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Re-Cycle: When the Deloor brothers ruled the Vuelta

Re-Cycle: When the Deloor brothers ruled the Vuelta

10/09/2019 at 17:26Updated 11/09/2019 at 10:00

From winning the inaugural Vuelta a España in 1935 to helping put a man on the moon, Belgium's Gustaaf Deloor was a pedalling pioneer whose career was cut short by war.

In the latest of our historical Re-Cycle series, Felix Lowe remembers the forgotten man of Belgian cycling who, along with his brother Alfons, took the Vuelta by storm and set a record that has yet to be broken.

The Tour de France has Maurice Garin, the Giro d'Italia has Luigi Ganna. But ask most people who won the first edition of La Vuelta and you probably won't get a reply.

" I won the first Vuelta. My name will remain united forever to the creation of a great international event, to a resounding fact in the history of cycling."

So said Gustaaf Deloor in an interview with the weekly AS magazine in Spain when returning to defend his Vuelta crown in 1936.

Deloor had become the first winner of the Vuelta in 1935 aged just 22. A year later, he doubled up, finishing ahead of his elder brother Alfons. They remain to the day the only brothers to stand on the top two steps of the podium in a Grand Tour.

And yet, despite his assertion that he will forever be remembered in cycling's rich annals, Deloor received – and still receives – scant recognition for winning back-to-back Grand Tours.

In Belgium, Deloor is one of the few champion cyclists on whom no book has been written. In fact, it was only last year that a first biography was published in Spain about the man who beat the locals to win the first two editions of their national tour.

Entitled Gustaaf Deloor: From the Vuelta to the Moon, Juanfran de la Cruz's book tells the little-known story of the Belgian trailblazer – a man whose career was cut short by the war, who fought for his country, was captured by the Nazis, survived life in a concentration camp before, penniless, emigrating to the States and ultimately working as a mechanic in the manufacture of the engines that took Apollo 11 to the moon.

Who were brothers Gustaaf and Alfons Deloor?

Journeymen cyclists who hit the big time. That's the short answer.

The youngest two of five brothers, Gustaaf and Alfons grew up De Klinge, a bleak suburb of Antwerp, where, somewhat serendipitously, they lived in the Spanish quarter. Alfons was born in 1910, Gustaaf thee years later. The third De Loor brother, Edward, was a keen cyclist and taught them how to ride.

Sons of a farmhand father who also worked in the local coal mine in Hainault, Alfons and Gustaaf took up cycling to escape the clutches of poverty. Tough, wiry Flandriens with an ability to suffer, they succeeded where many failed and started to carve out humble careers as cyclists.

Alfons came second in the Tour of Flanders in 1932, runner-up in the 1933 Tour of Belgium, then finished 27th in the Tour de France. For his part, Gustaaf showed promise by winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen espoirs in 1932 and finishing 15th in Paris-Roubaix a year later.

An opportunity arose in 1934 for the brothers to travel to Spain to take part in the Volta a Catalunya, where they found that the competition was not as fierce as in northern Europe. Alfons won a stage and finished second overall, with Gustaaf coming tenth.

Alfons (left) and Gustaaf (right) Deloor signing their new contracts. Photo courtesy of KOERS. Museum of Cycle Racing, Roeselare (Belgium) and the Deloor family

Alfons (left) and Gustaaf (right) Deloor signing their new contracts. Photo courtesy of KOERS. Museum of Cycle Racing, Roeselare (Belgium) and the Deloor familyEurosport

Success in Spain gave them a taste for more, and so the following year, they put themselves forward to be part of the Belgian team which travelled to the first edition of the Vuelta a España.

Speaking to Coups de Pédales magazine in 1994, Gustaaf said:

" We took a train for two days and a night and arrived in Madrid. We got a sponsorship agreement with the firm BH for bikes, jerseys and equipment. That was all we needed – there was no question of money. We bought the essential foods and cereals from Belgium. We sorted our own food out – often largely consisting of omelettes."

La Vuelta 1935: Gustaaf takes Deloor into his own hands

Running over two weeks and 3,425km, the inaugural edition of the Vuelta was contested by a field of 50 riders, 33 of whom were Spanish. Atrocious weather conditions that May played into the hands of the six-man Belgian team, led by Antoine Dignef, a Volta a Catalunya veteran who had finished second in Paris-Nice behind René Vietto two months earlier.

