IN­TER­VIEW: PAULINE FER­RAND PRÉVOT

Pauline Fer­rand-Prévo made head­lines in 2014 when she won three world ti­tles, but the pres­sure that fol­lowed took its toll. Now, she says, she’s found the right bal­ance

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PFP ex­plains why win­ning three world ti­tles in her mir­a­cle 2014 sea­son was a bless­ing – and a curse

Af­ter the very heights had been reached, when per­fec­tion it­self had been achieved, came the fall. It was long, and ter­ri­fy­ing. To win a cy­cling world cham­pi­onship, fans of the sport know, is to em­bark on a year-long vic­tory tour. The rain­bow jersey of the world cham­pion is a con­stant re­minder to one­self and to the pub­lic of the fact that a rider has reached the pin­na­cle. A yel­low jersey may be more cov­eted, but the day af­ter the Tour de France fin­ishes, it be­comes a gaudy wall dec­o­ra­tion. The rain­bow jersey says this, ev­ery day for a year: I am on top of the world.

Imag­ine win­ning two, in a sin­gle year. Be­ing the best in the world not just at one thing, but two – how many peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence that? It would be a dream. Imag­ine win­ning three.

In 2014, Pauline Fer­rand-Prévot, who turned 22 in Fe­bru­ary that year, won the Cy­clo-Cross World Cham­pi­onship. In the sum­mer, she took an­other gold medal in the mixed team cross coun­try event at the Moun­tain Bike World Cham­pi­onships. And in Pon­fer­rada, Spain, she sprinted to vic­tory in the Road Race World Cham­pi­onship. Three world cham­pi­onships in less than 12 months. Night­mare.

“Be­ing the world cham­pion in three dis­ci­plines in one year has per­haps been the worst thing that has hap­pened to me,” she wrote in a long Face­book post two years later. “I’m fin­ish­ing this sea­son by aban­don­ing a race. I don’t know when I’ll climb back on my bike. Cy­cling was what I loved do­ing the most, but it has be­come my big­gest night­mare,” she con­tin­ued.

You could say that Fer­rand-Prévot has had a de­cent ca­reer. She’s been pro­fes­sional for seven years, and those seven years in­clude one in­cred­i­ble, un­for­get­table year, one ter­ri­ble year, and five pretty much in the mid­dle. But of course, the great year and the ter­ri­ble year are what we re­mem­ber. Fer­randPrévot her­self has ra­tio­nalised it since her cathar­tic Face­book post. “The rea­son I said win­ning all three was the worst thing that could have hap­pened was be­cause peo­ple al­ways ex­pect more,” she says. “You win a race, then they want you to win the next, and the next, and the next. But I won the World Cham­pi­onship – you can’t do any bet­ter than win­ning the Worlds so I couldn’t match the ex­pec­ta­tions.

“It’s typ­i­cal in France,” Fer­randPrévot adds, “that it is good when you win, and when you don’t, you’re noth­ing. The pres­sure was heavy.”

Pro­cy­cling’s in­ter­view with Fer­randPrévot took place at the Women’s Tour this sum­mer. We took the photographs first, and it was only a few min­utes be­fore the pho­tog­ra­pher stopped di­rect­ing the sub­ject, and the sub­ject

“I said win­ning three world ti­tles was the worst thing that could have hap­pened, be­cause peo­ple al­ways ex­pect more"

took over the shoot. She bounced from lo­ca­tion to lo­ca­tion quickly, mak­ing her own sug­ges­tions for back­grounds and how she would pose. Some cy­clists take the ad­vice to ex­pend as lit­tle en­ergy as pos­si­ble when not on the bike very se­ri­ously, but not Fer­rand-Prévot, who fizzed with en­ergy. But as well as pro­ject­ing ner­vous en­ergy dur­ing the shoot, she spent the in­ter­view in a state of equa­nim­ity, hard won since the highs of 2014 and the lows of 2016. In 2018, she’s some­where in the mid­dle, and she says that’s fine with her.

“I think ath­letes in all sports have highs and lows,” she says. “If you watch any high-level sport, you of­ten see ath­letes who are there one year and not the next. Take Rafal Nadal, who did noth­ing a cou­ple of years ago and is world num­ber one this year.

