How did you first become interested in racing pigeons?
My grandfather used to be a fantastic sprint fancier, whenever I was with him he would take me to the loft, show me pigeons or we would make some nestboxes or whatever. Every Sunday I would bike to my grandfather (after my favourite cartoon) to watch his race from Quievrain.
What were your first experiences of pigeon racing?
When my grandfather got ill, my father took over the pigeons, at the point my grandfather passed away, I stepped up and together with my dad we found our way in pigeon racing.
How did you get started in this sport?
I think in the beginning the pigeons just was a way to replace/remember my grandfather. But after a couple of years I was tired of losing, looked at the pigeon racing from a different angle and wanted to compete and win.
You are a full time Pigeon Fancier: was this always your ambition?
I think nobody wakes up one day and says “I want to be a pro Pigeon Fancier”. I somehow rolled into it. When I was 13 years old, I already got involved helping a vet out, selling his products. I went on road trips together with Nikolaas Gyselbrecht looking for sponsorships for PIPA, even the first ever “PIPA-Meeting” was held at my parents’ house, just like the first ever “PIPA-team-building”.
It was all very exciting at a young age, the travelling, meeting people from all over the world. It took some bumps to find my way in pigeon racing, it’s not that easy on such a young age, but I’m not ashamed for the mistakes I made (and still make), it comes with the age and experience.
At one point I was quit sure I could stay in the pigeon world, working for somebody, but somehow it didn’t give me the feeling it should. I wanted to win races with my pigeons, beat the legends. I figured out a way, first I stopped school to fly pigeons, than I did what I promised my parents: finish school – than it was pigeons again. And then I did the “all or nothing gamble”, I searched for a bank that wanted to give a 20 year old kid a 30 000 EUR loan to buy pigeons! In the same breath I opened an official “pigeon-company” and went “all-in”.
We are 10 years later and so far it worked out but there is no job security, it’s hard work every single day. But I keep my head up and I’m SO THANKFUL for every day I had so far doing what I do love most – flying pigeons – and nobody can take that away from me.
What changes have you seen in the sport since you started racing?
We can’t hide the fact that there is a lot of negativity in the sport mostly built by jealousy. The “commercial” and “professional” fanciers get the finger pointed at them most of the times. First of all I don’t see the difference between a “pro” and a “retired” fancier. They both can spend the same time on the loft and the retired person is normally not in debt any more, which makes life easier. People talk about the “money” in pigeon racing, but the money was always there. In the past it was cash on somebody’s kitchen table or on Lier-market when 100s of buses would go there, now the money is open on the internet and people actually see what other people are making.
But because of the internet the world opened up and that’s what I LOVE MOST about pigeon racing, I have friends all over the world. We meet, talk pigeons, have fun, hang out, it’s amazing what a fantastic culture pigeon racing is. So many events bring us together. We are doing this interview because a mutual American friend introduced us to each other; you can see my point, right? It’s just fantastic. For me the positive aspect absolutely overpowers the milder negativities in pigeon racing.
Who has been the #1 influence on you since you started?
Through the years I had the privilege to meet some nice people, all had proven something in their life, in their line of business. I learned a lot from them, got great advice, they pointed out my mistakes in life. I didn’t always agree, but I learned. Hanging out with those people also made me mature a lot faster than I should’ve. That’s what made me the man I am today.
Who do you consider the greatest pigeon fancier in your life time and why?
I must say my grandfather, Gust Lemmens. When he passed away he left me a legacy, birds with 17x 1°, 19x 1°, 13x 1°, 11 x 1°. Too bad I didn’t have a clue what to do with them! I kept one pigeon from his whole colony, but she is the grandmother to “De Gust”. My grandfather was just an amazing person, with people and animals, playing jazz, he was great at everything, in hunting he had the best dog and with pigeon racing he was also exceptional. Everything he achieved, he did flying against the famous Staf van Reet, the only difference was, my grandfather never ever wanted to sell a pigeon or be in a newspaper. He just loved his pigeons and loved winning.
How is it being a full time pro?
It’s a blessing, true the years I built my company out to a family business, my wife is full time with the birds, my dad helps me, my mom helps me, it’s been an amazing ride so far. The downside is, doing this, the pigeons have to bring the food on the table so I’m forced into selling birds I know I shouldn’t sell. That’s my biggest frustration at this point, I know which birds I should keep, but the bills have to be paid.
As a full time fancier, take us through your day in the race season?
During racing season, we will wake up 5-5:30 depending the weather and start either loft-flying or road training the birds. My dad will help me with the breeders, my wife will do the road-training. Around 10-11 o’clock we take a break and we have some friend-fanciers coming over for their cup of coffee and we “talk pigeons”. Early afternoon I do the paperwork and then I start feeding/watering/ training the birds again.
I’m absolutely not a slave of my pigeons, we make time for friends, family and still try to compete. I’m also not the person sitting in his loft all day, I really can’t figure out what to do there all day. I’d rather spend it on fun things, Food/training/water/grit and once a week a bath – that is all it takes, right?
You own a superstar pigeon called the Gust: tell us about him and how much influence he has had on you and your racing.
I refer to him as my “life changing pigeon” Without him, I would probably working 3 shifts at some company. It was amazing to race a bird like that, but then breed it – I never expected this to happen! This pigeon is becoming a legend in the world, some people even call me “Gust” because they don’t know my name, but they know the bird. I’m very proud on this bird, especially on the fact his bloodline can win 75 miles and can win 500 miles any day. When I look at his breeding references, two things stand out for me: he is been crossed every single time with another hen and bred great birds, plus the percentage of winners he bred is sensational.