The big favourite was local rider Mariano Cañardo, the then four-time Catalunya champion. And although the home riders had their strengths and weaknesses, they never made the foreign riders feel unwelcome. As Deloor recalled in 1994:

" The Spanish riders lacked experience, but they were excellent climbers. In the mountains, I was forced to give up chasing them for fear of asphyxiation. But I was guaranteed to pick them up at the bottom of the climb because they were terrible descenders. They were nice guys who never ganged up against us."

According to De la Cruz, Deloor's biographer, the main problem for the locals was not so much their descending but their discipline in the face of the Belgians' professionalism.

" When the race arrived in the cities, the Spanish often got distracted by the theatres, cinemas and parties. They drank too much wine and visited the famous monuments."

Indeed, the local riders dealt with what quickly became the hardest race they'd ever ridden by filling their bidons with a cocktail invented by the famous Spanish bartender, Perico Chicote. The toxic ingredients of this magic potion were extensive: Orange Bitters, Grand Marnier, Cordón rojo, Curaçao naranja, English gin and half a glass of Italian vermouth.

Powered by goats' milk alone, the Belgians were perhaps better equipped to deal with the lamentable roads which reminded them of home. Dignef won the opening stage to take the leader's orange jersey before stuttering in stage two as Spaniard Antonio Escuriet took over the lead. Gustaaf then took the race by the scruff of its neck.

" As early as the third stage, I attacked on my own which led to a stage win and the orange jersey, which I retained until the end. My move was facilitated by the broken fork of Cañardo, my closest adversary."

On the penultimate day, Cañardo crashed and lost five minutes, securing Deloor the overall win. After winning the final stage, he was 13'28" clear of the Spaniard in the overall standings, with Dignef third at 20'10" and Alfons sixth.

Gustaaf won the equivalent of £2,500 for his victory, which he shared out equally among his teammates. As for the Spanish fans, De la Cruz claims they were not too put out by a foreigner winning their race.

" Gustaaf was not seen as an unpopular winner. People were very curious to see this Belgian rider do well in Spain – it was something of a novelty. The fans were more curious then they were angry."

There had been some tensions, however, earlier in the race when Stage 12 winner François Adam had committed a faux pas by trying to kiss one of the podium girls in Cárceres. Spain was very old-fashioned at the time and there was outrage because the girl was unmarried. It was said that Adam was lucky to avoid being tied to a donkey and hauled out of town…

Gustaaf Deloor winning the 1935 Vuelta a Espana

Gustaaf Deloor winning the 1935 Vuelta a EspanaEurosport

La Vuelta 1936: Deloor unto themselves

If the conditions were bad in 1935, they were even worse for the second edition. At 4,354km, and this time held over three weeks, the 1936 Vuelta remains to the day the longest edition in history and took place against a backdrop of political tension and simmering civil unrest.

Horrific conditions – through torrential rain and over muddy, rutted roads more typical of Paris-Roubaix – meant only 24 of the 50 starters completed the race, which Gustaaf led from Stage 2 through to the finish after an early crash ruled Cañardo out of the running.

Besides the "poor excuse for roads – roads only in name," Deloor, who won three stages on the road to Madrid, recalled one aspect of the race above all others.

" I remember the police having to kill stray dogs and goats that had wandered onto the road so that they wouldn't bring down any riders."

But it was far from plain sailing for the defending champion. In Stage 11 from Barcelona to Zaragoza, he crashed badly and hurt his shoulder. He couldn't put any pressure on his handlebars and, with no race doctor, there were no painkillers available.

During these dog days for the race leader, Alfons came into his own as a domestique, helping his ailing brother with repairs when he got a puncture. They had to chase back frantically for 50km before rejoining the leaders and preserving Gustaaf's orange jersey.

On the penultimate day, Alfons was rewarded for his selfless work by rising to second place on the standings after Escuriet was laid low by exhaustion.

After securing back-to-back wins, Gustaaf discovered he'd won in spite of some broken bones.

" Finally, amid much suffering, I battled on to Madrid as the winner. When we returned to Belgium a specialist told me that I had fractured three vertebrae. I was told to stay in bed for two months without moving."

This time, when the winning Belgian team returned home to Anvers, fans were waiting at the station for a victory bus ride back to the Deloors' cycling club at Stuyvenberg. Fame at last.

Deloor of diminishing returns: under-appreciated talents

Because their biggest results came outside Belgium, the Deloor brothers perhaps never received the recognition they deserved.

"They were celebrated in their hometown but the Vuelta did not have the same worldwide reach as it does nowadays," race director Javier Guillén tells Eurosport. "Gustaaf could not benefit from the same platform as riders have today, and he was rarely living in Belgium because of his races abroad."

