Kevin Réza: For the Love of Cycling

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity. Conducted by Lansana Dramé with Genice Phillips and translated by Doris Risner.

 His destiny for cycling was set at the tender age of four, when his parents, Lucien Coumba and Marie-Pierre Réza-Zandi, both from Guadeloupe, introduced him to the sport. There sparked a passion for young cyclist Kevin Réza, taking him beyond his most promising dreams and ambitions, becoming the second black cyclist to ever compete in the renowned race, Tour de France, in 2013; and returning again a year later.

The achievements he has made in the cycling world – placing in several regional races and turning pro in 2011 – most millennials could only aspire to. A piercing talent to watch, his values in family and giving back has shaped his mindset and quiet determination to be the greatest in cycling history.

POTENT sat down with Mr. Réza in April to discuss his life in the world of cycling and to learn more about the young man off the bike, including his favorite Bob Marley song and frequent visits to Guadeloupe to spend time with family.

POTENT: How did your career as a cyclist begin?

Kevin Réza: I started very young, at 4 years old. And I am 27 years old now and have been doing it professionally for 5 years. So that’s how…it comes out of a passion from my parents, from my brother that have passed this sport to me; this desire came at a very young age.

POTENT: When you did you decide to turn cycling into a profession, as a career?

KR: I can say that it took 7-8 years before I really thought to make it my job and career in cycling. Admittedly, I had the opportunity to go professional, so I took my chance and now I must perform and last, and that is more difficult. To turn professional is hard, but it is more difficult to make it last; it’s something else.

POTENT: What has been your toughest time in the sport and how was that experience?

KR: I can say that the most difficult moment has been during the 2013 Tour de France. During a leg that was leading to Mont Ventoux. It was a real difficult time in my career. I have never suffered as much on my bike, and I will always remember this moment because it helps me to challenge myself on my bike when I am in a difficult spot.

POTENT: Could you talk more about what happened [during that stretch]? Was the field (or roads) in bad condition or your physical condition not up to par? Did you feel as though you were not as prepared?

KR: It was the field and the circumstances of the race. We had to chase the ones that had escaped us; thus on a 3-week-long race, it is never easy to stay in the best physical shape. So, it was, in fact, a very tough day for me. I have known easier and simpler days.

POTENT: What has been your most joyous time, times that you consider the best races in your cycling career?

KR: I don’t really have one in mind…maybe the one that allowed me to move into a professional career in 2010. It was a milestone race that allowed me to sign my biggest contract…it was in Belgium. Besides that, I remember another race that is dear to my heart; it was Liège-Bastogne that I participated in. Those are fond memories, but I don’t have a special memory that tells me how much fun I had on a specific race. So, it is truly a mix.

 POTENT: I see…You are ambitious…

KR: Yes, right. [laughs]

POTENT: So, in 2013, you had your first Tour de France…
KR: Yes, that’s correct.

POTENT: How did you prepare to face it because it being your first time, it must not have been easy to gear up for it. Spiritually and physically, how did you prepare?

KR: It is never simple, but we start getting ready from Jan. 1, then we proceed to train in preparation of Tour de France. Then, we wait impatiently on the selection and that’s how it goes. Why do we prepare mentally and physically for a Tour de France? One must be physically ready to go through a Tour de France or for any grand tour throughout the year.

POTENT: You were teammates with Guadeloupean cyclist Yohann Gène… [Gène is the first black cyclist to compete in Tour de France. Réza and Gène were teammates on the professional cycling team, Team Europcar, until 2014. Réza joined team FDR in 2015.]

KR: Yes.

Kevin Réza (pictured left) and Yohann Gène (right).

Kevin Réza (pictured left) and Yohann Gène (right).

POTENT: What were your sentiments, concerning the teamwork you and Géne had, while with Team Europcar?

KR: He is a good road captain. Yohann has really been supportive throughout my career. He has been a professional (cyclist) longer than I, so I could count on him for advice. He has vast experience professionally and was a huge asset during Tour de France in 2013 and 2014. He is a true inspiration for the up and coming youth.

 POTENT: Why did you change teams?