“That can hap­pen in cy­cling too. An­ne­miek van Vleuten won the Tour of Flan­ders in 2011, then things went less well and it took her a while to re­ally get back to the top level. But whether you are there or not, what is im­por­tant is to al­ways be­lieve that you can be there. I had one great year. Then in 2016, I was re­ally low. Now I’ve found more sta­bil­ity and I hope this means that I can have longevity in my ca­reer.”

She con­tin­ues: “Men­tally, it’s bet­ter to have good sta­bil­ity than to have highs and lows. I en­joyed 2014; it was ex­tra­or­di­nary to be win­ning ev­ery week­end, but it wasn’t nor­mal as a sit­u­a­tion. I won races, and I was happy to win, but I was more happy to find a more nor­mal life. For sure, I learned more from 2016. That year was hard phys­i­cally, but mostly men­tally. When ev­ery­thing is go­ing well, every­body is be­hind you. When that doesn’t hap­pen any more, you see which peo­ple are re­ally im­por­tant. It was a bad year; I learned a lot.”

THAT WIN­NING FEEL­ING

Fer­rand-Prévot has been around cy­cling her whole life. Her par­ents ran a bike shop in Reims, and her fam­ily raced, not that she was ini­tially en­cour­aged into it.

“I grew up around cy­cling. My older brother and younger sis­ter raced. Ev­ery week­end we went to the races. I loved it,” she says. “But my mother didn’t want me to race at first, she said it wasn’t fem­i­nine. She pushed me to­wards fig­ure skat­ing but I did a com­pe­ti­tion and didn’t like it. I said, ‘I’m go­ing to race bikes’. I started cy­cling at five. I liked cy­cling im­me­di­ately and al­ways wanted to win. I re­ally like win­ning.”

This might set off alarm bells for arm­chair psy­chol­o­gists. In bike rac­ing, even the best lose more than they win. And fur­ther­more, even if win­ning

“Twenty-two was young to be world cham­pion. There were lots of in­vi­ta­tions to events, me­dia… I was not ready for all that"

hap­pens a lot, it’s a few years at most – for a cy­clist reach­ing their peak in their late 20s or early 30s, the win­ning urge can be sat­is­fied. Sooner or later, it stops hap­pen­ing, and when the ad­dic­tion is win­ning, how can the psy­cho­log­i­cal need for it be fed?

Fer­rand-Prévot also talks about the pres­sure of hav­ing to re­peat her im­pos­si­ble triple world cham­pi­onships wins. She cites this as ex­ter­nal pres­sure – from hang­ers-on, from spon­sors and from out­side sources. “Twenty-two was young to be world cham­pion and I didn’t ap­pre­ci­ate it at the time. There were lots of in­vi­ta­tions to events, me­dia… I was not ready for all that,” she says. “I didn’t re­ally like all the con­grat­u­la­tions – I wanted to train, race, go to bed early and eat well. Sud­denly it was hard to do all those things.”

But if the need to win is also in­grained in her, some of that pres­sure must have been in­ter­nal as well. Just be­cause pres­sure comes from within, doesn’t

“The Mur is men­tally su­per hard and you think you’re not go­ing to be able to do it. The crowds are so loud you can’t con­cen­trate”

make it any eas­ier to bear. Two peo­ple within French women’s cy­cling talked af­fec­tion­ately of Fer­rand-Prévot and her char­ac­ter, but also said she was “com­pliqué”, a word which is even more nu­anced in French than its English trans­la­tion ‘com­pli­cated’.

“I know my ideas, and I don’t like be­ing told I can’t do some­thing. I’m com­pli­cated, but my re­sults are also thanks to hav­ing this char­ac­ter,” she says. “I don’t like oth­ers to de­cide for me. I do what I want to do.”

This un­will­ing­ness to com­pro­mise has won Fer­rand-Prévot races, but the chal­lenge for her may be how to keep do­ing things her own way, in a way that does not force her to put pres­sure on her­self. How­ever, Fer­rand-Prévot in­sists it is cy­cling it­self that gives her even more hap­pi­ness these days.

“I’ve al­ways loved train­ing as well,” she says. “I was rac­ing to win for many years, but I do like rid­ing. I like the land­scape, I like be­ing out­side, and I get the im­pres­sion that when we ride our bikes we are free. We can dis­cover new roads, travel. Be­fore, I didn’t like that as­pect of rac­ing – it was only about win­ning. Now it’s cy­cling in all its forms that I love.”