This is echoed by Dries De Zaeytijd, the curator of the De Loor exhibition in the Koers Museum in Roeselare in 2010, which celebrated the 75th anniversary of Gustaaf's first Vuelta win.

" The Deloor brothers were not typical Flandriens. Gustaaf loved nice clothing and was more a pedaleur de charme than a real Flandrien, who, according to the legend have no style and just ride hard. Back in those days, a cycling adventure in Spain was not so exciting for many Flemish cycling journalists, who preferred, like today, races in Flanders or France."

Despite his injuries in winning his second Vuelta crown, Gustaaf went close to winning the Tour de Suisse later that summer, denied by an untimely mechanical as Max Bulla took the spoils.

The Belgian team during the Tour de Suisse in 1936. Gustaaf Deloor (centre) with his brother Alfons to his left. Courtesy of the Deloor family archive.

The Belgian team during the Tour de Suisse in 1936. Gustaaf Deloor (centre) with his brother Alfons to his left. Courtesy of the Deloor family archive.Eurosport

Then, in the 1936 World Championships in Bern, he rode off the front with the Frenchman Antonin Magne with the Italian favourites well distanced. Deloor attacked on the final lap but got a puncture a few kilometres from the finish, ending his chances of the win and a podium finish.

According to Het Nieuwsblad journalist Paul De Keyser, this was a turning point in Deloor's career – and perhaps one of the main reasons behind his relative obscurity in cycling folklore.

" If you look at his palmares, there are 'just' these victories in the Vuelta and a stage in the Tour. It would have been different if he won the world title in 1936. A rainbow jersey would have given more weight to his Vuelta wins."

Although Deloor rode as an individual, he was integral to the narrative: when Maes was attacked by rival Roger Lapébie when he had a mechanical in Stage 16, Deloor helped pace back his countryman – a move which contravened the rules. The resulting time penalty was the straw which broke the camel's back, and Maes quit the race with his Belgian colleagues, leaving Deloor to finish his only Tour in 16th place.

For his part, Alfons would win Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 1938, ahead of Marcel 'The Black Eagle' Kint, but it was far from the esteemed monument that it is today.

Then came the small matter of the wars which tore through Europe in the late 1930s, depriving the Deloors of their playground of choice when it came to bike races. "Their careers and dreams were further shattered in 1940 by the outbreak of the Second World War," says Eric De Keyzer, the journalist who last interviewed the brothers in 1994.

The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War meant there would be no hat-trick of Vuelta wins for Gustaaf. By the time the Vuelta resumed in 1941, the defending champion had only just been released from a concentration camp in Germany.

Gustaaf had joined the Belgian army and was defending the Eban-Emael fortress when it was stormed by German paratroopers in 1939. He spent a year as a prisoner of war in Stalag 11B – "one of the most bloodthirsty prisoner of war concentration camps in Nazi Germany", according to De la Cruz – where his minor renown earned him favourable treatment, and a relatively cushy job in the kitchens.

The 1941 and 1942 editions of the Vuelta were only open to Spaniards and were followed by another two-year hiatus because of the Second World War. There were a series of stuttering problems for the Vuelta following the war, and by the time the race properly got going again in 1955, Deloor, now in his forties, was living on the other side of the Atlantic.

The spirit of Deloor: reaching for the moon

Following his release from Germany, Gustaaf returned to Belgium to find his belongings and bikes had been stolen, most of his money, too. He refused to work in Flemish industry because he was appalled by the manufacturers' collaboration with the Nazis. He moved to France, returning years later to open a tyre business. It did not work out, leaving him deflated.

In 1949 he decided he needed wholesale change. With his wife Marguerite – a women 25 years his senior, whom he met though his trainer Alphonse Versnick – he moved to New York, where he struggled to find work as a non-English-speaking mechanic.

" It was the hardest time of my life. I worked in all the workshops in the city, but no more than a fortnight in each."

So the couple bought a cheap car and drove along the legendary Route 66 all the way to California, where they were told integration would be easier. He found work and, in 1956, an affluent client helped him find a job at Cape Canaveral aerospace centre. Here he worked for the Marquardt Corporation, the aeronautical engineering firm, in the development and design of the ramjet engine for NASA.