KR: I just wanted to see something else. I was at Europcar for 4 years and I had an opportunity, a proposal to hire me on the other team. So, I seized the opportunity. It allows me to challenge myself, to see other things, other teammates, and also motivate myself to achieve my goals.

POTENT: Do you and Gène hang out? Like when you return to Guadeloupe to visit, or are you two just connected by the sport?

KR: No, but we are not in the same team this year. If we have the opportunity to see one another outside of the cycling world, there is no problem! After all, he was born in Guadeloupe, so it is his homeland, contrary to myself, who was born on the mainland. [Kevin was born in Versailles, France.] So, he has more ties to Guadeloupe than I, but when we meet there on vacation, it doesn’t prevent us from having a good time together.

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POTENT: Being born in France and your family is from Guadeloupe…How does that shape your identity?

KR: It is relatively simple since Guadeloupe…it’s on the other side. It is French so I recognize myself in both ways. It is relatively easy to see these 2 … well … not those 2 communities, but these 2 countries. It’s really the same. When I go to Guadeloupe, it is to relax and have fun under the sun and coconut trees. Here in France, we are here to work and to pedal. So, I really can distinguish the two, but it is relatively close and I manage to combine the two easily.

POTENT: Do you currently live with your family in France or are they in Guadeloupe?

KR: No, my parents are in France. They are in Paris. And I no longer live with my parents, I live in the western part of France.

POTENT: Do you visit Guadeloupe, once a year, every year?

KR: Yes, every year between November and December.

POTENT: What are some places that you visit?

KR: [laughs] My father is in the east of Guadeloupe, a town called Sainte-Anne and my mother is from Le Moule, so I try to stay with my parents and my relatives.

POTENT: How do you promote cycling in your parent’s country, which culturally, is bent toward cycling. How do you help others gain access to it?

KR: I simply strive to have a good attitude and do my best at the sport, and then try to go at least once a year to Guadeloupe to help the youth…why not…to ride a bike with them for a while and give them plenty of advice so they can strive to accomplish higher things.

It is clear that things are not easy…opportunities are not open to everyone, but when I meet them, they ask me “is it possible?” And I tell them yes, if you make every effort to get there, it could happen. So, one must believe it, simply put.

POTENT: Since your home is shared between Guadeloupe and France, where do you love, or prefer, the most?

KR: it depends on the time of the year. It is clear that when it is cold in France, it’s very good to go to Guadeloupe, the West Indies, under the sun and coconut trees. If I feel better here [in France], it’s because as I was born here; I have my everyday habits in France. But it always gives me much pleasure to visit the Caribbean, Guadeloupe, my family on this island; I go there with great pleasure.

POTENT: In France, noticeably, there is not enough black people in the general competition of the Tour de France, and other cycling races. In your opinion, how can more opportunities be created for black people, people of color?

KR: Well, it is true that it is not a typical “black” sport. It is not in our culture. We, black people, are less into endurance sports and much more into sports demanding speed, as you can see in athletics [track and field, basketball] or soccer. Just to say that it is not in our overall culture, but if I can bring this culture, this desire to our whole community, it would be with great pleasure. But there is not a message to spread, it is just the desire to challenge one’s limits by using a bike and the desire to give back to people who have helped me in this area.

POTENT: Sports doesn’t have a color, we just need to pursue it… What do you think has helped in your success?

KR: What do you mean?

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POTENT: What gave you that push, the courage, to succeed? Maybe it was the moral support of your family or you saw someone who inspired you? Maybe someone you saw and thought, “I can make it too.”

KR: …In my family, we love cycling because in Guadeloupe, it really is the number 1 sport. And over the years, my parents helped me, supported me throughout my career. I also learned at the feet of cyclists, this culture and this desire. From what I received from my parents, I think it is in the relationship to my education and culture, and that’s to try to challenge myself at each moment of my life, simply put.

POTENT: What were some values that were taught to you, that helped you push forward?

KR: There is respect, the desire to overcome and simply surpassing the pain of a physical condition we have, and the desire to do well.

POTENT: Okay, let’s talk health. Do you have a health plan that you incorporate to be able to propel your ability when cycling?

