Doctor Dries Claes (1923-2009): pioneer of integral and sincere cycling guidance

12min reading time   by Stijn Knuts & Bart Vanreusel on 12 May 2022
Herentals, one evening in 1964. The packed waiting room in the doctor's surgery is getting impatient. Doctor Claes takes his time. Until the door to the practice finally opens. An athlete in a cycling outfit appears, with his racing bike slung over his shoulder. Who goes to the doctor's with his bike? But no hilarity here. The waiting room is mouse-still in awe. Rik Van Looy, reigning emperor of Herentals, steps outside. During the consultation, Doctor Claes not only took care of Van Looy's medical condition, but also improved his position on the bike, discussed his diet and gave him some business advice.

Sports physician Dries Claes can be called a pioneer in the field of integral top-class sports coaching. He applies his medical knowledge mainly to cycling, whereby his name will always be linked to that of Rik Van Looy. After all, he is his sports doctor, mentor and confidant. But Claes is much more than that. For decades, in post-war Flanders, he has been a moral voice in sport, a conscience for the sports environment and a driving force behind numerous sports organisations.

Founding father of sports medicine

Dries Claes was born on 20 June 1923 in Nijlen, a village of diamond cutters in the Antwerp Kempen. His father is a diamond merchant and from 1921 to 1932 also mayor. During his youth, he was a talented striker at FC Nijlen. In 1946, Claes went to study medicine at the University of Leuven. He becomes a member of the university football team and also joins the local football club Daring Club Leuven. The would-be doctor spent a lot of time with and among athletes, thus becoming fascinated with sports coaching and sports science. During his specialisation studies in dermatology and physiotherapy, Claes also met Johanna Van Haesendonck, at the time a nurse and laboratory technician, with whom he founded a family of seven children.

In 1953 Claes and his wife settled in Herentals, where the newly minted doctor opened a practice. Back to his roots in the Kempen. It was not long before Claes found his first sporting partner there: René Baeten, garage owner, neighbour and talented motocross racer. The support that Claes offers him is successful: in 1957, Baeten becomes the first Belgian motocross world champion in the 500cc class. Three years later, however, that moment of glory was dealt a harrowing blow: Baeten lost his life during a motocross race in Stekene. This tragic event made a deep impression on Claes and strengthened him in his fight for decent sport, against the excesses of performance sport.

Talk about an obsession! Every rider here is obsessed with that Dries Claes complex.
Luc Lemmens

In the meantime, the doctor's practice in Kapucijnenstraat in Herentals is gradually becoming a household name in the sports world. Football players have injuries treated there, gymnasts and runners such as Olympic medallist Karel Lismont have themselves examined and cyclists jump in for medically based training advice. Not only Rik Van Looy, who has been going to Claes since his early racing years, but also Ward Sels, Herman Van Springel and an international star like Felice Gimondi - in addition to numerous lesser-known cyclists - are knocking down their doors.

As early as 1959, Luc Lemmens, an acquaintance of Claes, wrote to him about his reputation in the peloton: "If only I would be examined by the Sporta-doctor of Herentals, then things will be better... Talk about an obsession! Every rider here is obsessed with that Dries Claes complex." At the same time as providing personal guidance to athletes, Claes also devoted himself to the institutional and infrastructural development of sports medicine in Flanders. In 1985, he co-founded the Flemish Association for Sports Medicine and Sports Science, while also being involved in the establishment of the BLOSO Medical Top-Level Sports Lab - not coincidentally located in his home town of Herentals. His publications for academic publishers and his speeches at sports medical conferences also show that Claes always remains a scientist.

Devoted Catholic

In his guidance of athletes, Claes not only pays attention to the physical. He also inquires, during his consultations, after the athlete's mental well-being. For the doctor, both together form the basis for good and healthy sports practice. This comprehensive approach fits in with Claes' religious conviction. Taking cycling and sportsmen and sportswomen in general under his wing is not a goal in itself. At an early age his Catholic upbringing was strongly influenced by the ideas of 'cycling father' Antoon van Clé. This Norbertine from the abbey of Tongerlo has been dedicating himself since 1936 to what he calls the "moral rehabilitation of the sportsman". With this, he strives for the apostolate in sports, the spreading of the Catholic message among sportsmen and women. He wants to bring these symbolic figures of the modern, secularised world and all its moral dangers back to the faith.

