Cricket is king in Trini and world record holding batsman Brian Lara is ‘The Prince.’
Despite the predominance of the bat and small red ball, soccer has a big following and the ‘Soca Warriors’ became the smallest ever nation to make it to the World Cup finals in 2006.
But the nation’s isolation from the European cycling heart land has not prevented it from producing a number of outstanding track cyclists over the years; particularly in the lung bursting one kilometre track time trial.
As far back as 1963 Roger Gibbon took gold in the discipline at the Pan American Games, a feat he repeated four year later in the same competition, adding gold in the sprint for good measure – having won the same two disciplines at the Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica in 1966.
Leslie King was Trinidad’s next big track star with Commonwealth bronze and silver at the Edinburgh Games in 1970 followed by gold and silver in the Pan American Games in 1971.
Still racing and winning is Gene Samuel, who won kilometre silver, gold and bronze at successive Pan Am Games from 1987 through to 1995 with a World Championship bronze in 1991 for good measure.
The track torch is now carried by Christopher Sellier, who last year in Mexico at the Pan American Championships became one of the fastest men in history over the one kilometre distance with a 60 second ride to take gold.
On the road, the nation’s outstanding rider has been Emile Abraham from Tobago who has made a successful career as a professional rider in the USA as well as winning races in the tough school of Belgian racing and taking silver in the 2007 Pan Am Games road race.
The high light of the Trini season is the annual Beacon Cycling Festival which has just been run for the 11th time.
Beacon Insurance is one of the Caribbean’s leading insurers and CEO Gerald Hadeed is a keen cyclist himself.
Festival organiser, Michael Phillips – who is himself a former high level kilometre rider – feels that the steady growth of the event has largely been due to the long standing support which Hadeed and his company have given to the event; ‘this was the 11th year Beacon have supported us, it enables us to promote an event which cycling commentators have said is on a par with most events of its type in Europe – and to bring some of the big European names over.’
Phillips finds himself in the enviable position of having his funding in place for next year’s race – Beacon having confirmed their support for the 12th staight year.
But it’s not just Beacon Insurance who provide support for this glamorous event; Phillips stresses the importance of the help he receives from The Trinidad and Tobago Tourism Development Company.
European riders are brought over to add spice to the competition and to give the locals a yardstick against the stars from across the Atlantic.
Last year it was Swiss six day star and four times world champion on the track, Franco Marvulli who scooped most of the track races.
But it was Olympic track champion Walter Perez (Argentina) who took the jewel in the festival crown – the circuit race around the Queen’s Park Savannah in the heart of the capital city, Port of Spain.
The race is held as a ‘nocturne’ – night race – and the combination of carnival atmosphere, pumping music, huge crowd and spokes flashing in glare of the flood lights gives it a unigue ‘vibe.’
And it’s felt that if the organisers supplied picture of the podium girls to the big Euro road teams, then most of star riders would soon be beating a path to Port of Spain.
This year the field was again a strong one with Austrian track specialists Andreas Graf, Henner Rodel and Werner Rienbauer; versatile Australians Baden Cooke and Ben Kersten; and British veteran road star, Jeremy Hunt.
Peter Jacques is a familiar figure in Trini race circles, he used to race on the Trini tracks before Father Time caught up with him and is now a riders’ agent with extensive contacts in the European and US track and road scenes.
Pete showing the way to Ben Kersten.
Jacques organises the contracts for the foreign riders; ‘the Beacon Festival comes at a busy time in terms of the world cycling calendar but we attracted some big names.
Franco Marvulli, Leif Lampater and Andreas Muller, the ‘big three’ from last year all had other commitments, this year.
But Andreas recommended the Austrian guys to me, all are good riders – Graf for example partnered Muller to victory in the Three Days of Aigle’ track event in Switzerland, last year.
I have good connections with the Aussie riders – Stuey O’Grady has been a friend of mine for years – and we got two of the best when we signed up Ben Kersten and Baden Cooke.
Kersten is a pro in the US and wins a lot of races there; but he was originally a track rider and beat Sir Chris Hoy to win the Commonwealth Games kilometre title in 2006.
Baden Cooke has been around a long time – he turned professional in 2000 – but is still riding at the highest level, for Saxo Bank which is one of the top two or three teams in the world.
In 2003 he won the points classification in the Tour de France.
The English rider ‘Jez’ Hunt is another ‘old stager;’ he was actually a team mate of Miguel Indurain at Banesto, way back in 1997 and has been pro ever since – he’s won the prestigious GP Plouay in France and has been British elite road race champion twice.’
But despite the Euro and Aussie talent on display, it was Jamaican sprinter Marloe Rodman who took the honours around the Savannah.
Jacques feels that the ‘stars’ made a fundamental error in their approach to the race; ‘they under estimated by a long way how quick the local guys are; there’s maybe not a big history of Caribbean road stars, but put them on a flat circuit with a short race duration and they become very dangerous.
Jez got away from the main field with Marloe; the Englishman is very strong and he said to the Jamaican just to ‘sit on’ and take his slipstream – but at the finish, Marloe came round him to take the win!
Jez is a fast finisher but Marloe was too quick for him – I don’t think Jez was best pleased!
Gene Samuel was impressive that night – top ten at 50 plus years-of-age in that quality of field!
But it’s not just about the racing, the professionals love Trini because it’s such a beautiful place to train and it’s laid back.
There’s so much less traffic than there is in the US or in Europe.
In Trini they can have fun but not neglect their condition – one of their favourite things is to ride north up over the mountains to Maracas Beach, have a swim, sun bathe – not forgetting a Bake and Shark sandwich – then ride back.”
And what’s Pete Jacques own view of Trini; ‘if I tell you that I got married here, does that answer your question?’
And if you see yourself whizzing around the Savannah in 2012 to sounds of steelpan, then check out, www.CaribbeanCycling.net.