She is quite simply one of the most talented cyclists in the history of the sport.
Still only 29, Pauline Ferrand-Prévot is the first cyclist ever to hold the world championship title on the road, mountain biking, and cyclocross disciplines in the same year.
It is safe to say that Pauline Ferrand-Prévot’s career got off to a gilded start when she captured those three rainbow-striped jerseys in 2015 and 2016. But a stunning defeat in the Rio Olympics in 2016 also ushered in several seasons of doubt and difficulty.
But she more than bounced back in 2019, once again winning the world cross-country title in mountain biking, the discipline she has focused on the most in recent years. She defended that title in 2020 and once again she will be a heavy favorite at the Olympics in Tokyo this year, the biggest title missing from her hearty list of victories.
We caught up with “PFP” as she prepared for the upcoming Olympics. She is both witty and insightful. She takes a hard look at her many setbacks, but has also clearly learned from them, and is in many ways stronger today. She can be uncannily light-hearted and yet dead serious. She clearly savors simply riding her bike. But make no mistake about it, she remains a fierce competitor focused on one thing: winning.
VeloNews: Your most recent Olympic Games ended in heartbreak. You were coming off of injury and sickness, and never attained the fitness you wanted. What are the emotions that you still have about the 2016 race, what are the memories you have from that Olympics, and how did your experience that year shape your motivation for the 2021 Games?
Pauline Ferrand-Prévot: If I look back at that time and think about my feelings at the time it was just horrible, devastating. It was a period of doubt at every level. I didn’t feel at my best physically and yet everybody had me pegged as the big favorite in the Olympics and that victory would be easy. That was one of the worst things really because nothing in sports is easy, certainly not winning an Olympic medal. As a result, people started saying it was all in my head. But mentally I was fine. It was really about my legs. But you start doubting yourself nevertheless, and you lose confidence. You divide things between what you feel and what others think. It can really disgust you and take away what you love more than anything in the world: being on a bike.
In addition, on a personal level, the situation was not easy either. Julien [Absalon] and I had just gotten together and I was criticized a lot, even attacked. But looking back today, I can say that those Games were a moment of total reconstruction. It’s sort of like being caught in a big fire. If you get through it without burning yourself, it makes you stronger. I learned that I really, truly loved cycling, and that I knew how to rebound. It taught me that I could accept not winning in an effort to return to the top. It gave me profound confidence. As a result, the most emotional world championship title to date was at Mont-Sainte-Anne in 2019. I lived it as a real renaissance with who I really was.
VN: You underwent iliac artery surgery on both your right and left legs. How would you describe the pain or discomfort you felt before the surgeries? When did you realize it was time to undergo the operation? Was there a moment you remember when you decided that it was time?
PFP: Well I just couldn’t pedal at 100 percent of my power and after a few minutes I had the impression that my leg was falling asleep. In addition, I often was cold at the end of my fingers and toes. So really once the diagnostic was announced it was almost a deliverance, a relief. It confirmed to me that it wasn’t just in my head. I also had the good fortune to meet Professor Chiche, who did two operations. He is really an extraordinary person and I had total confidence in him.
VN: Still though recovery was far from easy.
PFP: I had to be really patient, which is not one of my principal characteristics. I really had to avoid pushing myself too hard and increase my heart rate suddenly because the risks of a pulmonary embolism were very real. I just took short walks. I also became passionate about dog sitting!
VN: How would you describe the feeling you had on the bicycle after the surgery, and what were the differences that you felt when riding or racing? What was the first race where you felt you were finally at 100 percent, and how would you describe the emotions you felt after that effort?
PFP: When I could finally start riding again, I started out with an E-bike and eventually got back on my cross-country bike. Little by little I started to get my strength back as well and was able to start increasing the intensity. And since then my legs have really responded, they never leave me in the middle of a hard effort. And I just love being able to express everything that I have in my legs without limit. It gives me the feeling that I am flying. And I was really happy to have such legs at the worlds in Mont-Sainte-Anne.
VN: What are the emotions that you bring into the Tokyo Olympics this year? What is pushing your effort, and do you feel nervous or anxious at all about these Olympics?
PFP: We say it often because it is true: The Olympic Games is a particular race that brings everything together, the attention of the media, the competition, the preparation of the athletes. It is a race that has not gone well for me, yet. But it is also the only race that is missing from my palmarès. And my personality is such that I am rarely satisfied. When I obtain something I consider it acquired and I turn towards other goals, other challenges. It is not very relaxing or easy, but it is something that drives me.
VN: From 2016 until today, cross-country has undergone a generation change, with Jolanda Neff, you, Kate Courtney, and other young riders now at the front of the races. What is the attitude that your generation of racers has toward one another? Are you friendly or cutthroat? How does the spirit of competition resonate in your relationships with the other women in your generation?
PFP: We have known each other for a long time. Sometimes the rivalries take over, like with Jolanda. But I try not to focus on the individuals. Often I really appreciate them outside of racing, just not at the starting line! I just really want to win, and that means beating everyone else.
Regarding Kate, she is someone that I like a lot. I like who she is on and off a bike. I feel like we are actually pretty similar, even if I cannot say that we are really friends. But I loved launching the new Oakley campaign with her. She very graciously accepted to take part in the campaign and I really liked her attitude. She is smart and I like adversaries like that. It gives a good image of cycling and of sport in general.
VN: How did the delay of the 2020 Olympics impact your training and your life? How did the shift impact your motivation? What were the specific challenges that the delay brought you?
PFP: Since I was operated on twice in 2020, it was more or less a good thing for me having the Olympics pushed back. In addition, since countries were not on the same level regarding the rules of confinement, certain athletes could go out and train while others could not. Things were not equal and that is something that really bothered me. I can take losing. I can accept defeat if we are all on a level playing field. That said, I still detest losing!
VN: What is your assessment of the Olympics course in Tokyo?
PFP: I really like the circuit. It is nervous, intense, with no real place to relax or recuperate. It’s really a modern Olympic cross-country circuit.
VN: What is your assessment of Jolanda Neff, and where do you feel you are stronger than her, or weaker than her?
PFP: If you want to win, to be at the front, an adversary cannot impress you. But we can use them to progress in certain ways, say technically or descending. But I avoid focusing on the individuals or comparing myself to them. What interests me is knowing where I can push my own strengths and excellence.
VN: What is your assessment of Kate Courtney, and where do you feel you are stronger than her, or weaker than her?
PFP: As with Jolanda I don’t compare myself directly to Kate. They have certain qualities. I have others. But on a human level, it is true that I really appreciate her.