Cycling: in Guadeloupe, the unsuspected fever of the “bisiklèt”

The wheels squeal on the warm asphalt cooled by the heavy downpour. Runners have wet faces and pulsating temporal veins on the climbs. At the edge of the road, the headgear parades. Canotiers, Panama hats, caps and bobs for the intrepid, umbrellas for the far-sighted.

The Guadeloupeans braved the storm in numbers, this Sunday, October 10, to attend the Jocelyn-Bruyère race. What does it matter that a hurricane wave threatens the department, placed in red vigilance: “We are a little cracked here”, jokes Freddy Urie, sports director of the Excelsior, whose favorite runner, Alexandre Lachagès, will finish second.

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Cracked perhaps, especially keen on a cycling that one suspects little, across the Atlantic, so much the landscapes are there volcanic and the blazing sun. However, the sport is more popular there than all the others, football included. The peak of the competition, the seventieth edition of the International Tour of Guadeloupe is about to begin, this October 22, for nine days. Highly anticipated, it welcomes teams from the third division, sometimes from Japan, Germany, especially the Caribbean basin, as well as a handful of fans from France.

Sylvain Pigeau was one of them, in the early 2000s, before settling in Basse-Terre and joining the daily sports section. France-Antilles. He tells the story of the excitement, the journalists who “Fall on it” from his first run, the customers of the grocery store who recognize his face and quote his classification. “It was crazy. I was only an amateur and I felt like a pro. I felt like Sylvain Chavanel in his region ”, he laughs.

A business of farm workers

The “Bisiklet” in Guadeloupe is first and foremost a business of agricultural workers, black and precarious. At the beginning of the XXe century, the work is arduous in the fields of sugar cane. We go there early in the morning, we leave late at night. Cars are too expensive, so you get on a bike. And to brighten up the journeys, we challenge ourselves. We bet that with some “Kud’chèn” – “chain shots” in Creole – we will join, before the other, Morne-à-l’eau, Saint-Claude, Saint-François. Legend has it that descendants of slaves and settlers clash, replaying history. Gradually, the competition follows the evolution of the road network and the distances grow longer.

A rivalry in the 1970s made the archipelago particularly vibrate and definitively established the “bike-mania” there. While the Raymond Poulidor – Jacques Anquetil duel fascinates France, in Guadeloupe, Saturnin Molia and Alain Pauline engage in a daunting fight. One comes from Basse-Terre, the other from Grande-Terre.

“It was competition and spectacle. We lived for it. People from the same family refused to speak to each other because they did not support the same runner ”, reports Isabelle Gotin, her eyes still sparkling. She chairs the Excelsior de Baie-Mahault, the oldest club in the territory.

Polo, cap and marshmallow pink mask, she leaves no room for doubt as to the colors of her team. The Guadeloupeans to tell the truth, do not skimp on the signs of support: it is said that at one time, the most fervent supporters painted their facades according to their favorite club, forming colorful and joyful neighborhoods.

Noble reputation

Anecdotes of this kind, the archipelago has some ” a truck “, after Sylvain Pigeau. Each having crossed the generations, transmitted by a passionate parent. “My father rode a bicycle, my brothers rode a bicycle, my cousin won the Tour de Guadeloupe. I was the only one who wanted to play football ”, remembers, teases Yohann Gène, professional Guadeloupe runner. The popularity of the sport can be explained by the fact that almost all the families on the island have a cyclist among them.

→ INVESTIGATION. Cycling from below worried about its future

The bicycle has a noble reputation, too, because it officiates in a school of the last chance, in a Guadeloupe overwhelmed by unemployment and academic failure. The clubs recruit young people, without cultural background or diplomas, and make them grow. “It’s our pride to put them on the bike and give them a frame. We raise them through sport “, says Isabelle Gotin.

Often runners benefit from training, even jobs, through cycling. “At the town hall in particular”, specifies the president of the Excelsior. The local councilors, in fact, follow the competitions with interest. “The city is counting on us a lot to represent Baie-Mahault, the mayor sometimes gives the kick-off”, adds Isabelle Gotin.

The enthusiasm is also maintained by the media, some of which publish eight daily pages devoted to the Tour: “And before 2005, it was even twelve pages. We distributed the newspaper France-Antilles free of charge, every morning at the start of the stage », remembers Sylvain Pigeau, who underlines that in general, Guadeloupe likes competition whatever it is. The pool of top-level athletes there is also impressive: in almost every discipline of the Olympic Games, the Antilleans are excellent.

For the high level, “we have to go to metropolitan France”

Very rare, however, are the Guadeloupe runners who have gone professional. Two, precisely, by the name of Rony Martias and Yohann Gene. The second, back in his parents-in-law’s house in Morne-à-l’eau, can boast of having the most beautiful record on the island. The first West Indian to participate in the Tour de France, he has completed it seven times.

Cycling: in Guadeloupe, the unsuspected fever of the

If he started cycling at the age of twelve, his career, he admits, did not really take off until four later, when he was recruited in France. “If you want to reach a high level, you have to go to mainland France”, he explains. But recruiters are cautious, Guadeloupe being famous for being a high place of doping (see benchmarks).

→ READ. Cycling and doping, the return of suspicion

“Sports directors have their share of requirements”, Sylvain Pigeau analysis: that the runners be young, 16 years old maximum, surrounded by trusted relatives and that they undertake to return as rarely as possible. “Discipline is the key”, defends Freddy Urie, a time sports director in France: “But the experience can become very hard for these teenagers, there are a lot of failures”, he continues. The climate, isolation, homesickness, financial difficulties are among the most notable obstacles. “I’m afraid of the cold”, admits Alexandre Lachagès, a young 23-year-old local prodigy, who has already given up on France.

“We leave even though we are not independent and it is always mum who cooks food”, insists Yohann Gene, who concedes having often had the desire “To turn around”. Especially since the executives of his Guadeloupe club have not always encouraged him to leave: “They derive more benefit from their riders staying and shining at the Tour de Guadeloupe”, he blurted out, without bitterness. This is the ultimate hindrance at the start. Those who win the Tour are guaranteed sponsorship deals and nice cars, fame and prosperity. For a long, long time.


In Guadeloupe, cycling undermined by doping

Twenty-three doping cases have been counted on the Tour de Guadeloupe since its existence, ranking the race among the ten most concerned by doping, behind the Tour de France (197 cases), the Tour of Italy (133) or again the world championships (54).

From 1985, Richard Métony, initially winner of the Tour de Guadeloupe, is disqualified for doping.

In 2008, the premises of the USL club in Lamentin are searched and its six riders, preparing to leave for the Tour de Guadeloupe, placed in police custody. A dismissal will ultimately be pronounced.

In 2010, a network of doping products, supplied by runners and relatives, as well as medical personnel, is dismantled.

In 2016, a report from the French Anti-Doping Agency reveals the existence of another network of doping products. On a competition, among the 99 samples taken, 7 gave abnormal results. Six runners are suspended.

Guadeloupe owes its sulphurous reputation to its direct access to Latin America, where doping agents actively circulate, especially EPO, aimed at improving the endurance and oxygenation of tissues. Venezuelans and Colombians, who participate in the archipelago’s races, frequently test positive.


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