For a long time, the Catholic Church was averse to professional and commercial cycling, which - with its fairground races, supporters and celebrities - was often the bad example par excellence of how sport should not be practised according to Catholic doctrine. Instead of condemning and avoiding the cyclists, Van Clé seeks them out in order to (re)instil the Catholic faith in them. And he is credible, because the father is a passionate cyclist himself. It is even during his cycling trips that he builds up his first friendships with racing cyclists. Top cyclists such as Romain Maes - Tour winner in 1935 - soon belonged to his network and participated in his expanding sports activities, with Sporta riders' pilgrimages and even a reception of the Belgian delegation in the Giro d'Italia by Pope Pius XII in Rome.

Dries Claes first came into contact with Sport Father Van Clé in 1946, who at that time was institutionalising his sports work under the name of Sporta, an abbreviation of "sports apostolate". Claes becomes subscriber number twenty of the bimonthly magazine Sporta-Zon. Shortly afterwards, the doctor himself calls his first Sporta meeting. It takes place in the overflowing sports bar of professional cyclist Dolf van Peer, on the Bevelsesteenweg in his native village of Nijlen. It is the beginning of a lifelong commitment to the organisation, in which he soon becomes a crucial figure. Claes is editor in chief of the Sporta magazine for seventeen years and president of the association from 1953 to 1964. During the years 1970 and 1980 he is also chairman of the Board of Directors.

Especially after Van Clé's death Claes becomes the spider in the Sporta web, one of the pacemakers of the many activities - youth camps, study days, conferences... - of the association. In these activities, cycling remains his main concern. In 1955, he was one of the founders of the so-called 'cycling schools', training centres where training, coaching and the general destiny of young cyclists are central. This initiative later gave rise to the Flemish Cycling School. The present-day cycling school with its extensive training track at the BLOSO sports centre in Herentals is a direct legacy of Claes' work. The extensive Sporta centre at Tongerlo Abbey - at the time the operating base of Father Van Clé - also came about thanks to his efforts.

Networking in the world of (cycling) sport

In addition to being a sports medic and a sports organiser, Dries Claes is also an opinion maker. His views, pleas and criticisms on sport are read all over the country. He organises meetings and meets many prominent people, often in his home salon. In the meantime, he also maintains a busy correspondence with all kinds of figures from the sports world. During the 1950s, Claes corresponds with Karel Van Wijnendaele, an icon of Flemish cycling journalism and co-founder of Sportwereld (1912). Rik Van Looy is an important connecting factor. In 1957 Van Wijnendaele writes to Claes that he will visit Van Looy, with whom he "as a Flandrien would like to exchange hands, the friendship greeting to this one from the Kempen."

Van Wijnendaele - Koarle - even wants to write an article for Sporta-Kerel, the successor to the Sporta-Zon to which Claes subscribed so enthusiastically in 1946. Van Wijnendaele himself is apparently not at all satisfied with the state of affairs in cycling and wants to be of service to the goals of Sporta and Claes "in a world that tends to rot, with riders who get up to 20,000, 30,000 or 50,000 francs to take off their bourgeois clothes, put on their racing outfit and spin around the church tower in circles. Idolatry that almost makes one vommit." As a commercially-minded West-Fleming, Koarle was nevertheless very wary of Van Clé and his cycling work in the late 1930s. Was it for fear of being dismissed as Catholic and therefore subjective by other journalists?

