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The narrative arc of a professional cyclist’s existence is often a rollercoaster of circumstance, heartbreak, and resurgence — a constant balancing act of physical and mental health. That has never been more clear than over the past few months in elite women’s mountain-bike racing.
Across the UCI’s World Cup series and World Championship, the return to form of former world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prévot and Olympic champion Jenny Rissveds has served as a shining example of the dramatic spectrum of the sport, a clear reminder that it’s not what takes place on the race course, but rather the personal story behind the results, that is often the more compelling narrative in pro cycling.
On Saturday, Ferrand-Prévot soloed to victory to take the world cross-country title in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Quebec, four years after she took the rainbow jersey in Andorra to become the first rider to ever hold world titles in road, cyclocross, and mountain bike disciplines at the same time.
Winning a second cross-country world title was an emotional result for the 27-year-old Canyon-SRAM rider who has struggled over the past four years with a series of physical setbacks including a tibial plateau fracture, sciatica, allergies, and more recently, iliac artery endofibrosis — a kink in the artery that supplies of the majority of blood to the leg.
“It was a difficult journey back,” Ferrand-Prévot said after taking her second cross-country world title. “Before my operation, it was almost like getting stabbed in the legs if I made an intense effort over two and a half minutes. So, I had to get the operation, even though they told me it could be risky.”
For all the talk of Mathieu van der Poel’s versatility, not only did Ferrand-Prévot win world titles in all three disciplines, the Frenchwoman was the reigning champion of all three simultaneously — at the age of 23.
But from the high of her phenomenal 2015 season, Ferrand-Prévot plummeted dramatically. She stumbled through the 2016 Olympic year, placing 26th in the road race in Rio de Janeiro and dropping out of the mountain-bike race; her winless season ended with a DNF and in tears. Until last month, she had not won a major road, mountain, or cyclocross race since 2015.
“Being world champion in three disciplines in one year may have been the worst thing that ever happened to me,” Ferrand-Prévot wrote in a candid Facebook post. “Even injured, I was working harder every day without giving up. I abandoned race after race, thinking my [bad luck] would eventually stop… The bike was what I enjoyed the most, but it became my biggest nightmare.”
Throughout the 2017 and 2018 seasons Ferrand-Prévot struggled while occasionally showing flashes of her former self. She reached the podium of the cyclocross World Cup event in Nommay in January 2018, and was on pace for another podium finish a week later at Hoogerheide when she and Swiss star Jolanda Neff had a race-ending collision on a muddy off-camber descent the fourth of six laps.
A year later, Ferrand-Prévot skipped the 2018-19 cyclocross season and delayed the start of her 2019 road season to undergo iliac artery surgery in late January. During the time off, she visited with family and friends, as well with her boyfriend Julian Absalon and his children, and paid little attention to the racing world. She returned to racing in April.
“At first it wasn’t easy not being allowed to ride the bike,” she said. “I took some time to adjust, but instead of being frustrated at the time off, I used it to do a lot of things that my cycling career sometimes doesn’t afford. I looked for activities outside what’s been my ‘normal’ world for the past ten years. The time was long, but overall it wasn’t bad as I expected.
“Where I usually spend my spare time watching races and checking results, this time I avoided that. I didn’t want to see everyone else training and racing. I followed my teammates results and that’s all. The break was necessary, and I am confident I made the right decision to have the surgery.”
Fast forward to August 4, and the World Cup XCO event in Val di Sole. She took an early lead on the challenging five-lap course, extending her advantage to 40 seconds by the third lap. But her lead came down on the penultimate lap and she was overtaken by Neff on the final lap. The pair of former world champions battled to the line, where Ferrand-Prévot took a nail-biting sprint finish. It was her first major win in any discipline in four years.
“For sure I’m emotional,” she said. “It’s my first international victory since 2015 and a lot has happened in the last three years. It hasn’t been easy but it also hasn’t been easy for the people that support me, my sponsors, and my family. Plenty of people are around you when you’re winning, but in the tough moments, it’s different. This is a reward for me and my hard work, but also for those that have continued to support and believe in me.”
A week later, Ferrand-Prévot won the short-track race at Lenzerheide and finished third in the cross-country event behind Rissveds and Anne Terpstra.
“The track in Lenzerheide doesn’t really suit my strengths, and previously the best that I’ve finished here was 19th,” she said. “Now to get third, and another podium, I think it gives me even more confidence. I made a couple of mistakes during the race focusing on the wrong things, but I’ve already noted it and will improve on for next time.”
At Mont-Sainte-Anne, Ferrand-Prévot crashed early and was nearly one minute behind Neff, Kate Courtney, and Rebecca McConnell at the end of the first lap. She methodically worked her way through the field until, on the fifth of six laps, she’d caught and passed the Australian leader; Ferrand-Prévot won the race by 43 seconds ahead of Neff, with McConnell taking bronze.
