THE LAST PIGEON RACERS
Pro tip: quit your job and breed pigeons
“Can you see the Cathedral? When it gets clearer, we let’em go.” It’s 7am. It’s been two hours that 17,000 pigeons have been cooing from the cages stored at the back of four heavy trailers.
They’ve been driving all night. They started from Béthune, a tiny city in the North of France to reach this place : an abandoned parking lot in the suburbs of Fontenay-sur-Eure. A small group of people is gathered around a plastic table, sipping coffee, waiting for the right moment to let free the pigeons held in the trucks.
The cathedral is now in plain sight. “We’re getting there. Everyone gets ready!”. And then, a heavy whistle blow. The cooing stops. Row after row, swarms of pigeons fly from the trucks and aim at the sky. In a snap, they’re now 30 meters high, twisting in the air, looping around and heading North, at 100 km/h.
The day before, Michel Dauchez, an 83 year-old French man had prepared his pigeons for the race. It’s no new feat for him. Former miner and national champion of pigeons racing, Michel received his first pigeon when he was 12.
From that moment on, pigeons racing defined his life and the one of the woman sharing his life. “My wife had to agree before I got my pigeons in her womb… Uuuum in our house” explains Michel while sitting in the middle of his living room filled with souvenirs of his glorious past as a pigeon racer. Every object reminds his guests that his hobby turned him into a legend : diplomas, trophies, pictures, autographs…
Michel is one of the few remaining witnesses of what colombophilia was back last century: a communication tool in times of war and also a wildly popular sports among miners in the North of France. “Pigeons racing was very much central in our lives as miners. On Mondays, when we got to the mine, we talked about our pigeons and the race. But now, there’s no miners no more. And there’s no people who breed pigeons no more. Here, in Oignies, I’m the last one.”
Right by their tiny brick house, four gigantic dovecots lay in their garden. Michel’s wife kindly looks at her husband going in and out the dovecots in his washed-out blue coat. “To be a good breeder, there’s no resting. Day and night, summer and winter. Blue sky or rain, hot or cold. Gotta go there, gotta breed’em. Ain’t no stoppin.” shares Michel while firmly grasping a pigeon and kindly putting him in a cage for the upcoming race. “You know, pigeons are friendly. They have a soft feather. Gotta be nice with’em, gotta talk to ‘em.”
Michel acknowledges that across the years, his hobby is sucking up more and more of his energy. Tears in his eyes, he confesses “It’s a past-time. If I don’t do this. What would I do? I’m 83. I’d let go. But I can’t. Each year I say it’s my last year and each year, sign up again. Every year, I have one more year to go”.
Later on, Ludovic will drive by to pick up Michel’s pigeons and carry them to the pigeons racer association headquarters, few kilometers away from his house. There, pigeons will be identified with a numbered ring and loaded in the trucks.
Ludovic has joined the army right after high school. Every time he gets some free time, he rushes back to his parents place to “help with the pigeons”. His father, Roger Tantart, is a celebrity among pigeons racers. In Tantart’s family, pigeons’ love seems very much to be hereditary. Founded in 1959, the Tantart pigeons bloodline is now considered as one of the top ones in France. Nowadays, it’s in a 40-meters long dovecot that the tradition lives on and that Roger takes care of his flying champions.
Few minutes before, he released his youngest pigeons a few kilometers away as a training to get back home. As he speaks, he glances at the sky now and then, wondering why they are taking so long to come back. “Pigeons have an innate sense of direction. We believe they orient themselves thanks to the Sun position and magnetics fields from the Earth”.
Each year Roger does the Barcelone race, over a thousand kilometers from his house, one of the longest competitions he joins. His pigeons can easily race for 800 kilometers without any pause but losing some of them is common on long-distance competitions of this kind. “You know, seeing a pigeon back after a 1000-kilometer adventure… It’s something that’s engraved in your memory forever” admits Roger, who passionately blogs everyday about his pigeons and their adventures since 2007.
This weekend, he’ll be competing against Michel. Ludovic will bring everyone’s pigeons to the “place”. The place, it’s the pigeons racing association headquarters, hybrid between a garage, an office and a bar. There, a dozen of aficionados identify, sort and load pigeons in big baskets painted in yellow and red. Behind the old dwindling wooden doors, home to the caged pigeons, a deep voice resonates “Don’t start to act like a dung. You wait that we load everything.” Everyone’s having fun. Everyone’s excited. Everyone’s making jokes. It’s a pigeons-race-tailgate. For this forgotten mining city, pigeons racing feels like a deep breath of fresh air that brings back the old days enthusiasm.
It’s 9pm. An old van comes along and all the pigeons are picked up. They’re gathered few miles away from here, loaded in the truck that will bring them to the release spot.
It’s almost midnight. The engine starts roaring. The soft cooing of the pigeons resounds through the walls of the truck that’s heading to Chartres. A large banner “Racing pigeons” surrounded by two cartoon drawings of the fetish bird is proudly dipslayed on the front of the truck fading into the dark of the night…
Tomorrow, as every weekend, Michel, Ludovic and Roger will be looking at the sky. Waiting for their flying heroes to come home.