In August of 2016, former multi-discipline world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prévot abandoned the Olympic cross-country mountain bike race midway through. She dismounted her bike and walked past the baffled journalists without a word.
Plagued by injuries and allergies, 2016 had been a tough season for the then 24-year-old, but she was still considered a favourite in Rio. How could she not be? She’d been the biggest new multi-discipline talent of recent years, and in 2015, became the first person in the history of cycling to simultaneously hold the elite World Champion title in road, cyclo-cross and mountain bike racing.
But in a heart-breaking Facebook post that followed a few days after her Olympic race abandonment, Ferrand-Prévot chronicled her year of agony and explained that reigning as world champion was far from a dream.
“Being world champion in three disciplines in one year may have been the worst thing that ever happened to me,” Ferrand-Prévot penned. “Even injured I was working harder every day without giving up. I abandoned race after race, saying that fate would eventually stop…I end my season on abandonment. I do not know when I will get back on a bike. The bike was what I loved to do the most, but it became my biggest nightmare.”
But just a month later news broke that Ferrand-Prévot would be back in 2017, leaving her team of five years, Rabo-Liv, and continuing her multi-discipline career with Canyon-SRAM.
The German-registered team was pleased to sign the “young but proven” Ferrand-Prévot and offered her a fresh start.
The first goal? To help the distraught star rekindle her love for cycling.
“When we first talked to Pauline about working together in the future we wanted to have presence for our team in more disciplines than road racing. We were also looking for an athlete with climbing skills for our road team. At the time we found an athlete seeking new goals. What we didn’t know is that later we would start working with an athlete who was completely questioning her career and how to proceed, an athlete not happy to see a bicycle anymore,” said Ronny Lauke, Canyon-SRAM’s team manager.
“The question we had was how to support her, and how to start to make the fire burn inside her again.”
Rekindling a passion for the bike
Talking to Ella CyclingTips in Norway in September, Ferrand-Prévot was full of fire and genuinely happy. She was fresh off a bronze medal ride at the Mountain Bike World Championships in Cairns, Australia. And in Bergen, she’d swapped knobbies for slicks to finish her road season at the UCI Road World Championships, where she crossed the line in 11th place.
In the dirt, her season had been a good one with at least four wins, a UCI World Cup podium and two World Championship medals — bronze in both the team relay and women’s elite cross-country race. On the road, we didn’t see much of the 2014 world champion. She made less than 10 UCI appearances but she did net a few top-tens including a second-place finish at the GP Plouay Women’s WorldTour race.
Her struggles, it seems, are but a distant memory.
“I’m feeling really happy just to be here and also to race,” Ferrand-Prévot told Ella CyclingTips. “And even to just feel happy again on the bike — it’s why [participating at road worlds] is only a bonus for me, and I don’t have any pressure.”
Pressure is why it had all gone wrong in 2016. With the rainbow stripes on her chest and all the world watching, Ferrand-Prévot fell into a vicious circle of injuries, overtraining and failed treatments – a constant rollercoaster that almost led to the young star abandoning the sport altogether.
“When you are three-time world champion, you don’t know what more you can do. And for me, that was a really big pressure — to win again and again. It was too much,” Ferrand-Prévot said, clarifying that the pressure came from herself more so than from the team or sponsors.
“Before I wanted to win everything, now I know I don’t have to. It’s not possible,” she said.
While it may seem obvious to some, it was a concept that she — a fierce competitor — grappled with for some time.
“Of course it is not [a hard concept] to understand,” Ferrand-Prévot said with a laugh. “But for me, it took a long time to understand why. But now, it’s OK. Now I am happy to still have this motivation at the end of the season — that’s already a big win for me.”
It’s hard to tell from the chipper and smiling face of the 25-year-old now, but it’s been long journey for Ferrand-Prévot to get from that breakdown in Rio to where she is today. It’s been a pivotal year, one of learning to pick yourself up again, of healing, maturing
and letting go.
“I didn’t touch a bike for three months,” Ferrand-Prévot revealed. “And I can say that it was really hard when I started again. I never stopped for more than two weeks normally, and that first month, I was horrible.”
But taking out her mountain bike on her first ride back, the legs sprung into action, acting on memory and a sense of belonging returned.
“It was also a nice feeling because I love cycling,” she recalled. “It was a nice feeling to be able to take pleasure in riding a bike again.”
Ferrand-Prévot was quick to credit her Canyon-SRAM team for the support they’ve given her in the past year and protecting her from the pitfalls of given in to pressure.
“I am where I am now because I feel really happy. I found a balance between racing and a normal life. I am really lucky to have this team around me and to protect me. At the beginning of the year, the team did not put any pressure on me and it was also a big chance for me [to start fresh]. They helped me a lot,” she said.
Offering a little more detail, Lauke revealed that the team’s first step was to identify the source of her injuries and work with the team’s doctor and physiotherapists on her recovery while the team’s coach and director sportif, Barry Austin, monitored her training. They even sent the team’s performance optimizer consultant Alex Bauer to her home to look at her daily routine.
“We searched for the things we could do better, all the time without putting pressure on her. We gave her space and freedom…and allowed her to find out what she wanted and not to think about what the public, team or partners might expect or want from her,” said Lauke.
“Pauline listened to our advice, and took on board our support. Pauline’s trust in our team and in our vision was growing. It was also a challenge for us to start to understand and find out the benefits and non-benefits between MTB and road racing.”
The fruits of their patient labour came in July.
“She started to have a fire burning again. It started to show in July when she became closer to the world’s best riders. She made her first MTB World Cup podium (in two years) and her confidence in herself finally grew.”
This led to her stellar result at the GP Plouay and the medals at the Mountain Bike World Championships.
“Having her on the podium in Women’s WorldTour races on road and MTB World Cup, and getting a medal at MTB world championships was something we had hoped would be possible to do, but we did not expect it to happen in that short of time, considering where we started with Pauline in December,” said Lauke.
“Above all, the fire was alive and that was key for everything we wanted to achieve. We are happy to have helped her on this journey back. There have been obstacles but also many solutions and answers could be found. We are pleased to help Pauline get back to the top of the sport again. Pauline might be talented, but she is a fighter, which is more helpful to achieve results. I am convinced this bronze medal is the beginning of more to come in the near future.”
Looking back now, Ferrand-Prévot said that winning all those world titles is no longer ‘the worst thing’. Still, she doesn’t like to look back and only focuses on what’s ahead.
“Even though I would say that 2016 was a bad year, I learned a lot. And I will never forget this year [that followed],” she said.
“Now, for me, it’s not all about the upcoming year, it’s about feeling happy. Of course I want to be the best but if I’m not happy, then it didn’t work in the end.”
Ferrand-Prévot did share that we will see more of her on the road next year, as she’s set her sights on the Spring Classics. And topping the list is Flèche Wallonne, her dream race.
And what about cyclocross? Ferrand-Prévot is a former world champion after all, and it’s a nice transition from mountain bike into the next road season.
“We will see. I will have to discuss it with the team,” she said. “I will, for sure, not do a full season. Do I miss it? Yeah, a bit but if it’s better for me, my body and my recovery [not to race] than that’s OK for me.”