KR: It’s more of a lifestyle that I have, more than anything else. From Jan. 1 to Oct. 31, it really is a healthy lifestyle that I follow as a high-level athlete; that includes healthy eating, which is really important. Sleeping suitably and taking rest periods at any time of the day. Not staying up late, for example and also, I do not allow myself to go out night clubbing with my friends in the evening. It is clear that I am living a monk’s life but without that, I could not stand all year on a bike. [Laughs]

POTENT: [Laughs] So, tell me, how do you mentally prepare for races?

KR: Mentally, it’s … I think it is an ensemble. I have not… never been stressed out by competing. It’s really when I am on the bike, on the starting line, and I focus and that’s it. I try to push forward, to focus on 5 or 6 hours of actual racing time. But mentally, I have never been helped by a person, like a physical or mental trainer. It is really personally, where I prepare myself when needed.

POTENT: How do you find time to relax and enjoy your competitions?

KR: Well, the rest is easy. For example, there is a competition for a week, and then we spend a week at home. It’s simple. Since we do not have to do anything else, we ride bikes for a living; the day is simple to manage. We get up at the time we want and manage the day from there. We do not have any rush during the day. Truly, it is easy to relax and manage our time, rest time.

POTENT: In a past interview, you had mentioned that you love to dance to Bob Marley. What is your favorite Bob Marley song?

KR: “No Woman, No Cry,” if I say it well. It is in French, isn’t it? [laughs] I really like this song.

POTENT: How do you enjoy yourself as an athlete? You work out and you work hard; you have a little time to rest. How do you have fun?

KR: I try to spend as much time with my friends. So for me, this is really what I like, to share a good time with them over a drink at each other’s house. I’m really not attracted by the clubs. So, to each his own, but I really like to have a good time with my friends.

POTENT: You have a nickname. People call you “the Réz.” Where did it originate?

KR: This is a nickname that I was given in school. It takes after the name Réza. They just put “The Rez” on the front and it remained for 10 years and that’s it. It stuck.

POTENT: Let’s talk about Brazil, the Olympic Games in 2016.

KR: Yes.

POTENT: What are your plans for the Olympics? Will you be participating?

KR: No, unfortunately not, because France obtains…There are only 5 spots per nation, so it’s very, very, very hard to compete in the Olympics. After I had the chance to participate in the World Cup last year with France, there were 9 spots. Why not? It would be a really useful purpose to participate in the Olympics but I can’t prepare now, per se. I really do not think about it, but I will, in due time.

POTENT: For the sport, are you interested in becoming an iconic figure, to be a legend, or to do it for the money? I read some of your past interviews, and others think that you have changed teams because you want more money. There are some athletes who change [teams] because they want more money, and some who just want to be able to go further.

KR: I changed teams because as a sportsman, I want to earn money, but it’s not my ultimate goal. My goal is to please my parents and give back to them all they have given me since I was little, because cycling is a sport that is very expensive. So if I can earn money and make them happy, I have really succeeded in my career.

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POTENT: Now, as far as the sport, cycling is your career. Do you plan on do something after? Or is it only cycling?

KR: No, but I’m trying to remain focused on the sport. Later on, if cycling gives me opportunities for advancing my career, and do something else after my career, that would be a good opportunity to grasp. I do not think about it now, and I try to live day by day and see what’s next. I do not like to think about it too much.

POTENT: Do you have any plans for your birthday [May 18]? It is coming soon.

KR: I will be training with my team in the mountains to identify the steps of the Tour de France in July and unfortunately, I will not be with my family to celebrate my birthday.

POTENT: Oh, we will wish you a happy birthday when the time comes!

KR: [laughs]

POTENT: What question was not asked that you would like to talk about?

KR: Well … At what time will I come to see you in New York?

POTENT: Yes, that’s a very good question…when will you be coming to New York?

KR: I have a friend who is currently working in New York for one year, and if I do the Tour de France, I will come in the beginning of the month of August. And if I’m not doing the Tour de France, I will come in July. So in any case, I will come to New York this year.
POTENT: Okay, we will welcome you!

KR: Oh, that’s nice! 

POTENT: Well, it was a pleasure for us to talk to you.

KR: No worries, it was a shared pleasure. See you soon!

POTENT: Thank you very much!

KR: Thank you, bye!

Visit Kevin Réza’s official website: http://www.kevin-reza.com/ and follow him on Twitter.