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A Tour de France with pigeons

A Tour de France with a difference takes place each summer and its competitors beat bike racers for stamina as they can go for 1,000km non-stop at speeds of up to 100kph. But there are no cheering crowds as the race takes place in the sky above our heads – with racing pigeons.  

The Tour de France Colombophile is a giant relay race covering 2,217km around the country. It has 17 stages, varying from 80-212km, with different birds starting in each town and flying to their home loft in the next stage town.

Starting on June 1 at Auby near Douai in Nord, the tour leaves France (just as the cyclists often do) and heads for Thieusies in Belgium, Luxembourg and on to the departments of Doubs, Ain, Allier, Corrèze, Dordogne, Gironde, and Charente-Maritime. It returns north to Nantes, Pays-de-la-Loire; Maine-et-Loire, Orne, Essonne before the finishing stage to Surville in Manche, Normandy on June 23.

Jean-Jacques Dupuis, president of the Fédér­ation Colombophile Fran­çaise, said: “I organise the tour so that it will have passed through every region over a period of two years.

“We want to introduce our sport to as many people as possible.”

Pigeons are fantastic long distance athletes and he said the furthest that he has taken his pigeons to race back to his home in Auby, is Barcelona in Spain.

“That makes a distance of 1,006km. If you let them go early in the morning and the winds are favourable they can be home by the end of the day, if not they will be there next morning.”

Mr Dupuis says it is always a pleasure to see the birds arriving home. “There is a magic and a mystery to the pigeon which never goes away. We still don’t understand how the bird is able to find its way home.

“Researchers think it could be because there is part of the brain particularly sensitive to magnetism or it could also be down to the sun but the fact we don’t know makes it even more incredible.”

A good pigeon has strong wing muscles combined with a good homing instinct. Like racehorses they often have a pedigree and prices can range from €20 through to thousands of euros. The world record goes to a Belgian who sold his champion pigeon, Bolt, to a Chinese amateur for €310,000.

Such champions take years to train and the training year starts in March with competitions from April to September then a rest until the breeding season from December through to February.

“A bird which is a year old will need a couple of trips out before the season starts. Younger birds need a bit more time spent on them. We start at three months and first have to get them used to being in the transporting basket.

“People have different methods but I let them go at places which are progressively further away – 2km, then 5 km, 10km, 20km and so on.

“The bird has got used to its immediate surroundings as we let them out of their coops every day for a short period so they know how to recognise home.”

Mr Dupuis has 50 pigeons: “That is a small number. Some people have up to 200 but it is a personal choice. Every day you have to clean out the cages, feed the birds and check on their health.

“We don’t necessarily name them although my children like to!

“Sometimes people call them after a town they were released in and came home in a particularly good time. I have one called Souillac after the town in the Lot which is 627km from my home.”

Spectators are welcome at each start and finish stage of this year’s race – you can find details at – and the FCF has written to each town to invite children and locals to meet the pigeons and handlers. 

Mr Dupuis added: “We have 15,000 keen members but we would like more.

“They live all over France but most are concentrated in Pas de Calais. This is for historic reasons as miners from Belgium, where the sport has always been popular, came to live in the region in the 19th century, bringing their families and their pigeons with them.”

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