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Should women be allowed to cycle? The difficult road to officially recognised women's cycling in Belgium

10min reading time   by Dries De Zaeytijd on 29 June 2021
With the first official, UCI-recognised world championship for women in 1958, (international) women's cycling faced a turning point. One year later, the Belgian Cycling Federation in its turn organised a national championship. These rapid evolutions caused the necessary commotion and consternation among (male) cycling journalists and authoritative cycling voices.

In the mid-fifties, women's cycling in Belgium was booming. An increasing number of girls take their chances, while sporadic 'wild' races attract many people. However, there is still little 'genuine' interest from supporters and journalists. The legacy of the 1930s, when thousands of supporters gorged themselves on 'fat ass' races, is still tangible twenty years later. Girls are still not supposed to race, but when the opportunity arises, the public flocks to watch... The borderline with voyeurism is therefore very thin. It is no coincidence that in such races the door is left wide open to abuse and misconduct. Organisers see women more as fairground attractions than cyclists and there is no official regulation or legislation. Moreover, when rumours emerge that an official body for women's races will be set up in Belgium through the Belgian Cycling Federation, various cycling commentators sound the alarm.

Sporta

A major role in the debate is reserved for the morally authoritative Sporta, the sports movement of the Catholic Church in Belgium. In 1955 Sporta-Kerel, the magazine of Sporta, called women's races called a "parody and a negation of female grace and humanity". Sporta joins similar objections raised in newspapers such as Het Volk and Nieuws van de Dag and wants to appeal "to the common sense of all sports authorities not to allow such nonsense in our country." Moreover, Sporta says, such competitions endanger not only the racing girls themselves but also the spectators....

The idea that racing girls would put themselves in (moral and physical) danger is evident from a reader's letter published in Sporta-Kerel with an account of a women's race in Buizingen in those years. According to the letter, despite a massive turnout, there was no 'sustainable' success: "First of all, there is the fact that there is little to see in relation to the body of racing women, which was a disappointment for most of the spectators." Additional negative elements, according to the anonymous author, were the lack of participants (21) and the fact that there were only five participants who "qualified as runners. All the others could not follow at all and made a fool of themselves as well as this kind of race. As a bouncer, the author also mentions that it is "anything but decent when one sees fallen women cupping both breasts in pain."

Sporta's exploits are not only in line with prevailing social attitudes, but also with the movement's broader vision of women's sport. In Sporta-Kerel, there have long been pleas to allow sport for girls, but for medical reasons "we must not impose a surrogate of male sport on women. We have to provide essentially female forms of sport. According to doctor Luyten, sports to be avoided by women are "sports in which endurance is severely tested, such as weight lifting, heavy athletics, cycling, football, ice hockey and water polo. Recommended sports are 'light athletics', swimming, fencing, archery, horse riding, skating, tennis, volleyball, handball and basketball. Many cycling journalists also agree with this view.

Belgian Cycling Federation vs Belgian Women's Cycling Federation

In 1957, the Belgian Cycling Federation creates an opening to officially recognized women's cycling by allowing women to race, albeit initially only on the track. On the cement cycling track in Walem, track races for women are organized under the auspices of the federation, something which had previously been done by "wild" federations. At that time, races on track and road are not only permitted in France and England, but also behind the Iron Curtain. In Sporta-Kerel, Sporta figurehead doctor Dries Claes expresses his concern about this evolution but is also (moderately) positive. Because if the federation would also allow road races, it would "grant protection to the sometimes disgusting spectacles of the track and road races for women". Sporta immediately asks how boys and girls will be separated when practising their sport: "How will the dressing rooms and washrooms be organised? Will there be complete promiscuity?"

"How will the dressing rooms and washrooms be organised? Will there be complete promiscuity?"
Sportakerel

Apart from the Belgian Cycling Federation and as a counter-reaction to the continuing abuses and unstructured organisation of women's races, the Antwerp native Maurice Van De Vyver founds the non-profit organisation "Belgische Dames Wielerbond" - Belgian Women's Cycling Federation on 22 July 1958. The main objectives of this organisation are to contribute to the spread of cycling in Belgium and the regulation of women's cycling.

It is no coincidence that Van De Vyver is the driving force behind this. He is the father of... Yvonne Reynders. Van De Vyver had an extramarital affair with Maria Reynders and would later divorce his first wife to move in with their daughter Yvonne. In the meantime Yvonne has been given her mother's surname and later on she sticks to it. At that time the young Reynders is already an up-and-coming cycling talent. Van De Vyver and his federation also provide official permits at the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) so that a delegation of Belgian ladies can start in the very first UCI-recognized World Championship in Reims on 30 August 1958.

