Pauline Ferrand-Prévot has always followed a course of listening to herself before listening to others and this state of mind has allowed the gifted bike athlete to achieve what no one else has ever done: simultaneously become world champion in road cycling, cyclo-cross and cross-country mountain biking.
Biking, not skating
Coming from a family who took part in competitive cycling, Ferrand-Prévot knew that in some way she was destined to have a life in cycling. Not that her mother was overly keen on her daughter taking to two wheels initially: "My mother, who competed as a cyclist, didn't necessarily want me to ride a bike, because she said it wasn't feminine enough."
Rob Meets Pauline Ferrand-Prévot
To please her parents and being a model child, Ferrand-Prévot also took up figure skating in her early years.
The lure of pedalling on a bike for fun remained strong however and she managed to convince her parents to enroll her in a local bicycle club in Reims, France, where the family was located at that time. From then on the figure skating didn't really get a look in. Skating's loss was cycling's gain.
I never wanted to cause concern to my parents
The soul of a warrior
Very quickly, Ferrand-Prévot showed her competitive spirit in the cycling club and competition. She wanted to show that she was able to beat everyone, but especially boys. She had a strong will that worried those around her.
"When I was young, I was quite autonomous and independent in terms of training. Everyone thought my parents were forcing me to go and work out, when I actually just liked doing it," Ferrand-Prévot recalls. "Even though I didn't train every day at that time, I would go for a run or ride my bike alone in the forest instead of going to play with my friends."
Ferrand-Prévot says she's someone who's afraid of getting bored all the time and who likes a challenge. At the age of eight, she was offered a chance to ride a mountain bike and rushed at the chance: "I liked having all the possibilities and that I could both go mountain biking and road cycling. I didn't want to feel like I was doing the same thing all the time."
Ferrand-Prévot began to compete and win at age-group racing and at just 13 won her first French national title on the road.
"At 12, I was already beating girls who were three or four years older than me, so I think I was noticed," she says. "Adolescence is always a turning point for a young cyclist. It can be complicated. When your friends are doing something else to you on the weekends it can be hard. If you don't have that passion and determination to ride bikes, you can quickly drop out and prefer to party rather than work out."
Turning a deaf ear
The possibility of a professional career was emerging for Ferrand-Prévot, as she continued to post good results both on the road and off it. At the time, she was told to focus on one discipline, but turned a deaf ear to the advice, despite logistical and training issues that were apparent in racing across the road, cyclo-cross and mountain bike.
"It was sometimes complicated to manage. There were overlapping schedules, there were races where you had to make choices where to go, but I decided to do what I was doing, because I knew what was good for me," she explains.
History proved Ferrand-Prévot right. As a junior she became a cross-country world champion in 2009, repeating that win a year later in 2010, when she was also the junior road race world champ. Remarkably, at this time Ferrand-Prévot was also competing in Cyclo-Cross World Cup events and at the World Championships with the elites, as there was no junior category. She finished eighth to future team-mate Marianne Vos in the 2010 cyclo-cross worlds.
With such impressive results across multi-disciplines, there was no shortage of women's teams looking to sign her up. Ferrand-Prévot chose the Dutch team Rabobank-Liv and turned pro for the 2012 season: "I was a big fan of Marianne Vo and she wanted me to be part of Rabobank-Liv. She took me under her wing and I learned a lot from her. It was a good school for pro bike life. It's in a team that every cyclist learns the best and what I learned there has served me well."
Ferrand-Prévot's main focus in 2012 was London and the big race that only comes every four years. There, she competed in the road and the cross-country mountain bike races.
"There were two places for the cross-country team and I was competing for the second, since the first was for Julie Bresset, who was then the reigning cross-country world champion," she remembers. "The day I knew I qualified, it was my little girl's dream come true and if my performance wasn't outstanding at least I achieved one of my career goals."
The 2014 and 2015 seasons saw Ferrand-Prévot dominate the women's world cycling scene. In 2014, she became the first Frenchwoman to accumulate four national titles during the same season – road, road time trial, cyclo-cross and cross-country. There was more to come though, when she won the Road Race World Championships.
In 2015, her outstanding form continued and she added the cyclo-cross and cross-country world titles to her growing palmarès. At only 23 years old, she wore the coveted rainbow jersey across three very different cycling disciplines at the same time – a first in the history of cycling, men and women alike.
Ferrand-Prévot is not one to ride for records, though, she just wanted to win bike races: "The day before the Cross-Country World Championships, a reporter told me that if I win I would accomplish what no one had ever accomplished before [in being World Champion across three cycling disciplines]. I never realised that was the case. My goal was simply to win races."
Fall down, get up
Nothing ever remains perfect and what followed for Ferrand-Prévot was a few years where injury and illness saw her performances suffer in whatever discipline she competed in. The period was soul destroying for her.
“Right after my cross-country world title, I felt pain in my leg. I had no idea what it was or where it came from and my 2016 season was complicated as a result. There were days when it was fine, but then others when it was not good at all. I didn't understand it and I wondered if I'd done too much over the previous few years."
Ferrand-Prévot continued to compete and still achieved relatively good results, but whatever was troubling her in her leg was clearly holding her back. She just couldn't put down the power in races. During this time she focused on cross-country racing, with cyclo-cross and road racing taking a back seat.
It was only towards the end of 2018 that doctors were able to finally diagnose what was wrong with her. Ferrand-Prévot was diagnosed with iliac artery endofibrosis.
"For the past four years I had an inexplicable pain in my leg and when I pushed over 70 percent of my maximum power, I had the sensation of a 'dead leg'," she explains. "During the those years I saw a lot of doctors and had a lot of different treatments, but nothing really worked."
Ferrand-Prévot eventually had surgery on both of her legs in February 2019. Her recovery was quick and the surgery worked, as in the second half of the cross-country season she won two World Cup races and became world champion for the second time in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Canada.
Women's XCO finish – Mont-Sainte-Anne
Further surgery on her legs came at the end of the 2019 season, but this time Ferrand-Prévot was in a better mental place to deal with the injury and the outcome. The pandemic disrupted the 2020 season, but when racing did return late in the year she retained her cross-country world champion title, as well as winning her sixth World Cup race in Nové Město.
I feel for the first time in my life that I'm serene and that I'm growing in strength
There are probably still more chapters to write in the Pauline Ferrand-Prévot story. 2021 brings new motivation and focus for her – a new team in Absolute-Absalon, managed by her boyfriend Julien Absalon, and the biggest event in the world in Japan in late July.
Watch Pauline Ferrand-Prévot compete on home soil in the Mercedes-Benz UCI MTB World Cup in Les Gets on July 2–4 on Red Bull TV.
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