pigeons, would be sorely disappointed. The “big guns” in the Union at that time with few exceptions were not able to hold the newcomer, van Riel, back. We are writing about 1937, and now the middle distance races in Antwerp were ruled by five fanciers.


De Scheemaecker, Horemans, Havenith, Hermans van Luythagen and Jef van Riel.

But, finally, he couldn’t take it anymore. And there was moaning “ van Riel should have kept flying vitesse,” does he now “have to help end the fun in the Union?” Jeff was so disappointed by the opposition that he encountered at every turn, especially from the administrative side, that without giving it much thought he decided to put an end to it and dispose of all his pigeons. Sixty were sold to De Scheemaecker, the rest were given to his friend Frans Huyskens. It would turn out to be a gift with historical significance. Among the pigeons going to de Scheemaecker was the “Rossenband” from 1930. The then 14-year-old Francois remembers like it was yesterday, the tears in his father’s eyes. That’s when he knew, his father couldn’t live without pigeons. Especially the “Rossenband” had a special place in his heart. This was a pigeon that was very well known in a wide surrounding area. He was big, black in colour, with a brown wing and had “chestnut” eyes in his robust head.

Sunday after Sunday, he would have won the first prize, but for one problem. The “Rossenband” was known, even by the youngest boys in the village, as a lousy trapper. He made great circles, sometimes minutes before other pigeons arrived, above the lofts of the competition and finally went in when the other pigeons he had out flown finally reported to their lofts. For five years he had flown only from Quievrain, in his old age, he flew middle distance in the Union and later transferred to De Scheemaecker.

(to be followed)