Culture

Caribbean Diaries: Total Direct Énergie manager Jean-René Bernaudeau continues to eye this unlikely cycling hotspot

Bernaudeau first discovered this French Caribbean island when he was racing with Bernard Hinault in the 1970s, and it was pretty much love at first sight.

“Ah, Guadeloupe!” Total-Direct Énergie manager Jean-René Bernaudeau said with his feet in his pool overlooking the Caribbean Sea. “Look! Today is so clear, you can even see Dominica. I love it here. This is where I recharge my batteries every year.”

A longtime professional, Bernaudeau first discovered this French Caribbean island when he was racing with Bernard Hinault in the 1970s. And it was pretty much love at first sight.

“The first time I came here was back in 1979. I was with the Renault team when Hinault won his second Tour de France as a bonus our sponsor offered us a trip to Guadeloupe. It was here where I first learned about the Caribbean. I was here where I discovered the warm waters in the middle of winter. And I didn’t even know how to swim. But I learned. I was just overwhelmed by what I found here.”

In the years that followed he would often return for a popular off-season criterium series.

“Amédée Détraux, a great track sprinter from Guadeloupe and French national champion, invited a bunch of professionals here every winter and we would race two criteriums in exchange for a week’s vacation,” he said. “I just kept coming back over the years and started making friends.”

And his love affair continued after he retired when he put together his first teams. Starting with his Vendee U amateur team and then with his first pro teams Bouygues Telecom and Europcar, his teams frequently participated in the highly popular Tour de Guadeloupe which is nothing short of an institution here on the island.

The Total-Direct Énergie team boss… Photo: James Startt

“The Tour de Guadeloupe was a real eye-opener because there was always a really good field, and the local riders really held their own,” Bernaudeau recalls. “I remember one year, they won five out of 11 stages. I was just really impressed because a lot of the European riders here were up-and-coming riders that would be riding the Tour de France in a couple of years and the local riders were at the same level.

“So I just tried to figure out a way to tap into the talent,” he said. “The problem was that the Tour de Guadeloupe was so popular that a lot of the local riders could not see beyond it. They didn’t understand that the highest level of the sport was not here, but in Europe. Too many riders and clubs are content knowing that their club is better than the club the next town over. But they have to understand that the real competition is not here but in Europe.”

But his Vendee U amateur team offered the perfect platform for young riders as they could come to France’s mainland and race with his club while continuing their studies.

“I started looking for a young rider that came from a good family, that I could bring to Europe and develop—a-rider was not yet part of the star system here in Guadeloupe,” he said. “And that’s when I discovered Yohann Gène, who was part of the sports school system here. I went to see him in 1999 at his dormitory in Les Abymes and we chatted. I explained to him that he was going to discover the rain and the cold of Belgium and that he wouldn’t see the family for a good while and that he would have to continue his studies in France. I wanted him to know what he was really getting into. He was there with Rony Martias another member of the sports school. And I ended up bringing them both over. And they both turned professional. Yohann spent his entire career with me and did seven Tours with my teams.”

While Gène retired in 2019, Bernaudeau is now focused on working with developing regions and countries on a larger scale.

“Today I want to take it to another level. Instead of investing in just one or two riders, I want to work with a delegation of riders and directors from developing countries on a long-term level, bringing them over to Europe three or four times a year, so that they really understand what racing is like at the highest level,” he said. “The idea is to not only develop talent in Europe but give the group something to take back to their countries that will help them develop cycling even further. Certain developing countries like Rwanda or Eritrea already have good structures in place already. But there are other countries like Kenya that still have tremendous potential.”

Bernaudeau is now focused on working with developing regions and countries on a larger scale. Photo: James Startt

For Bernaudeau, the challenge is firstly a logistical one as so many of these developing areas are far from the European continent.

“Guadeloupe or Kenya are simply too far away,” he said. “We have to figure out ways to reduce that distance. And working with a delegation of riders and coaches from a specific country is the best way to do that. I am 100 percent sure! We have to find the means to get more young riders over to Europe. And if we do, I am certain that we will find more riders like Yohann and Rony.”