Wednesdays are busy days at the Vélodrome Amédée Détraux, just outside of the capital city of Pointe-á-Pitre on the French island of Guadeloupe. And this day was no exception.
Anybody who knows this island in the Caribbean knows just how passionate it is when it comes to cycling. The Tour de Guadaloupe — now almost 70 years old — is often compared to the Tour de France here, as huge crowds pack the roads year in and year out. And track cyclist Amédée Détraux is still remembered fondly for his ability to rival three-time Olympic champion Daniel Morelon in the 1960s and 70s.
“This year we lost some license holders due to the sanitary [ed., COVID-19 lockdown] situation, but yeah, cycling is hugely popular in Guadeloupe,” Frédéric Théobald, president of Guadeloupe’s cycling federation, explained as he met with the different classes on the infield. “Usually we have about 3,000 members on the island. And we are trying to get it up to 5,000 with all our different programs.”
With 17 editions of the Tour de Guadeloupe under his belt, Théobald holds the record for participation. But while he is still visibly fit, most of his energy today is directed at developing the sport even further here in the Caribbean. “The idea of these initiation days is to get kids interested. And the ones who show interest we put in touch with local clubs so that they can really start riding.”
“It’s my first day on a bike like this — a track bike with a fixed gear,” said Elodie Ho-Yick-Cheong, one of the local school kids participating in the initiation day. “I’ve ridden bikes before, but this is different. And it is hard. I mean getting used to braking without brakes, well, that’s really unsettling at first.” But the 13-year-old was clearly one of the day’s success stories, as she stayed on after her class to continue riding her bike around the lower banks of the track. “Yeah this cool, I’ll definitely come back!”
Only 15, Chenilco is a promising cadet in the island’s sports school system. And after studying in the mornings, she spends her afternoons on the track, either training herself or helping out with the initiation program. “I’ve been riding the track now for two years. My brother got me into cycling with mountain biking and then I moved into the road. And once I got accepted here in the sports school, I started focusing on the track more,” Chenilco said. “And I really like sharing what I know in the initiation program. It’s fun!”
A kaleidoscope of emotions were easily visible on the children’s faces as the school kids discovered the track bike for the first time. Some faces were filled with fear, others with excitement, while others already seemed to have a competitive eye on these track bikes.
For those involved in the federation here, such a reaction confirms the success of the initiation program, a major goal in increasing cycling’s popularity even more here in Guadaloupe.
Dozens of school kids listened in another area of the infield while Emma Chenilco (right) explained the rudiments of the track and the track bike to them.
“I’ve been working as a trainer in cycling for 36 years and I just love it,” said Gerard Cava, as he hung up the track bikes in the service course at the end of the initiation day. “I’ve seen so many kids come into this program. They can start as early as eight. Some of them virtually grow up here. And by the time they finish, some are nearly at the national level. And that’s just really satisfying. Cycling is just hugely popular here in Guadaloupe. And can tell you, I see the same enthusiasm with the kids today as I did when I started. That has never changed. Cycling is just really special here!”
Classes from schools around the area participated in a track bike initiation day, while local national team members trained on the banks of the track above. Meanwhile, dozens of other youth trained on the adjoining BMX track.