Gustaaf Deloor (left) with his wife Roza and daughter Jeanette; brother Alfons Deloor (right) with his wife. Photo courtesy of KOERS. Museum of Cycle Racing, Roeselare (Belgium) and the Deloor family

Gustaaf Deloor (left) with his wife Roza and daughter Jeanette; brother Alfons Deloor (right) with his wife. Photo courtesy of KOERS. Museum of Cycle Racing, Roeselare (Belgium) and the Deloor familyEurosport

After Marguerite passed away, Deloor, with delightful symmetry, started dating a Belgian girl 25 years his junior. They had met at the Rik Van Looy club – a centre for Flemish people in Los Angeles, named after the famous Belgian rider nicknamed 'The King of the Classics'.

Amazingly, Roza's family was also from De Klinge, and although she had no idea who her admirer was, her father was a big fan. Asking him for permission for his daughter's hand in marriage couldn't have been easier...

Once remarried, Gustaaf, who was now in his early fifties, became a father for the first time – to a daughter, Jeanette. Throughout the years, Gustaaf remained in regular contact with his brother, who had become a crane driver specialising in the construction of dykes designed to prevent flooding.

In the summer of 1969, Gustaaf took his new family home to visit his native Belgium for the first time since his emigration. On 20 July, the day Eddy Merckx won his first Tour de France, the brothers, along with the rest of the world, watched Apollo 11 – powered by the propulsion engines Gustaaf helped build – land on the moon.

It was in being an anonymous cog in the team that made one man make one huge leap for mankind that Deloor reached a far bigger audience than he did by winning the first two editions of a bike race in Spain.

"It was a special moment in his life because the results of all his hard work could be seen on television by the entire world," says De la Cruz.

After more than 20 years in the company, Deloor would retire to return to Belgium with his family, where he remained until his death in 2002.

No one above Deloor: an unparalleled legacy?

To this day, the Vuelta remains the only Grand Tour to have had brothers occupy the top spots of the podium – Andy and Frank Schleck coming close in the 2011 Tour de France but denied the holy grail by Australia's Cadel Evans.

The Vuelta's fine tradition of brothers would continue after the Civil War thwarted the Deloor domination: Delio, Pastor and Emilio Rodriguez became the only fraternal trio to feature in the same Grand Tour in 1946, the year after Delio (the Vuelta’s all-time stage record holder with 39) won the race. Five years later, Emilio won the 1950 edition ahead of a fourth brother, Manolo.

In 2010, a new square named after the brothers was unveiled in De Klinge featuring a sculpture of two bikes, entitled Vuelta. A small chapel nearby houses a painting by Gustaaf, who was also a keen artist. But that was about it, until Juanfran De la Cruz's book came along.

It was the poverty of appreciation directed towards the Vuelta's first ever winner than motivated publisher Eneko Garate to get behind De la Cruz's project.

" On reading the manuscript, I realised about the lack of recognition of Gustaaf Deloor and his career – and how important he was for the history of cycling in Spain. I wondered how his could be such a distant name – even for hardcore cycling fans like me – and I thought the book could also be a small contribution to help spread the story of the Vuelta's first years."

Whether anyone can emulate the Deloors remains to be seen. In this year's Vuelta, Ion and Gorka Izagirre have featured for Astana while Jesús and José Herrada have ridden aggressively for Cofidis, the former winning a stage.

But to come first and second in the general classification is an entirely different matter. Perhaps the only brothers capable of such an exploit in today's peloton would be twins Adam and Simon Yates, the latter having won the Vuelta in 2018.

"I think that it's almost impossible in modern cycling," says Garata. Guillén, the Vuelta race director, agrees.

" It would be nice to see brothers finishing first and second again, like the Deloors. It would be even more touching for the fans if one day it happens with twins like the Yateses. But it's very difficult nowadays – the competition is such a high level and very international. It makes it more and more unlikely for any brothers to enjoy the same kind of success as the Deloors did in 1936."

Guillén shares the belief of De la Cruz and Garate that Gustaaf Deloor was a true trailblazer for both cycling and the Vuelta.

" He's the pioneer – the first winner of La Vuelta and the first of only five riders to win the overall classification back to back."

It was announced earlier this year that the 2020 edition of La Vuelta will start in Utrecht with three days in the Netherlands. Stage 3 starts and finishes in the town of Breda, well within riding distance of De Klinge, which lies just across the border with Belgium.

Quizzed by Eurosport whether the 2020 Vuelta would pay a special tribute to the Deloors on the 85th anniversary of Gustaaf's first win, Guillén remains coy: "We don't comment on rumours but if one day the race returns close to their city would certainly be paid to them."

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