1913: The Birth of a Champion Cyclist Who Helped Land Astronauts on the Moon

June 24, 1913

Gustaaf Deloor, who made noteworthy contributions to both road bicycle racing and the exploration of outer space, was born in the town of De Klinge in Belgium. He was the youngest of five brothers. The next-youngest brother was Alfons, and both he and Gustaaf learned how to ride bicycles from their third-oldest brother Edward.

Gustaaf and Alfons eventually became professional cyclists. In 1934, they traveled to Spain to take part in the road bicycle race known as the Volta a Catalunya (Tour of Catalonia). This multi-stage competition, which was first held in 1911, involves riding over seven days throughout the autonomous community of Catalonia in northeastern Spain. For the 1934 edition of this race, Gustaaf came in 10th while Alfons finished second.

The following year, both brothers returned to Spain as members of the six-man Belgian team competing in the first edition of what has since become an internationally renowned multi-stage bicycle race. The Vuelta a España (Tour of Spain), which includes pedaling through the vicinity of the Pyrenees Mountains and finishing in Spain’s capital of Madrid, now ranks with the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia as one of the major European professional cycling stage races collectively known as the Grand Tour.

In a 1994 interview with Coups de Pédales magazine, Gustaaf recalled what happened after he and his brother arrived in Madrid via a train to participate in the inaugural edition of the Vuela a España. “We got a sponsorship agreement with the firm BH for bikes, jerseys, and equipment,” he recounted. “That was all we needed – there was no question of money. We brought the essential foods and cereals from Belgium. We sorted our own food out – often largely consisting of omelettes.”

This first edition of the Vuelta a España was held from April 29 to May 15, 1935, and it began and ended in Madrid. The race encompassed a 14 stages altogether and a total of 2,128 miles (3,425 kilometers). The weather conditions for that year’s Vuleta a España were mostly cold and rainy, and only 29 of the original 50 riders completed the race. Gustaaf ultimately won the competition, with Alfons finishing sixth.

Despite ever-growing tensions and turmoil within Spain that would eventually erupt into the Spanish Civil War, the second edition of the Vuelta a España was held from May 5 to 31 in 1936. Gustaaf, the defending champion, and Alfons again took part in the race as members of the Belgian team. This time around, the race consisted of 21 stages and covered approximately 2,705 miles (4,354 kilometers). As with the previous edition of the Vuelta a España, the Deloor brothers and the other competing cyclists had to contend with horribly inclement weather. Only 24 of the 50 cyclists who began the race actually finished it.

Gustaaf’s own performance in this race was further exacerbated when, during Stage 11 between Barcelona and Zaragoza, he fell off his bicycle and seriously injured his shoulder. Despite the intense pain he felt, and without any medical assistance readily available, Gustaaf pressed on and kept riding. History repeated itself when he finished first in that year’s edition of Vuelta a España. (The above photo featuring him was taken at the 1936 edition.) Gustaaf found out only later that he had broken a few bones as a result of that fall between Barcelona and Zaragoza.

Alfons came in second in the 1936 Vuelta a España. This made that edition the only time to date in which brothers have finished first and second in the same Grand Tour competition.

Gustaaf continued to compete as a professional cyclist until 1939, when the outbreak of World War II put an end to his career. As a soldier in the Belgian Army, he was among those stationed at Fort Eben-Emael (near his country’s border with the Netherlands) when German forces stormed the fort in 1940. Gustaaf was among those subsequently transported to the prisoner-of-war (POW) camp Stalag II-B in the Prussian province of Pomerania (now part of Poland). His time as a POW there was made somewhat easier by a German officer who, as a fan of his cycling achievements, arranged to have him assigned to comparatively low-risk work in the camp’s kitchen  

After his release as a POW, Gustaaf returned to Belgium – only to discover that his home had been ransacked and many of his belongings (including his bicycles) stolen. Gustaaf eventually made his way across the Atlantic Ocean to start a new life in the United States.

After several years of struggling to find work in his adopted homeland, Gustaaf was hired for what turned out to be a meaningful, long-term position with the aeronautical engineering firm Marquardt Corporation. As an employee of that company, Gustaaf helped build a pioneering heavy-lift launch vehicle for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to use in its space exploration efforts. This vehicle, called Saturn V, launched the spacecraft of the three Apollo 11 astronauts for their history-making trip to the Moon in July 1969.

Gustaaf took special pride in being part of the team that developed Saturn V. At the time of the Apollo 11 mission, he was in Belgium for the first time since he left there more than two decades earlier. Gustaaf took time during that visit to his native country to watch (along with many others throughout the world) the television coverage of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin becoming the first people to walk on the Moon. (Saturn V was also used for the other eight crewed flights to the Moon; it remains the only launch vehicle that has carried humans beyond the low Earth orbit.)

Gustaaf also maintained a strong enthusiasm for bicycles in his later years, and he spent much of his leisure time riding around via that more traditional means of travel. Gustaaf died in the Belgian city and municipality of Mechelen in 2002 at the age of 88.

Photo Credit: Public Domain

For more information  on Gustaaf Deloor, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gustaaf_Deloor

Additional information on the Vulta a España is available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vuelta_a_Espa%C3%B1a

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