How did you develop your current family of birds?
I always looked at pigeon racing from a different angle, always searched for the boundaries of these pigeons. In 2003 I would fly late breds 3-4 straight weeks 350-400 miles. Two birds survived it, “Bettini” & “Leonie” and I always took it further and further. I’m very confident that I have shown what a pigeon really can do and it becomes more and more amazing. Pigeon racing is a selection sport so the more you select and the harder, the easier it gets. It’s like breaking a world record every single time. For sure I don’t have the best birds in the world.
But what do you think about your own pigeons then?
Well, I do believe my references speak for themselves: “De Gust”-Family has been winning all over the world, I never sold big numbers of birds, most references all built up by people that just had 1 or 2 birds off me so the fact they can win for others all over the world makes me very proud. For me the “secret” is the fact I don’t mind giving up a good pigeon, plus the extreme health and strength of my birds.
Do you have a specific method when it comes to breeding?
I have no clue what I am doing! I always cross, try to keep inbreeding as far away as possible. I tried different theories, but always with the same outcome, a few good ones and a lot of rubbish. I basically try to breed as much as possible from the good birds and with as many different hens I can.
What races/distance do you specialise in, if any?
I love everything in pigeon racing. I focus on the “national Belgium races 350-500 miles” but I’m also working on a team to compete at the international stage with the focus on Barcelona.
How many stock pairs do you have?
About 30 from my line and the past two years another 24 for the marathon blood. A little bit too much, but it has to be like that. I also keep 30-40 pairs of pumper/feeders/foster parents, so I’m able to move the eggs.
How many Young birds do you breed?
Recently I have increased the number to 150 because I need about 50 to feed the hawk.
How many race birds to you start the season with?
I started with 150 weened young birds, they did 17 races, including 4 national races of 350-375 miles and 52 are left. All of these can stay. Then I had a late bred group of birds of the marathon races, who I crazy-trained but didn’t go further than 100 miles.
What is your training routine with race team (Old birds)?
In a perfect world, 2 hours for the hens in the morning and 1,5 hours for the cocks before the season, when the national starts I reduce training a lot and focus more on recovering. Yes, in a perfect world, with hawks waiting above your loft, it all became very difficult. I tried to keep my birds in until the end of March, tried to do road training instead of loft flying, I don’t really know what to do anymore that saves them.
When do you pair up breeders? Racers?
The racers never get eggs, that’s part of my system. The breeders I would love to pair up 23rd November, but I’m in China then, so this year it will be 29 of November 2019.
What is your feeding program for Old Birds?
What is your feeding method for YB?
I can answer both questions together, because all the birds get the same feed. I feed them “Galaxi Light” from Beyers, a mix I made myself. It’s focused on digestion and covering most aspects of what a pigeon needs. This mix makes me fly until 6-7 hours on the wing. From the moment they hit 7 hours, they will get an Energy mix when they come home and the last 4 meals before being basketed.
Do you use any motivation techniques for Old Birds?
I have no clue about pigeons, so I use a “chaos-system” which is basically a slide door system for old birds. After a race, I’ll leave them together until the next day and split them: they basically motivate themselves.
What system do you race YB on?
I focus on the months August/September so I darken them until June 1st, on June 21 the light goes on. As motivation I do exactly the same as the old birds. After a National they stay together until the next morning than I’ll split them.
A new thing with my ybs is: I never road train them: first time they go in a basket is on a 100 mile club race, the numbers of losses had been really been less and less doing that. I only start doing some road training when the Nationals come and they have done 10 races at that point up to 275 miles.
What has been your greatest achievement in pigeon racing?
I’m very proud to be the youngest ever to win the 1° National Champion KBDB on the national races with old birds (350-400 miles). But I have also been very successful with youngsters in 2012 and 2019. In 2015 I focused on the long distance and was 4th National Champion Very Long Distance. So as you can see I like to “pick my goals”. One for the future is definitely Barcelona, but that will take some YEARs to achieve – work in progress.
What ambition do you have that you would like to achieve in pigeon racing?
I hope to be able to race pigeons all my life. For that I try to support youth, try to be an ambassador for my sport and try to get as much as positive attention as possible. The past year I had 2 trainees from farming school once a week helping me with the birds. Both of them became fanciers themselves. I just want to carry out the pigeon-word all over the world. We are a small group/culture and we should all STICK TOGETHER promoting it (and not bitching about it).
What do you consider are the main reasons for the decline in the sport?
It’s very simple: people get old and die, that’s the sad truth. Not many young people start with pigeon racing, but there are still some doing it and those don’t get the support they need. With all the money going around in this sport, a young fancier, especially when he has no support of parents having birds, should get a much bigger support. The pigeon industry seems not to understand, that if there are no young members, also their business is gonna be finished.
What new ideas would you introduce that you think would help the sport?
The absolute number one thing is that especially the older people in our sport must accept the fact that money is involved. The same people bullying me for being a professional fancier are bragging about their grandson playing soccer in 5th division and getting $250/goal. The difference is that with any other sport the finances are socially accepted and one of the mean reasons why people watch it and people start doing it. There is no shame in the fact that a young person takes over his grandfather’s pigeons because he can have a nice extra income on that. This way we have a new member, otherwise we just have another total sell out and a fancier less. We have to show the world that we are a modern sport – I am the example of it – I’m doing my hobby as a profession, I have travelled the world and I never worked a day in my life! Who wouldn’t like that life? Well, play the card and try to get new kids in!
It’s every fancier’s job to talk POSITIVE about the beauty of our sport and PROMOTE it. And if we all do that, we have many many beautiful years ahead of us, I 100% believe in that.