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
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