Caribbean Diary: The Tour de Guadeloupe — one of cycling’s best-kept secrets
The Tour de Guadeloupe is fast approaching its 70th birthday, and it is the keystone race on this Caribbean island that is simply crazy about cycling.
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For some pro racers, racing the Tour de Guadeloupe just once means memories lasting forever. Just ask Jens Voigt.
“It was truly unforgettable. Such a magnificent place,” remembers Voigt, who raced here twice in the early 1990s, years before he was known around the world as Mr. Shut Up Legs. “The island is shaped like a butterfly and on one side there is some real climbing as there is a volcano in the middle. I got second one year and won three stages overall, but the local riders gave us a real run for the money. But what I liked best was that we had early starts and early finishes and then we had all afternoon on the beach!”
“I’ll never forget the crowds,” says Ryan Barnett, an American racer who participated in the Tour de Guadeloupe in 2001 on the RealityBikes.com pro team with Kent Bostick. “Everywhere we raced the crowds were huge. The local clubs had rides near the race daily, so there were many cyclists on the overpasses and sides of the road. The starts and finishes had crowds that were bigger than the Tour de Georgia!”
In what may well be only one of the best-kept secrets in cycling, the Tour de Guadeloupe is fast approaching its 70th birthday, and it is the keystone race on this Caribbean island that is simply crazy about cycling.
“It is our Tour de France,” says Frédéric Théobald, president of the cycling federation here on this island. “It is just huge! And we even have an Etape du Tour, like the Tour de France. It attracts up to 10,000 participants. It is a huge window and helps attract new license-holders because there are a lot of cyclists here that don’t have a license.”
One of the best local riders of his generation, Théobald raced the Tour de Guadeloupe 17 times, a record. He understands cycling in this Caribbean island as well as anyone.
“Back in the 1960s and 1970s, we had a huge rivalry between two riders Alain Pauline and Saturnin Molia. One came from the Basse Terre part of the island and the other from Grand Terre. The island was divided between fans for Pauline and others for Molia, like Italy was for Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali. And it cemented the Tour de Guadeloupe in the hearts and imagination of people for years to come.”
Set in the Lesser Antilles, Guadeloupe is an “overseas department” of France. The euro currency is used, and EU citizens are allowed to live and work there. Cycling took root in the 20th century.
The 10-day race is officially sanctioned as a UCI EuropeTour race since the island is a French overseas department. Held every August, it zig-zags across the island, which as Voigt says, is shaped like a butterfly, divided between the flatter Grande Terre and the mountainous Basse Terre. But while the two parts of the island are visually and culturally different, the Tour de Guadeloupe brings them together year in and year out as fans pack the roads all around the island.
The Tour de Guadeloupe is so popular in fact that Théobald insists that it can sometimes stifle the local riders.
“The race should really be a springboard for our riders to go to Europe and race. But often it is not. The problem is that the Tour de Guadeloupe is so big, so popular, that riders don’t see beyond it,” he said. “The best riders from Guadeloupe are real heroes here. A local rider who wins a stage in the Tour de Guadaloupe can instantly get a job. But that is not what it is all about. And yet, too many young riders here fall into the euphoria and fantasy of the Tour de Guadeloupe, and they have no desire to take their cycling any further and confront new challenges.”
One of the primary goals for Théobald, who took over the presidency of the cycling federation in May of 2020, is in fact to get more of the island’s best riders to France to continue their careers.
The regional committee here is part of the Fédération Française du Cyclisme, and Théobald is working with the FFC and numerous French clubs to set up more and more exchanges.
“Sure we have had a couple of riders turn professional, riders like Yohann Gène and Rony Martias, but there has been nobody since.” he said. “So we are also working with several clubs in France, where promising riders can go and race. They will have a sort of double license with the federation in Guadeloupe and the French club. It is a special status aimed and helping our best riders take it to another level. After all, the Tour de Guadeloupe may be as popular as the Tour de France here, but it is not the Tour de France.”