The day Yohann Gene became the first black cyclist to compete in Tour de France The 31-year-old Guadeloupe native broke a 108-year-old racial barrier
After 14 years of training, riding in minor cycling tours, winning two stages in the Tropicale Amissa Bongo, Gabon, and one at the Tour of South Africa, Yohann Gene finally earned approval from his longtime coach and Europcar manager Jean-Rene Bernaudeau to race in the 2011 Tour de France.
Even though Gene’s main assignment was to help Europcar team lead Thomas Voeckler remain in the best position to win the race, Gene made history when he finished the competition in 158th place on July 24, 2011.
The Tour de France had never had a black cyclist in 108 years until the 31-year-old Guadeloupe native became the first black rider to finish the brutal race. Voeckler didn’t win, but he did take fourth place.
Said Gene to The Wall Street Journal: “I tried soccer but cycling has been my love and I wanted to shoot for the top.”
Seven years ago, members of the sports community discussed how it wasn’t surprising that someone like Gene would arise from the cycling-crazy Caribbean and actually could open the gates for future cyclists from that region, as well as those from Africa.
“I know many people will be happy and proud in Guadeloupe and I will give my best for them,” Gene told Cycling News. “They surely will follow me very closely as cycling is the number one sport there.”
Gene told Time: “When I ride, I see all kinds of landscapes. I feel free. … I always dreamed of the Paris-Roubaix — because of its audience and its warrior-like competitors who always risk falling.”
Bernaudeau discovered Gene and another cyclist, Rony Martias, while he was vacationing in Guadeloupe in 1997. Gene and Martias were given offers to come with Bernaudeau to Saint-Maurice, a small village just outside of Paris, and the pair of teenagers accepted. Both eventually became pros.
“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,” Bernaudeau told The Wall Street Journal. “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.”
Gene rode in the Tour de France from 2011-17, with his best finish being 128th place in 2014.