“The final lap was quite stressful,” Ferrand-Prévot said. “I had a lot of people from the French federation giving me time splits, so I knew the gap to Jolanda. I stayed concentrated to go full on the climbs, and to keep smooth and safe on the downhills. The last downhill I did was very messy, but I got through it, and then I enjoyed the last moments to the finish line.”
The current field of women’s cross-country racers is deep, with perhaps a dozen riders capable of pulling off a major victory on any given day. But regardless of nationality or trade-team preference, Ferrand-Prévot’s victory was one that proved meaningful to the entire mountain-bike community.
“I didn’t want to miss this opportunity,” she said. “I gave everything I had from the start to finish. I really wanted to win today, and I’m so happy to do it. It’s been a hard journey to get back to here. But this makes all of the hard decisions, all of the efforts and sacrifices worth it.”
‘Never give up’
While she didn’t have a strong performance at Mont-Sainte-Anne, finishing 16th, by the time she took the start at the world championship, 2016 Olympic champion Jenny Rissveds had already delivered one of the most inspiring comeback stories in recent memory.
At the start of the 2018 season, the then 23-year-old Swede broke her contract with Scott-SRAM and skipped the race season to address her mental health. She went quiet on social media, where she had been active and developed a large following, and when she did post, it was generally not about cycling.
She returned earlier this year with a new race team titled Project 31, named after the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights article 31 that promotes children’s rights; the team is sponsored by Specialized, Shimano, and Thule. Since her return she has been candid about her struggles with depression and an eating disorder that was brought on by the death of both of her grandfathers and an ongoing disagreement with the Swedish Cycling marketing manager Anders Bromee.
“I don’t know what came first, the depression or the eating disorder,” Rissveds said in a Red Bull TV interview announcing her return to the World Cup circuit. “It’s like if you stop eating your brain won’t work normally. Then all the pressure that came out of winning the mountain bike races and winning the Olympics, and all that mixed together, it was just too much. I did not even want to live anymore.”
In May, Rissveds was initially on the start list for the opening round of the World Cup in Albstadt, Germany, but she did not compete. Questions were asked. Was this cause for concern? Would she return after all? The following week, at Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, she raced her first World Cup in almost two years, finishing 33rd.
“My main goal this time is not to win all these races,” she said. “It is to inspire children to stay active, to always come back to what you love to do, to be yourself and know that, as long as you are just yourself, you have come far enough.”
In July, Rissveds finished fifth at the World Cup in Vallnord Pal Arinsal, Andorra. She had returned, and she was back near her best. She gave an emotional post-race interview, saying, “I can’t stop crying. I did not believe that I could come back and be up here. From Nové Mesto until now, I really started to work on my mind game again. It is incredible what your head can do if you believe in yourself. It is just amazing.”
In an Instagram post following that fifth-place finish, Rissveds went into detail about the circumstances surrounding her return to racing after she had nearly lost the will to live.
“Thank you to all of you who are helping me to keep striving forward,” she wrote. “And thank you Jenny (myself). Since I decided to come back to cycling, a little more than a year ago, I’ve been struggling with my self confidence. During the last six months I’ve had serious doubts about coming back to the same psychological and physical level as I have experienced in the past. Since a couple of days ago, these doubts have been replaced by a tiny bit of confidence. That little bit of confidence brought me up, down and around the top of a mountain yesterday.
“I fought down my own demons and I can’t even describe the feeling of winning that fight. I’m pretty sure though, it wasn’t the last fight as the inner demons seem to visit all of us now and then. Sometimes we have to take the fight, sometimes we have to fight harder, and sometimes we just have to let them be there in the background for a moment. But never let them take you down. Never let them win. From now on I know it is worth it. All of it.”
At the August 4 World Cup event at Val di Sole, Rissveds finished a strong third behind Ferrand-Prévot and Neff. And then, a week later, at the World Cup in Lenzerheide, Rissveds returned to the top step of international competition.
After finishing third in the short-track event, Rissveds won the Lenzerheide cross-country race 25 seconds ahead of Anne Terpstra, and 1:19 ahead of Ferrand-Prévot. She also finished more than two minutes ahead of World Cup series leaders Neff and Courtney, and gave an emotional post-race interview on the Redbull TV broadcast.
“Two years ago, I didn’t want to be alive,” Rissveds said. “I just want to say that it is possible. Never give up. Like Pauline [Ferrand-Prévot] said last week when she won her first World Cup in a very long time, ‘never give up.’ I just want to say, ‘never give up’. Never. In Swedish we say the circle is complete. Two years ago, I won this World Cup, and I won today. It’s such a journey. I can’t believe what a journey I’ve been through. The circle is complete again.”
The UCI World Cup series wraps up this weekend in Snowshoe, West Virginia. The Olympic mountain-bike race in Tokyo is 11 months away. But for Ferrand-Prévot and Rissveds, the 2019 season has already been more than a success; it’s been a revival, made possible because they never gave up.
As they say, for Ferrand-Prévot and Rissveds, the circle is complete.