However, after the take-over of his neutral Sportwereld by the catholic newspaper Het Nieuwsblad in 1939, this wait-and-see attitude changed rapidly. In the years 1940 and 1950, the relations between Sporta and Van Wijnendaele - who was even praised as a forerunner in the Sporta-magazine in 1952 - became extremely cordial. Van Wijnendaele agrees with the 'moral improvement of cycling' for which Sporta strives. He himself always demands a moral example from the Flemish cyclists he praises in his writings. Nevertheless, Van Wijnendaele always remains a sports journalist, constantly hunting for cycling news. On 25 September 1958 he asks Claes carefully whether the rumour is true that Rik Van Looy would leave his cycling team Faema.

Activist against women's cycling

When in the 1950s more and more women ventured into competitive cycling, Sporta strongly opposed it. In Sporta-Kerel - what's in a name - all members are even called upon to report all women's races that take place in their area, so that Sporta can prevent them. Claes embodies this conservative attitude. In 1958, for example, he wrote to an announcer of a cycling race in Turnhout - whom he had heard advertising a women's cycling race - that he was disappointed in him: "You know as well as I do that women's cycling is currently nothing but a lump of low-level sensation, even seasoned with a little perversity."

You know as well as I do that women's cycling is currently nothing but a lump of low-level sensation, even seasoned with a little perversity.
Dries Claes

Such a paternalistic view on women's cycling is not strange for that time. Many still hold the pre-war view that women can only do sports that match their 'natural grace' and 'physical weakness', such as swimming and gymnastics. Suffering on a racing bike does not belong in that list, because it is too 'masculine'. For Father Van Clé, too, many women's sports are primarily an undesirable exhibition of flesh.

Around 1958, Sporta and Claes even made a formal agreement with all Belgian catholic newspapers not to publicise women's cycling races anymore. Yet it turns out to be difficult to keep all catholic journalists in line. A dispute arises when two catholic newspapers, the Gazet van Antwerpen and the French La Cité, publish the results of women's races anyway, and also Het Nieuwsblad-Sportwereld turns out not always to be a good student. Claes' point of view, however, remains unchanged, even after the Royal Belgian Cycling Federation included female cyclists in its operation in 1959. Only at the beginning of the 1970s does he adjust his views and vision, and he even becomes the promoter of the first Sport-For-All campaigns aimed at women.

Crusher of doping

The use of stimulants was already very widespread among cyclists in the 1950s. Willem Van Wijnendaele - son of Karel - had previously warned against the health risks in Sportwereld during the interbellum. He did so again in 1950 by publishing, as a warning, a list of frequently used products in the newspaper. As Willem writes to Claes in 1958, this has little effect. On the contrary: some riders cut out the list to be able to place orders!

As a doctor and a Sporta-adept, Claes is concerned with both the physical and mental well-being of athletes. As such, he sees it as his duty to take a strict stance against doping, a commitment he remains true to throughout his career. Not only does he write in the 1950s about the dangers of doping in the Sporta-magazine and give presentations on this theme at Sporta events, his correspondence also shows how he actively supports anyone who wants to bring the problem to the attention.

His correspondence also shows how he actively supports anyone who wants to draw attention to the problem. During the 1970's he was also a member of an Anti-Doping-Commission set up by the Belgian government, where he had the opportunity to contribute effectively to the policy, and he maintained contacts with Professor De Backere of Ghent University, a notorious doping hunter. Is it a coincidence that Edwig Van Hooydonck, two times winner of the Tour of Flanders and one of Claes' poulains during the 1980s, is one of the few former riders with a clean sheet who is stirring up the current doping debate?

More than a sports doctor

Dries Claes died on 28 October 2009. He spent his last months in a retirement home. A calm end to a tireless man's life. It is clear that Claes is more than just another post-war (Catholic) sports opinion maker. Both in the Catholic sports movement, cycling and in sports medicine, he is a leading and guiding figure. And then his importance for the development and promotion of the Sport for All idea in Flanders remains underexposed in this contribution. His international contacts as a sports scientist and his influence on the early sports policy in Flanders have also been neglected. The rich archive and the many writings of Dries Claes have been preserved. Sport, and cycling in particular, calls for a voluminous biography.

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