Yohann Gène smiles. At 30, the Guadeloupian member of the Europcar team is the first black cyclist to take part in the Tour de France. A professional racer since 2005, Gène is described by other cyclists as a model teammate and vital to support the leaders.
Gène was 17 when he first moved to Europe, and soon after discovered the passion for the green open spaces where his bike could bring him. "When I ride, I see all kinds of landscapes. I feel free." As a kid, he followed the Tour de France on television, but strangely imagined himself in another, far less well-known race. "I always dreamed of the Paris-Roubaix because of its audience and its warrior-like competitors who always risk falling." And all that in the rough northern weather.
Having arrived with a friend, Rony Martias, the pair entered a special high school course for athletically-gifted pupils. Jean-René Bernaudeau, manager of the Europcar Team, remembers Gène's first steps on the European stage. "I was lucky to take both Yohann and Rony I know the West Indies pretty well. Cycling is very much alive there. It's the only French department where cycling is more popular than soccer, The Tour de Guadeloupe is the event of the year."
Even though cycling has become increasingly globalized, Yohann Gène's presence is remarkable nevertheless. "We have been subject to racism," says his manager. "I had to deal with a few problems and contact sponsors of two foreign teams about it. After the doping incidents, I couldn't let racism be part of cycling."
Forerunner, Jean-René Bernaudeau would have liked to hire two Eritreans this year, but they didn't obtain their visas. "In the West Indies, cycling is a real culture. We only have to repeat what we did with Yohann Gène. In Africa, you need three years to transform someone's talent into a good cyclist and then help him enter the professional world. Right now there is an Ethiopian, Tsgabu Grmay, who could win the climb of the Alpes d'Huez. The cycling culture needs to open up. It's a small world, with a homogenous culture." That may be about to change.
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