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For years Yohann Gène, a pioneering cyclist from the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, was a fixture in the professional peloton. A punchy rider and road captain for the French team Total Direct Énergie, Gène finally opted to bring his career to a close after 15 seasons — and seven starts in the Tour de France — at the end of the 2019 season. “Being competitive was always a priority for me. And it was just getting harder and harder,” he said in a recent visit with VeloNews in Le Moule, a small town on the Eastern coast of this French island. “But it was a beautiful adventure!”
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Gène’s adventure is one of the more unlikely success stories in professional cycling. An aspiring junior in the island’s sports school, Gène, never dreamed of racing full-time in Europe, or riding in the Tour de France. But that all changed when former professional Jean-René Bernaudeau came to the island in the 1990s in search of young riders with real potential. A former teammate of Bernard Hinault, Bernaudeau first discovered the island on a vacation with the team in the late 1970s. He was impressed by the passion and level of racing found here at the annual Tour de Guadeloupe. At the time, Bernaudeau had yet to return to the professional ranks as a team manager, but his Vendee U development team was building towards a professional transition, and he was convinced that riders from this island had the potential to be part of the program.
“Jean-René was a real visionary. He loves taking teams to race in Africa, and he has always looked for riders from non-traditional backgrounds. Back when I was starting out, he was looking for some riders from Guadeloupe. He was simply convinced that there had to be the potential to develop some riders from this region. The problem had always been that so many riders from Guadeloupe only wanted to ride the Tour de Guadeloupe. Back when I was a junior, I was pretty much the best in my age group, and Jean-René just figured that with a young rider like myself, he could teach me that there was more to cycling than just the Tour de Guadeloupe.
Gène still remembers vividly the day when Bernaudeau knocked on the door of his dormitory at the local sports school. “He came in, sat down, and explained his idea. He asked if I would be interested in moving to Europe to race full time. I was stunned. I had to sit down and really think about it. I had raced in Europe once or twice, but the idea of moving there full-time, the idea of leaving my family and friends when I was only 16, well, that was a big jump. I asked him to give me a little time to think about it.”
Fortunately for Gène, his roommate Rony Martias was also a talented young rider. “At one point Jean-René said, ‘And if I bring your teammate, would that help?’ And yeah, that really made a difference for me!”
Together the two made committed themselves to Europe and both eventually turned professional. “But it still wasn’t easy,” Gène recalls. “You see the way we live here, with everyone living outside, well, it is not exactly the same vibe that you find in La Vendée where the winters can be very cold and monotone. There were some difficult moments. It is easy to get lost. But I ended up adapting. Having Rony there was a huge help. And we knew what we wanted. We wanted to turn professional. Jean-René really had us sold on the dream of turning professional.”
Martias would turn professional with Bernaudeau’s Brioche la Boulangère team in 2003 with Gène following just a year later. Martias eventually changed teams and retired with the Sojasun team which collapsed in 2013, but Gène spent his entire career with Bernaudeau.
“Jean-René was a bit of a father figure to me. I never left him and he never left me,” Gène says. “I ended up winning 13 races, but I also became the team’s road captain. I knew everybody on the team, and I realized that I loved giving advice to young riders and helping them out. A lot of older riders don’t want to help out the younger riders too much because they are worried that they will eventually push them out. But I didn’t want to be that way with the young riders. And my relationship Jean-René helped because I knew I always had a place on the team. I had total confidence.”
Gène could have easily moved into the management side of the Total Direct Énergie team when he finally retired, but his interest in working with young riders gave him different ideas. And today he is committed to giving other riders from this island the opportunities to succeed in Europe. “I am working to create a performance center here to help develop young talent here so that more kids can have the same chance I had. It is really important for the kids to have a solid base here in Guadeloupe before going to Europe and that they really understand what they are getting into when they go, so that once they arrive, they can be competitive right away. I want to facilitate the transition so that more kids from Guadeloupe can turn pro.”
Gène’s goal is to transform the island’s Amédée Détraux Velodrome, just outside of the capital in Point-à-Pitre, into a hub that better prepares up-and-coming cyclists for a move to Europe. “There is already a sports school here, but it can really be improved. There just are not enough young kids getting a chance to race in Europe. But over the years I have developed a good network in Europe, and along with Jean-René, I can really help place more and more riders. Again the problem is that as soon as a young rider wins a couple of races here, they are stars, and they have a hard time understanding that there is something else out there. But one thing I know is that there is a lot of potential!”
According to Gène, there is ample space for a dormitory — like he had growing up — and there are a variety of schools in the area that the kids can attend while in the sports school. In addition, the velodrome has a BMX track and is situated between the mountainous Basse Terre region and the flatter Grand Terre. In short, the options a-plenty. And Gène is confident that he can get the necessary funding. “The politicians here simply love cycling. And the youth love cycling here. So there is no reason why we cannot really turn this space into something. Everything is there. It might not be easy. But it’s going to be a good challenge!”