As Thomas Voeckler pursued his brave bid to become the first Frenchman to win the Tour de France in 26 years, another member of his Europcar team—a rider often seen flanking him on television—was quietly making some actual history, John W. Miller reports for the Wall Street Journal.
Though there are no definitive records to prove this, Tour organizers say Yohann Gène, a 31-year-old professional cyclist from Guadeloupe, is—so far as anyone can remember—the first black rider to ever compete in the 108-year-old race.
Cycling experts also say that Gène is probably not an anomaly. As cycling teams begin to hunt for talent in nontraditional places, like the cycling-crazy Caribbean archipelago of Guadeloupe, for example, he represents the leading edge of a gradual change in the sport’s complexion.
In terms of racism, Gène hasn’t seen anything approaching the order of magnitude of what Jackie Robinson endured when he arrived in the Major Leagues in 1947. But like Robinson, who was revered for his even temperament, Gène is the sort of person who seems wired to handle the emotional pressure of breaking a barrier.
“I knew there was explosive cycling talent in Guadeloupe and I wanted somebody with a cool head who had a character strong enough to put up with hardship,” Gène’s boss, Europcar manager Jean-René Bernaudeau, said before Friday’s stage. “Yohann is like that. If somebody in the peloton says something racist, and it has happened, he doesn’t talk back, he just drops him.”
Gène is not a star. As a top-nine rider on one of the world’s best 30-or-so teams, he’s the cycling equivalent of an average position player on a major-league ballclub. After Friday’s Tour stage, Gène was in 157th place overall while his team leader, Voeckler, had fallen to fourth place after fading on Friday’s brutal climb up Alpe d’Huez. It might take a miracle for Voeckler to win.
Nevertheless, Gène is poised to finish the Tour on his first try—something not many riders have done. By helping Voeckler hold the race leader’s yellow jersey through 10 stages of the Tour, he allowed his team to achieve a level of success it never expected.
And when pressed into a supporting role, Gène did a splendid job—hammering at the front of the peloton, policing breakaways and protecting his man from the tough winds. “It’s been tiring being up front like that. You can’t hide when your teammate is wearing yellow,” Gène said. “I am French, so the Tour de France is something special. It gives me wings.”
In 1997, Bernadeau was in Guadeloupe on vacation. Cycling had long been dominated by working-class kids from Europe. So as an experiment, he decided to recruit two teenage cyclists, Gène and another rider, Ronny Martias. He said he told Gène “you need to be able to deal with riding on cobblestones in Belgium, up against curbs, in the hail.” Both riders accepted his offer. “I tried soccer but cycling has been my love and I wanted to shoot for the top,” Gène said over breakfast Friday.
The two Caribbean riders moved to Saint-Maurice, a village of 14,000 near Paris where Bernadeau coaches his riders. They trained hard, enduring the cobblestones, the hail and the climbs. Both are now pros.
Race has been an issue only sometimes. In the Tour of Qatar a few years ago, Bernadeau said an Estonian rider used racial slurs to taunt Gène. “I complained to the rider’s sponsor and they dealt with it,” he said. “I said ‘be careful or after doping is resolved, cycling will have a racism problem.'”
Always, he said, Gène kept his cool. “Yohann is a rock.”
Gène won three stages in the Tour of South Africa this year and rode the Tour of Italy. Then, after 14 years of Sunday races, exhibition criteriums, minor tours and thousands of hours of training, Bernadeau gave Gène the nod to ride in the Tour de France. Race had nothing to do with it, Bernadeau said, only races. “He’s been winning them this year, and he’s been improving in the mountains.”
Bernadeau was clear about Gène’s role: protecting Voeckler, the team leader, especially on the flats. “I’m known for being steady on my bike,” said Gène. “Thomas knows I’m never going to slam on the brakes at the wrong moment.”
Gène is soft-spoken and a devout Christian. He prays, he says, not for victory, but for all riders to avoid crashing. He stopped his education after high school. After his pro career is over, he’d like to return to Guadeloupe to coach young riders. He’d also like to help develop cycling in Africa. After this year’s Tour, Gène plans on racing in invitation-only events where riders earn appearance fees. It’s not clear how he’ll do—but his presence will be felt.
“It shows that cycling is developing around the world,” said Jens Voigt, a 39-year-old veteran. “It’s progress,” he added. “Go against the wheel of progress and you get run over.”
For the original report go to http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111903554904576462463771685924.html