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A world champion’s nightmare

Triple world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prévot opens up about her dismal 2016 season. She leaves the Rio Olympics with no results and disappointment.

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The world’s best athletes make it all look so easy. Pauline Ferrand-Prévot’s nightmare season proves it’s anything but.

When Ferrand-Prévot abandoned the Olympic mountain bike race last Saturday it was one disappointment too many, the last letdown in a line of poor results dating back most of a year. This Frenchwoman who once seemed unbeatable, who took three world titles in a single year across three different disciplines, is now off the bike. She doesn’t know when she’ll get back on.

“The bike was what I liked most do, but it became my biggest nightmare,” she wrote on her social media accounts on Thursday.

Ferrand-Prévot’s troubles began last winter when she suffered a tibial plateau stress fracture that took her off the bike for weeks. She resumed training “too fast and too hard,” she said, ignoring the advice of her coach. She then moved to southern France for better training conditions, but was batted back by allergens in the new climate.

“After a few weeks of training I felt that I wasn’t myself, that the pedal strokes weren’t mine,” she said.

She abandoned early season races, took three weeks to undergo a round of antibiotics, and then underwent a round of corticosteroids. Under WADA rules, she had to take 10 days away from racing during the treatment.

The fracture and the allergies and subsequent treatment left Ferrand-Prévot on the back foot. Then sciatica, an old nemesis she had thought vanquished, returned.

“Impossible to exceed the 200 watts and it’s getting worse and worse,” she said. “Each workout is an ordeal. I can’t follow the plan, the intensity zones. I roll, but like a cyclo-tourist.”

Still, she had a few minor successes throughout the early sprint season. 11th at Strade Bianche showed she may be returning to form, and eighth at the Tour of Flanders confirmed she was still in the mix.

And despite the relatively poor showings, she was still selected for both the road race and mountain bike race and the Olympics. The races became the biggest deadline of her career, she said.

It was a deadline she would miss. 26th in the road race, a DNF in the mountain bike race. She pulled herself off her mountain bike in tears, avoided the media mixed zone.

“We really never caught up after all the delay, even being very serious,” she said. “These Olympics were the result of a lousy year.”

A lousy year made worse by the pressure of anticipation. Ferrand-Prévot was the next great, the next Marianne Vos. Nine months ago she was the favorite for Rio gold.

“Becoming world champion in three disciplines in one year may be the worst thing that ever happened to me,” she said. It’s easy to forget that a rider of such prodigious talent still needs a bit of luck. She still feels the weight of expectation, and is not immune to the pressure her own results generated.

“It’s hard to take in, since Saturday. Everyone gives his opinion, judges. But I wanted to explain myself,” she said of her social media post.

“I finish my season on abandonment. I don’t know when I’ll get back on a bike.”