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Dethroning Vos: A student outshines her teacher

TABOR, Czech Republic (VN) — She did not believe it herself, she said, until it was nearly over. Already a world champion on the road, Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, the clock running out on one of the greatest battles women’s cyclocross has ever seen, decided she could do it.

Decided, she says, she had to do it.

In the last lap, Ferrand-Prevot said later, she told herself: “I’m not here to be second. It’s my day.”

It was. Belgian Sanne Cant, also riding at the highest level of her career, threw everything she had at her French rival, but came up empty. They came to the road together, Cant trailing by just a hairsbreadth, but she must have known already it was too much.

In the sprint this year, Ferrand-Prevot is the new boss.

In victory, she upset the long-reigning queen, Marianne Vos. At the road world championships last September in Ponferrada, Spain, Vos was coming off of back-to-back championships. On Saturday, in Tabor, Ferrand-Prevot snapped a Vos streak that went all the way back to 2009. Vos, hampered by injury for much of the past month, settled for bronze.

“I wanted to say thank you to Marianne because, yeah, I think she’s the best coach for me,” said Ferrand-Prevot. “Today I’m really happy for me, but I’m also — it’s a bit a strange feeling to take the victory. Of course I’m really happy, but I don’t know, it’s a strange feeling. I know next year will be a great battle again. That’s cycling.”

She is likely right. Vos may be down right now, but she is only 27. The two Rabo-Liv teammates and friends will surely clash again. But, said Vos, who has long played the role of mentor to 22-year-old Ferrand-Prevot, the two will meet as equals next time.

“I saw her already coming over from the juniors and then already at that moment she was the biggest talent I ever saw on all the disciplines: mountain bike, time trial, road, cyclocross,” said Vos after Saturday’s race.

“So yeah, it’s not a really big surprise for me that she’s now here with the rainbow jersey, and on the road too. She’s really good. She’s not only good, she’s mentally good, physically good, really dedicated to the sport.

“It’s great to work with her in the team, and of course she’s French and today she was a rival, but it’s good to have such a rider in the field.”

Cyclocross fans were likely unsurprised to see Ferrand-Prevot on top of the podium on Saturday. Her steady progression over the past few years — including two French cyclocross titles and two medals at the under-23 world mountain bike championships since 2011 — is an unambiguous indicator of her incredible talent. Her seven cyclocross podium finishes before Saturday’s race, another.

On Saturday she joked that she owed this latest world championship to her team, a little twist on the traditional thanks for the support.

“On the Rabo team you have to do both,” she said, laughing. “It’s my contract.”

But anyone who has been paying attention would know the truth cut much deeper. She loves sport, loves it in all its many flavors, if her increasingly diverse palmares are any indication.

“I’ve done cyclocross since I was young,” she said, answering the same question a second time, more seriously. “So for me it’s a really good [foundation] for the road and MTB. First, [this year] I do a cyclocross season to prepare my road season, but after Zolder I saw I was in good shape, and I said, ‘Why not?’”

But she also acknowledged her good luck, coming in top form to a championship race in which Vos was, perhaps, ailing. She said she could not guess at exactly what level her friend Vos — who was certainly not holding back — had been riding.

“I think she was good, but not as good as [at the World Cup in] Zolder or whatever,” said Ferrand-Prevot. “She pedaled with only one leg. I don’t know.”

Whatever indeed, Vos shot back — Ferrand-Prevot had surely earned the victory.

“Today it was my 100 percent,” she said. “I don’t think I could do more today.”

And whatever Vos’ health and preparation for worlds, it is clear their friendship and rivalry is something the younger rider considers to be at the core of her success, even if her talent was evident from an early age.

She won her first race, she said, when she was barely big enough to pedal a bike.

“I was 5 years old, and it was in my area,” she said. “My mother was the president of the club. So I won the race — but we were with, I think, just three. And it was the beginning of a great history. When I was young, it was more for pleasure, most races. When I was 12 I started to think about the national championship. And even now, I cannot say I [was destined] to win a world championship. So for me, it’s great but I didn’t expect one day to be world champion.”

Road led to the mountain bike, where she earned junior world titles in 2009 and 2010, and that success led back to the road and her growing list of championships and other successes.

Now undeniably one of cycling’s biggest stars, Ferrand-Prevot said she hoped she could play a role in advancing the women’s side of the sport, but that she preferred to let her legs do her talking.

“I think it was an exciting race on the TV so it was good for women’s cycling. It was really exciting in the finish with us both the front,” she said. “I think we have a good president of UCI, and he’s trying to develop women’s cycling. Marianne also works a lot on this. Maybe one day we will have the same salary and the same races.”

Equal salaries? Maybe — hopefully! — so. In the meantime, with a roster so rich in young talent, and finishes as exciting the one Ferrand-Prevot delivered on Saturday, it might be the men who aspire to match the women’s races.

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