Guadeloupe is 6700km from Paris but there is a small piece of France in the middle of Caribbean, and this year the island will be represented at the Tour de France for the first time by Yohann Gène of the Europcar team.
Football is popular in Guadeloupe but so is cycling: the Tour of Guadeloupe gets live TV coverage and attracts thousands of people who take holidays during the race. Cyclingnews understands the regional cycling federation may apply to host the French road Championships in the next few years, while ASO considered holding the Grand Départ for the millennium edition of the Tour de France, with transfers on board a Concorde.
“I'm very happy to finally race [the Tour de France], but to be the first one was not really a goal,” Gène told Cyclingnews.
“I know many people will be happy and proud in Guadeloupe and I will give my best for them. They surely will follow me very closely as cycling is the number one sport there.”
Gène admitted he “doesn't really know” why cyclists from Guadeloupe hesitate to go to Europe and take their chance. "They perhaps are scared of moving,” he said.
At home they are considered stars, and are comfortably paid by local clubs, while they have to face bad weather if they sign for a European team. As a result, there are currently only three pro riders from the island: Saur-Sojasun's Rony Martias, Kévin Réza and Yoann Gène both at Europcar.
Gène moved to Vendée in 2001. He raced for two years with the Vendée U -Jean-René Bernaudeau’s feeder team - and then signed for the pro team, Brioches-La Boulangère, which is now called Europcar.
“I feel at home in the Vendée. This first Tour de France is a special emotion,” Gène said, grateful to Bernaudeau who owns a house in Guadeloupe and pushed him to leave the island and move to France.
“I wanted to stay (with Bernaudeau) because he has trusted me right from the start”, he confided. “I’ve had the opportunity to join another team but I’ll never forget what Jean-René has done for me.”
Gène has been very patient too. Now 30, he had ridden the Giro three times and the Vuelta once but he is racing his first Tour de France.
“I've been close to getting in the Tour team several times but there was obviously better riders than me at that time," he admitted.
To increase his chances to be chosen this year, he had a long break after riding the spring Classics. Earlier in the season, he won two stages in the Tropicale Amissa Bongo, Gabon, and one at the Tour of South Africa. As an aggressive rider and domestique, Gène will be trying to set up Sébastien Turgot in the sprints.
“He'll be the worker in the shadows,” Bernaudeau told the France Antilles newspaper. “He'll be that man able to help Thomas Voeckler, Anthony Charteau and Christophe Kern. Depending on the stages we might decide if he can go into breakaway or not. His first feat will be to work for his leader. The second one might be to win a stage.”
Whatever he achieves during his first ever Tour de France, Gène knows that all of Guadeloupe will be watching and cheering him on.