In the history of six-day bicycle racing in Canada there is one person who has transcended the decades from the Golden Era of the 1930's to the first decade of the 21st century. A person who has been a six-day racer, trainer, coach, promoter, velodrome architect and builder, veteran racer and bicycle builder. An individual that has been the keeper of the 'six-day racing spirit' for eight decades, that person is Albert Schelstraete/Coulier.
Albert Schelstraete was born on November 15th, 1918 in Longpre along the Somme River in Picardie region of Northwestern France. Albert immigrated to Canada in 1927 with his family. His mother, stepfather and family settled in the agricultural region of southwestern Ontario. In this area of Ontario there existed a vibrant Belgium immigrant community that worked in the tobacco and sugar beet fields of Delhi and Tillsonberg. By 1930 Albert, at 11 years old, was an active helper on the farms participating in the harvest of sugar beets and other agricultural products. This is where Albert got his first exposure to cycling. He would cycle from home to the farm and along the dirt pathways and fields of the large farms.
For the next six years Albert grew into a strong young man and through winning a bet with his stepfather he won a trip to Belgium to stay at relatives and participate in the kermis races, which are almost a daily activity in Flanders during the summer months in Belgium. So at 18 years old Albert learned the cycling trade, training and racing in the Flemish Ardennes near Oudenaarde, Ronse, Mouscron and Waregem. The Kermis is a cycling festival that usually occurs on the narrow country roads around a small village. The racers ride a loop of 8-10kms for 50-65kms that starts and finishes in the village square. The racing is fast and tight as the young racers compete for prize money and notoriety. This is where the scouts for the professional cycling teams will notice the up and coming talent. The cycling fans line the course at key corners and the finish line. Betting is a prominent sporting activity as bookmen have chalkboards up in the village square and fans can make a friendly bet on their local heroes. Albert was a natural racer, loving the speed and the tactics of the kermis. This is where he learned the bike handling skills that would assist him later in his six-day racing career. During the spring and summer of 1937 he participated in over a dozen kermis races, winning four. Albert's Belgian sojourn was cut short when a road crash landed him in cast for twelve weeks, where he returned to Canada. This period of inactivity inspired Albert to want to become a professional racer.
Cycling is to Belgium what hockey is to Canada. All cultures embrace a sporting activity that becomes a mirror of their world-view. The spirit of Flanders and the magic of track racing is what Albert brought back to Canada. The cycling heroes of Canada were not road racers but were six-day bicycle racers. The 6-day circus had captured the imagination of the North American sporting public. Newspaper sports pages were filled with articles on the six-day chase and daily evening reports could be heard on the radio in New York, Chicago and Toronto.
As mentioned previously, the Belgian community in southwestern Ontario was very strong. In 1939 Albert built his first velodrome in Delhi, a 200 meter outdoor wooden track with seating for 1000 people in the grandstands.
Albert joined the Norfolk Cycling Club in Delhi. He would ride in the early morning before his farm work began where it was not uncommon for him to put in 60-80km. Albert would pitch hay during the day and train at the track in the evening keeping his six-day dreams alive. Albert rode an inexpensive heavy steel fixed gear bike.
The first Delhi Six-Day Bicycle Race for amateurs was held July 24-29, 1939. Albert was 20 years old at that time. Racers came from Montreal and Toronto. Jake Busch and Jack Crowder came from Buffalo. At the Delhi-6 Albert was partnered with Rene Cyr from Montreal and they were the team to beat. The grandstands were full every evening with spectators eager to watch the racing. The track was build with wood planks vertically laid side by side. The sound the riders' wheels made as they rode the boards was dramatic and inspired the racers and the cycling fans. In the end Rene Cyr and Albert were victorious. This victory was pivotal for both Albert and Cyr as they both would become professional six-day racers the next year, in 1940.