FIND­ING A NEW LEVEL

Will Fer­rand-Prévot ever reach the heights of 2014 again? Hon­estly, prob­a­bly not. It’s less the skill set of

be­ing able to ride moun­tain bike, cy­clocross and road than just mas­ter­ing the peaks and cir­cum­stances when the sport is im­prov­ing so much each year. Mar­i­anne Vos won mul­ti­ple world cy­clocross and road ti­tles too, but Fer­randPrévot ad­mits that the level of her com­peti­tors is ris­ing ev­ery year.

“You can’t turn up to races these days with­out very good prepa­ra­tion. It’s more dif­fi­cult to get re­sults in the first place,” she says. The sport is get­ting to a higher level. I think my level has gone up too – I feel re­ally good dur­ing train­ing com­pared to pre­vi­ous years, but my ri­vals have also pro­gressed. I re­ally have to try to or­gan­ise my goals, and choose my races, but I can still do all three dis­ci­plines.

“Moun­tain bik­ing and cy­clo-cross give me ex­plo­sive­ness. It’s a 90-minute ef­fort in a moun­tain bike race so when you ride that hard for 90 min­utes, it’s not that it makes road rac­ing feel easy, but it does help. It also helps with rid­ing in a bunch on a tech­ni­cal level – maybe I feel less fear in the pelo­ton than the oth­ers. And road gives me power and en­durance. They all com­ple­ment each other,” she says. “I find that I am not a climber or a sprinter or a rouleur, but I’m all three. I’m not the best at any­thing, but I can be strong in all three, so in a sprint from a small group, for ex­am­ple, I know I can win. If there is a climb that is not too long, then I know I can win. It’s only flat races that I don’t like too much. I like races that are hard and dy­namic – I don’t like to spend all day in the pelo­ton.”

HUY ARE THE CHAM­PI­ONS

Don’t ex­pect an­other triple crown, how­ever. Fer­rand-Prévot her­self has a big­ger am­bi­tion than an­other world cham­pi­onship vic­tory, which is to re­peat her 2014 win in Flèche Wal­lonne. The triple world cham­pi­onships were her head­line achieve­ment that year, but she’s as proud of her win in the Ar­dennes race, which con­firmed to her that she was ca­pa­ble of beat­ing the best in the world. In win­ning on the race’s fa­mous Mur de Huy, one of the steep­est climbs in cy­cling, Fer­rand-Prévot made her break­through.

“It was my best win. The first big win of my ca­reer,” she says. “Af­ter that, all the other wins fol­lowed. I wasn’t the leader – Mar­i­anne [Vos] was the leader but in the race she saw that I was good and she told me she’d ride for me. I said, ‘No, I don’t want you to,’ but she took me to the foot of the Mur de Huy well placed and it was the first time I felt the weight of the race on my shoul­ders.

“The Mur is men­tally su­per hard and you think you’re not go­ing to be able to do it. The crowds are so loud you can’t con­cen­trate. Lizzie Ar­mit­stead at­tacked and I thought I wasn’t go­ing to be able to fol­low. Mar­i­anne said, wait un­til you see the chapel by the road to at­tack. I saw Lizzie sit down and I was able to dig deep and go past her.”

For the fu­ture, Fer­rand-Prévot says she wants to keep rid­ing on and of­froad. But the de­sire or need to win all year long had been quashed by the real­ity of mod­ern cy­cling. She had in­tended for her 2018 sea­son to be fo­cused on a good moun­tain bike sea­son then a strong end of year on the road. How­ever, she had a bad day at the Moun­tain Bike Worlds at the start of Septem­ber and climbed off, and she pulled out of con­tention for se­lec­tion for the French team at the Road World Cham­pi­onships team in Inns­bruck.

Fer­rand-Prévot is slowly find­ing bal­ance, but the big win will have to wait un­til next year at least.

“Moun­tain bik­ing and cy­clo- cross give me ex­plo­sive­ness, And road gives me power and en­durance"

Af­ter self- di­rect­ing her own pho­to­shoot, Fer­rand- Prévot sits down to talk

The French­woman wins the sprint in Pon­fer­rada in 2014 to win the road world ti­tle

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