Belgian man 'the Bernie Ecclestone of snail racing'

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The Independent Online

This may be the world's slowest race, but there is no shortage of competitive zeal when it comes to snail racing. Cries of excitement erupt from the crowd as the competitors speed (well sort of) towards the finish line.

"Allez, allez! Vite!" shouted one woman, clapping her hands, and urging on her snail, which is sporting a red and white-painted shell especially for the occasion.

At just four centimetres long, this is one of the smaller participants in the competition. Next to it, a monster-sized rival – three times as large – was trying to catch up.

More than 200 participants brought their winning snails to the drizzly, grey outskirts of the Belgian town of Liege to take part in the World Snail Racing Championship, organised and hosted by Luc de Bruyn, a Formula One enthusiast who is also excited by snails.

"People call me the 'Bernie Ecclestone' of snail racing and it's a description I am pretty proud of," he beamed. "Snails are fantastic, fascinating creatures, which has been proven by the huge interest we've had in this event. Snails have got these mean, determined expressions when they get racing."

Mr de Bruyn founded what he likes to call the "Gastropodan Sprint" two years ago and he says the tournament has gone from strength to strength. "It began as a local affair for kids who came to my farm where I cultivated snails but then I thought we should go global. Now we have people coming from as far as southern France and Guatemala and adults often get into it more than the kids," he said.

But the racing rules are strict. "This morning, we had a British man who came along for the first round, but his snail went off in the wrong direction so he was disqualified," Mr de Bruyn explained. Every snail is assigned its own pole and must wait until the starting whistle before it begins its ascent to the top: a dizzying 42.19cm (16.6in), a snail-sized equivalent of the human marathon.

Owners are allowed to encourage their creatures with a water spray-gun and by dangling a lettuce leaf in front of their tentacles – although one competitor, dispirited by his snail's performance, decided to opt for local beer. "I'm hoping it will help," he said, shrugging and splashing droplets of beer on the sluggish pale brown snail.

He was lucky to get away with it: a doping monitor does the rounds during the races, taking mucus samples from the winners to ensure that no performance enhancers have been used. "We can't have the whole show being discredited, you know," says Mr de Bruyn without a hint of irony, adding that the swabs would be sent off to the local university laboratory.

The world record was broken during the qualifying round held in France two weeks ago, when a snail came in at 5min, 47.3 sec. But it's a damp, cool day for the championship and many of the snails appeared to prefer hiding in their shells.

"There's simply no telling the speed of a snail by its looks," notes Marc Duez, a professional racing driver who oversees the competition. He picks up a giant Bourgogne snail with a heavy, swirling shell. "These fat ones are slow burners, they creep along the whole way. But they are much steadier than the tiny ones, which get off to a nervy start but dither once they get half way up the pole."

Not surprisingly for this snail-eating part of the world, many of the competitors also end their big day on the kitchen plate, dressed in a wine and garlic sauce. In fact, Mr de Bruyn runs a brassiere on the outskirts of town and snails are a staple of his menu. "Some people might think this is macabre but snails are there to be eaten after all," he says. "It's one of the finest things you can eat so I will be tucking in with relish. And you can bet everyone else will be too."