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How does someone become the first rider in history — male or female — to simultaneously hold the world champion’s jerseys for road, cyclocross, and mountain biking?
“Pour ceux qui croient en remportant, il n’ya rien pour acquis,” says Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, cycling’s most dominant athlete in 2015. “For those who believe in victory, take nothing for granted.”
Ferrand-Prévot clearly possesses enormous talent and ambition to match. But she also benefited from growing up around cycling. Her parents are cyclists who ran a bike shop in Reims, France, and who supported her competitive nature from early on. Her standing as cycling’s queen is the result of talent, drive, and circumstance.
PFP, as she is known, started riding at age five, sticking to the road at first before taking to the trails three years later. Though her first love was ice dancing, she says she gave that up due to a preference for finish lines over judges’ scores — objective victories over subjective ones.
“When I do something, I always have to be first. I like to be the best,” she says. “At school, if I was not the best I was crying. My mother was the same. I think it’s something in my family.”
There haven’t been many occasions for tears. PFP won early and never stopped, propelled by success in small, local races as a child and then by the sort of dominance in the youth ranks typical of cycling legends. The true greats are great early, and PFP clearly was. She won her first junior national championship in 2005, at age 12. Four more followed. She then went on to win three junior world titles.
In 2011, racing for the the French national team, the then-19-year-old entered seven pro races and finished in the top 10 of all but one. She signed with Rabobank the following year and claimed her first elite national championship with a win in the time trial. She repeated that in 2013 and also claimed the best young rider’s jersey at that year’s La Route de France.
But 2014 was the year Ferrand-Prévot marked her arrival on the world stage with her first World Cup victory at La Flèche Wallonne Féminine and second overall at the Giro Rosa, behind Rabo-Liv teammate and mentor Marianne Vos, the point of reference in women’s cycling and the rider to whom PFP is most often compared.
The relationship between the two is almost like one of mother and daughter, Ferrand-Prévot says. While Vos sat out most of 2015 with injury, she checked in with her young protégé weekly. And when the two raced together in 2014, Vos acted as a guide on the road.
Ferrand-Prévot finished 2014 by blasting past her mentor — and the rest of an elite breakaway group in a rain-soaked Ponferrada, Spain — to claim her first elite world title. The cyclocross title followed — this time it was a sprint victory over Belgian Sanne Cant in Tabor, Czech Republic, in February 2015. Then in Andorra, in early September, she rode from a mid-pack starting position through the elite women’s cross-country field to catch, and then pass, two-time former world champion Irina Kalentieva and take her third set of stripes by nearly a minute.
Such year-long dominance, unencumbered by season and discipline, would be exceptional at any point in cycling’s long history. But in the modern era of specialists, it’s almost unheard of, which explains why PFP’s youth and national coaches tried to place limits on her.
She wouldn’t have it.
“People wanted to put me in one category, I think because it was easier for them,” she says. “The French federation was not so happy, because they wanted me to make a choice. But I said ‘no.’
“Now, with all my world titles, I am very happy because I can say to all those people that what I chose to do was good for me.”
In a sport that immortalizes its grizzled and grumpy champions (think: Bernard Hinault), Ferrand-Prévot is anything but. The incessantly smiling 23-year-old has a diamond stud on her left incisor and a Chihuahua named Gospel. But if her personality doesn’t harken back to cycling’s blue-collar roots, her panache and graceful form on the bike are a direct line to cycling’s great champions.
The comparisons to Vos, still the best female cyclist of all time, are inevitable. Is she greater than her mentor? Can anyone be? Vos has 12 world titles to PFP’s three. Even if Vos never wins another — which seems unlikely, given that she’s only 27 — Ferrand-Prévot still has some catching up to do.
“I know I can bring something to Marianne and Marianne can also bring something to me,” Ferrand-Prévot says. “We are a good combination.”
And, of course, the Frenchwoman has already done something that Vos could not. The latter added mountain bike racing to her program in 2013 in an attempt to complement her world and Olympic titles in track, road, and cyclocross. But it proved too much. She stopped mountain bike racing before road worlds that year and kept her focus on bikes with drop bars.
Ferrand-Prévot does not seem to find the transition as jarring. “It isn’t difficult for me,” she says. “Each discipline brings me something. That’s why I like it. I want to be the best in every discipline. For me to do competition all year, it’s really nice.”
Next year, however, Ferrand-Prévot will return to the road wearing the jersey of French national champion rather than world champion. She was sixth in Richmond this fall. Perhaps the race came simply too soon after mountain bike worlds. Or perhaps even Ferrand-Prévot cannot win them all.