In France, after 59 kilometres of racing, Elsy Jacobs from Luxembourg is the best. Belgian Victoire Van Nuffel finishes fourth, Liliane Cleiren eighth and Nadia Germonpre ninth. Yvonne Reynders ends up in twentieth place. The Belgian Cycling Federation - which still does not recognise women's cycling at that time - doesn't celebrate this strong performance nor mentions the first ever women's worldchampionship in its magazine. An event that is also not explicitly mentioned in the Belgian newspapers.

Be that as it may, the Belgian Women's Cycling Federation has been triggered to set up its own women's division within its organisation. That way, the federation wants to put a stop to the usual 'kermesse' races for women and at the same time take the rug out from under the feat of the non-recognised federations. The Belgian Cycling Federation also feels that if the French and British cycling federations allow women's races, sooner or later they too will have to go down that road.

When the Federtaion announced in Het Staatsblad of 3 October 1958 that it would take over "the general management of women's cycling competitions" as of 1 January 1959, "the turn" had definitely begun. Again, there is a fierce reaction in Sporta-Kerel. As decisive arguments, author Dr. Cauwels notes: "Cycling as a competition for men can indeed be justified. However, this sport goes against the very nature of women. What man, who really loves his wife, would tolerate that she participates in a race for women? What serious fiancé would tolerate it?"

1959: the Belgian Championship

Despite the persistent opposition, 20 races are programmed in the very first official women's cycling season, including a Belgian championship. On 24 March Anderlecht is the scene of the very first women's road race recognised by the Belgian Cyling Federation. Reigning world champion Elsy Jacobs wins, ahead of Belgians Victoire Van Nuffel and Josette Cornelis. Not much later, the national newspaper also announces that, from then on, the UCI will no longer issue a licence to Belgian riders to participate in official races abroad. From now on only women with an official licence from the federation will be allowed to race abroad.

The fact that the Belgian Cycling Federation is becoming the sole 'guardian' of women's cycling in Belgium is shown by a report in the Federation's magazine of May 1959. It says that "Mr. G. (sic) Van De Vijvere from Antwerp and Mr. René Guns from Kapellen" are not mandated by the BWB or the UCI and thus cannot organize races. This is clearly an attack on the Belgian Women's Cycling Federation. Does this mean the end of the 'wild' federations? Not quite yet. Because those non-homologated federations and organisations continue to do their thing - albeit not for long - and still count 'unofficial' Belgian champions. When they start in races approved by the Federation in their tricolour, confusion reigns. In the national newspaper the announcement appears that this is strictly forbidden, as there is still no official Belgian Championship. The federation announces in passing that ladies who are invited abroad to compete can borrow (!) special jerseys with the Belgian colours from the federation...

On 28 June 1959 at 14:30, a national championship for women, recognized by the Belgian Cycling Federation, is organized for the first time. In Antwerp's city park, 30 competitors face 40 laps of 1.540 km. Victoire Van Nuffel wins and becomes the very first "official" Belgian champion. In both Het Volk and Het Nieuwsblad there is no trace of this milestone in the history of Belgian women's cycling. Not difficult at all, Sporta, through Dries Claes, has an agreement with a number of newspapers to deliberately not publish the results of women's cycling races, a directive which a number of conservative cycling journalists are only too happy to follow...

Led the management by the Federation since 1959 immediately to an improvement of women's cycling in their own country? Yes and no. The ladies can now count on decent changing rooms and infrastructure - imposed on the organisers by the Federation - but there is no real support. So Belgian champion Van Nuffel moves to Leroux-Helyett in France where she can count on better support and higher quality competitions. Yvonne Reynders achieves one success after another at home and abroad, but can never count on real assistance from the federation. For Yvonne and many other cyclists it will be decades before they can do their best with the means at their disposal.

Bibliography

  • Archive of Odiel Desmet, delegate of the Belgian Cycling Federation.
  • Reports of the Belgian Cycling Federation
  • Bulletin Sportif, 1956-1959.
  • Sportakerel, 1950-1960.
  • G. Clerbout, ‘Victoire Van Nuffel, kampioenen en femiliste’, in: ’t Ridderke, heemkundig tijdschrift van Hombeek en omstreken, 21 (2006) 88-93.
  • M. Hermans, Yvonne Reynders. Zeven maal in de zevende hemel. Deurne, 2002.
  • S. Knuts ‘Dokter Dries Claes. Pionier van de integrale en integere wielerbegeleiding’, in: Etappe, magazine over historische fietshelden, 2 (2), 56-60.
  • K. Mortelmans. Vlaanderen op twee wielen. Antwerpen, 1991.

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