Marie-Divine Kouamé has had a sensational season. On her first visit to the UCI Track World Championships, she captured a rainbow jersey in the 500m time trial at her home velodrome – where she knows every inch of the track – Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, southwest of Paris, France.
As well as being the first French woman to win a world title in this distance since Felicia Ballanger in 1999, the young Parisian broke the national record twice along the way.
Cycling is very much in the blood for the 20-year-old who first picked up a bike aged three. Marie-Divine has never stopped pedalling – even while doing various other sports throughout her childhood. But it was a chance suggestion over school dinners that she developed her competitive spirit on a bike, and it has never stopped since.
Cyclingnews caught up with Marie-Divine, who is excited about racing the Track Champions League in her special velodrome at Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines (Paris), and after that, in London.
Cyclingnews: Tell us how you got into track cycling.
M-DK: Well, I started cycling when I was three years old, so I have always done cycling. At school, the guy who managed the canteen, Gilbert Rousseau, invited my friends and me to ride at his cycling club, Jeunesse Cyclisme Coudraysienne. We went along and enjoyed it, so we signed up, and it went from there.
We were a good group of friends who would go to regional cycle races every weekend, doing it for fun. I did road, cyclocross, and a bit of BMX. There were only two girls in the group – me and my friend. So up to our teens, we raced against the boys, and I would beat them. I don’t think they were too happy about it!
Since I was doing well at the races, I was spotted by the French national team and did various training camps. Eventually, I moved from my parent's home in Essonne, in the southern suburbs of Paris and went to live at the French National training centre at Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines, in the western suburbs of Paris.
CN: How confident did you feel about winning at the World Championships in Paris?
M-DK: If someone had said to me two weeks before the World Championships that I would win gold, I wouldn’t have believed it. But once the competition began and we did the team sprints, my legs were feeling good, and I began to think I could do well.
The 500m time trial is a discipline that I particularly like, and I gradually gained confidence during the competition. Then when Mathilde [Gros] became World Champion [in the women’s sprint], I felt inspired and realised that a win could be possible. I went through the qualification rounds with a strong motivation to win the 500m time trial. Winning it was a really proud moment for me.
CN: How did you celebrate?
M-DK: Well, it was magical to win in front of the French public and have my friends and family in the stands. It’s fair to say I had a hell of a party!
CN: What has been key in your improvement this year compared to last year?
M-DK: Well, since last year, we have had Gregory Baugé as the National sprint coach, and he has made a difference. He has brought a lot of positive things to our training plans. He has changed our way of training, brought more discipline as well as working a lot on our lifestyle, diet etc. He has transformed things, and it has worked. My achievements are the result of the hard work that I have done with him.
CN: How have you dealt with your new-found fame in France?
M-DK: Well, I guess I have become more well-known! It’s been quite a story for me because I’m very young, having become World Champion at the age of 20 and beating the four-time World Champion [Emma Hinze]. So, I imagine I made a bit of history in my sport. But I’m cool with it. I am just so pleased to have achieved my objective.
CN: What is it like competing in the Track Champions League?
M-DK: It’s totally different from other races I do, but I see it as a chance to do more competitions, given that we don’t do that many races during the year. The track racing calendar doesn’t get that busy, so it’s a good thing to be able to race every weekend against the best riders in the world.
With all the lights and music, it’s like a big party – like being in a nightclub. There are moments during our warm-up when we are completely in the dark, and we can’t see our rollers when we are riding. It’s quite sensational, and it’s a pleasure to be there.
I think it’s a good way to develop track cycling. The Track Champions League adds that element of spectacle for the spectators even if we competitors are taking the races very seriously and we are giving it our all. It’s a chance for the spectators to see our sport in a format that can easily be followed, and I think it has a greater appeal.
The organisation is incredible, with a lot of prize money too. It can only be a positive thing for our sport, and it makes it even more professional. I think it can attract more sponsors and open more doors for our sport.
The Paris round is special for me as it’s the track where I won my World title. It’s great to once again have my family, plus the friends who couldn’t make it to the World Championships, come and watch me. I can’t wait to race in London too, as I have heard that it’s a lovely velodrome with loads of spectators.
CN: Who is your inspiration in sport?
M-DK: Well, my coach Gregory Baugé is very inspiring. He’s had an amazing career, with a great palmarès, and made his mark in sprint racing in France and globally too. So that gives him massive kudos.
When I first heard that he would be my coach, at first, it found it a bit strange because he had previously been my teammate. But in fact, that‘s a positive thing in our rapport and communication.
My parents also inspire me and have always encouraged me to do sports. I started cycling when I was three, and up to the age of 15, I always did cycling alongside other sports – be it basketball, football, athletics, or swimming. I was encouraged to do a bit of everything.
My dad played basketball and handball, though not at an elite level, and my mum did basketball when she was young. They always instilled into us the values that sport brings. When I told my dad I wanted to do cycle racing, he immediately encouraged me to pursue it. I am also hugely inspired by Usain Bolt. He is a great example of an athlete to emulate.
CN: What do you do during your downtime?
M-DK: I really like photography and making videos. I have a YouTube channel where I share my everyday life, and I do various photoshoots and try to develop my photographic activities. I love animals too, and when I find somewhere bigger to live, I would love to have a dog.
CN: We see very few black women in professional track cycling. Why do you think that is?
M-DK: I must admit, it’s not really something I think about. It’s true that, at times, I am the only black person in a competition, but I don’t really think about it. I have seen that Nigeria has a team. The first time I met the women was at the Junior World Championships, and it was a surprise to see them. I think it is great to see cycle racing becoming accessible to people of colour.
Granted, it’s not a widespread thing, and the equipment makes cycling an expensive sport to take up. But I think that black people have a physique which would give them a lot of potential in track cycling. I think that in time, as it gains a wider reach, we will see performances in track cycling in a similar way to what we see in athletics.
For me personally, I don’t really think about how many black people are or aren’t doing track cycling. There are times in my everyday life when you might encounter discrimination, but I don’t really think about it. It’s up to other people whether or not they want to accept me, but I just focus on my racing and doing my best.
CN: What would it mean to you to compete in the Paris 2024 Olympics?
M-DK: Well, I grew up in Corbeil-Essonnes, a suburb of Paris, and now I live close to the National Velodrome at Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines. So, racing a home Olympics would be special.
However, at the moment, I am trying not to think about it. There is a lot of work to do, and I still have to qualify. I prefer to take a step back from the subject of the Olympics, given that it’s such a big event that goes beyond sport, and I don’t want to get caught up in the pressure of it.
I want to treat it as just another competition. It’s in two years’ time, so I am focussed on my training in the here and now. But of course, racing in the Paris Olympics would be amazing.
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