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The Huyskens van Riel Story (part 4)



If earlier no one was able to compete with Huyskens van Riel, even somewhat, 1949 was a year apart. The large coarsely built, loud talking Jan Marrisen and his rheumatic brother flew their pigeons from Oelegem. Oelegem is not really the right word.

The brothers lived in the jungle, far from civilization, only 100 metres from the purple moor. Their lofts were build of tin and corrugated metal, formed the roof. In 1949 the first Union distance race was from Cormeilles on May 1st, 1,027 pigeons were flown by plane to the release point, and that evening after the contest “the Union was buzzing.” The Marissen brothers won 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, it seemed Jef van Riel went a little white around the nose. The following week again another race from Cormeille. The Marissens now won 1, 2, 3, 5, 10, 13 against 1,320 pigeons. That’s how it carried on for the rest of the year.

The pigeon world prepared itself for a showdown between the Marissens and Huyskens van Riel, but it was not to be. The beautiful song the Marissens were singing lasted only that one year. What struck down the pigeons of these world stars will forever remain a mystery, but in 1950 they could barely win a prize. Some speculated that they had felled by a mysterious disease. Some pigeons had been lost, and to fill the holes in the race team, that winter they purchased pigeons at the songbird market in Antwerp. These may have brought the mysterious microbe with them and sealed the Marissens fate. It the Marissen chapter had been closed, Havenith and Hermans were also sidelined. The only one who could offer any resistance to the Huyskens van Riel tide were Gusje Ducheyn, Leon v d Sande, De Scheemaecker, Horemans and Vermeyen.

When someone flies hard, you always hear the same reasons why he does so: ‘he lives in a good spot’ or ‘ he’s giving them something.’ If it’s a middle distance fancier, then you hear, these pigeons can’t handle the longer distances. If it’s a distance fancier the story changes to: ‘his pigeons are to slow or too dumb for the shorter distances and won’t be able to bring home their rubber race band.”

That, of course, is also what Huyskent van Riel experienced. Their mastery was so overwhelming that no one could overcome the class of their pigeons on either the short or middle distance races. ‘But you only have outstanding pigeons, if you dared fly the distance races with them.’ Claimed their so-called competition. Now if your name was Jef van Riel you couldn't turn down a challenge, so he decided to move the boundaries. He decided to fly the long distance races with the same pigeons that had terrorized the competition on the short and middle distances and by long distance he meant LONG DISTANCE. The first race he turned his attention to was one from Angouleme. The pigeons had to be entered at the before mentioned ‘Koffiehuis’ where at that the time, the famous Albert de Kepper accosted van Riel with the question ‘Well Jef, are they in form.’ ‘To me, they don’t seem to be quite a 100% yet’ he retorted. ‘They have only been on widowhood for two weeks. To my taste, really they aren’t really ready.’

As usual, Angouleme became a tidal wave, winning the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 6th prize in the Union along with all the money. De Kepper remarked with a sneer: ‘ and those pigeons weren't in form yet?’ Van Riel said nothing. He had plundered the prize pot entirely and understood how his competitors felt. Fourteen days later, the distance fanciers met again at the same shipping station. This time for a race from Libourne.


De Kepper asked him somewhat snidely: ‘ and are they in form now?’ ‘Yes, this week I like them better’ answered van Riel. ‘But you can’t fly any better than you did from Angouleme? ‘ lamented de Kepper. Van Riel didn’t answer. He worried that something might happen during the basketing, broken flights perhaps. The pigeons were so intense that he could barely hold them. Once they were in the basket, he breathed a sigh of relief and treated everyone to a pint. Never, had he entered pigeons in such form, it seemed they wanted to kill each other and flew at van Riel when he opened the loft, claims his son Georges.

On race day a strong headwind blew, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Fourteen pigeons were entered by van Riel, and that evening the entire pigeon nation were licking their wounds. Provincial against more than one thousand pigeons he placed 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 9. National more than 3,300 were flown. His seventh pigeon classified 25th. They were almost all, and it’s becoming monotonous, from 1946. ‘De Belgische Duivensport’ the leading pigeon journal of the time, published a caricature of van Riel as a barber, below which it said: Huyskens van Riel has shaved the competitions beards.

The following years were terrible for those sportsmen who enjoyed making money. It got to the point where nobody ventured to pool a single penny when Huyskens van Riel appeared at the entry table. Therefore some felt it necessary to divert to Hamme Zogge, near Gent, where there was a lot of money to be won. But, that song soon ended, after only two races to be exact. They were thanked and were no longer allowed to return. Liège at the time organized its traditional competition from St. Vincent. In many cafè’s throughout Belgium, placards were hung encouraging fanciers to take part, and they guaranteed that massive pooling would take place. That sounded interesting to Huyskens van Riel. They didn’t regard the long distance of 1,000 km as a problem. They left for Liège with two pigeons, ‘het Zotteke’ and the ‘16’ and pooled them as high as possible. They won the first and fourth National! In 1950 they decided to push it to the limit, there was still one challenge left, Barcelona! Seven pigeons were prepared including ‘het Zotteke’ and the ‘16.’ Barcelona became so demanding and so hard, with temperatures as high as thirty degrees Celcius, that at the end of the first two race days, not a single pigeon had come through in Antwerp (provincial). On the third race day at 10 am Huyskens van Riel had their first four marked birds, in the clock.


Van Riel and his companion were modest fanciers. Although they probably knew better, they thanked all their successes primarily to the lofts. They were built of brick, they were deep and roomy, and had a peaked roof, with lots of light. And what was so strange, when we are talking about the loft? The only one who had been able to offer them any competition, if only for a short time, was Marissen, who did so flying from tight, closed lofts with a corrugated metal roof. When feeding, the grains were fed separately, the grain the pigeons liked the least were fed first. The feed was a mix on the heavy side. Van Riel believed that you had to feed the birds a lot and heavy, and…had to exercise a lot. At least two full hours daily. Strangely enough, no grit was purchased. The partners acquired theirs from building sites. Ground up mortar (cement), they believed would be much better than what was offered commercially.   The ‘mortar’ was devoured by the pigeons.

As mentioned earlier they paid little attention to how the pigeons were built physically. Most were on the small side and had a deep keel. Overall, the pigeons didn’t have much of a back, temperament and fighting spirit they had in surplus. In addition to their vitality and perfect natural health without exception, they had soft velvety feathering. The fame of Huyskens van Riel had now reached into far away Amerca, where especially Dr. Whitney a lifelong searcher became fascinated with what was happening in the small town, of Ekeren Donk in Belgium.


Dr. Whitney believed that intense in-breeding was the only way to build a family of superior class pigeons. He was looking for, pigeons to test breed with, and his eyes had fallen on the Huyskens van Riel pigeons ‘the best in the world.’ Generations after generation were bred out of sister and brother pairings.

After breeding many generations (brother to sister) and removing a lot of waste from the breeding program, he had produced a strain of pigeon where one looked like the other, like peas in a pod. If you had seen one you had seen them all, but the question remained, could they win a prize? Perhaps you had to cross these strongly inbred pigeons? We will never know. Whitney passed away too early and is safe from a perhaps failed experiment.