Pauline Ferrand-Prévot's comeback to cyclo-cross came to a disappointing end at the World Championships in Valkenburg, but the French multi-discipline cycling star isn't looking back. Instead, she's focused on the upcoming road and mountain bike seasons with Canyon-SRAM, and looking even further ahead to her ultimate career objective - a gold medal at the Olympic Games in Tokyo 2020.
"I'm dreaming about becoming an Olympic gold medallist," Ferrand-Prévot told Cyclingnews.
If anyone has the potential to win a gold medal at the Olympics, it's Ferrand-Prévot. After all, it's the only big result missing from her long list of accolades. She is the only rider in history to simultaneously hold elite world titles in the three disciplines - road (2014), and cyclo-cross and mountain bike (both 2015). She is also twice a world champion in the elite team relay mountain bike category (2014 and 2015).
Although cyclo-cross is not an Olympic sport, she was a front-runner to win an Olympic gold medal in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 in the road and mountain bike races. But she only managed 24th in the road race and abandoned the cross-country mountain bike race. From there, her career took a downward spiral that the cycling media have well documented.
Ferrand-Prévot said that the pressure she put on herself to win was too great, and eventually took its toll. She cited fatigue, burnout, and despite being at the top of the sport, even said her cycling career had become a nightmare.
She took a break from the sport following the Olympics, and during that time she had seriously considered retirement.
When she gradually returned to road racing in 2017 with Canyon-SRAM, she zeroed in on specific events, mainly one-day races on the Women's WorldTour. She had no victories - an unusual position to be in for someone as successful as Ferrand-Prévot - but there were some highlights with second at GP de Plouay, eighth at Amstel Gold Race, 13th at Tour of Flanders and 16th at La Course.
She also dabbled in mountain biking and ended the year ranked 10th in the world after finishing second at the World Cup in Mont-Sainte-Anne and third at the World Championships.
She stayed away from cyclo-cross for two years, and upon her return in January, pulled in respectable performances at DVV Verzekeringen Trofee in Essen (fourth), Telenet Superprestige Diegem (second) and won Vlaamse Druivencross. In the World Cup series, she was fifth in Namur, fourth in Heusden-Zolder and third in Nommay. She won the French national title and went into the Valkenburg World Championships as a contender for the title.
She crashed at the World Cup in Hoogerheide, and with only a week between that race and Worlds, she wasn't able to recover. She could only manage 24th place in Valkenburg, 4:40 behind winner Sanne Cant.
"With the crash of last week, I had a really difficult week," Ferrand-Prévot said. "It wasn't possible to train like I wanted and in the end I hadn't recovered completely from the crash. I really have a lot of pain in my ribs and you can't do a good performance at the World Championships if you're not at 100 per cent.
"I'm disappointed because I had a really good season up until now. I will now take some time to recover, do some more tests and then I will look forward to bringing my form to the road and MTB seasons."
The greatest challenge of my life
Despite having some success in all three disciplines over the last 12 months, Ferrand-Prévot has not yet found the form she once had. She is confident she will, given more time.
She said her return to top-level racing has been hard, both physically and mentally.
"It's been the greatest challenge of my life because it was the first time that I didn't enjoying riding my bike and had thoughts about stopping my career," she said. "It was very hard to come back after having these kinds of feelings.
"Regarding my level, I really feel well now, and I'm improving day after day."
Some have compared Ferrand-Prévot's unravelling from the highest level of cycling after the Rio Olympics, along with her effort to get back to the top, to the similar story of Marianne Vos. She too has had an illustrious career where she amassed seven world titles in cyclo-cross, three world titles and an Olympic gold medal on the road. She has also won 19 stages and the overall title three times at the Giro Rosa, along with numerous other major victories. She took extended time off after a hamstring injury and feelings of being 'overloaded'.
Since Vos' official comeback to cycling in 2016, and despite having some success that includes nine victories in 2017, she has struggled to return with the same dominance on the road and in cyclo-cross.
"We can compare my case and Marianne's," Ferrand-Prévot said. "The only thing I can say is that we are two strong competitors that are not giving up at the first problem."
Ferrand-Prévot has decided to take some of the pressure off of herself this year. Instead of focusing strictly on winning, she has taken a more holistic approach to her career and has concluded that she can build her form and win races, while also having fun.
"I realised that if I'm not happy when riding, I can't expect good results," Ferrand-Prévot said. "So now I'm just enjoying training and racing, and I'm listening more to my body and my mind."
She has extended her contract with Canyon-SRAM until 2020 and will gear her road and mountain bike seasons with the Tokyo Olympics in mind.
This year, she will again focus on one-day races on the Women's WorldTour and the Classics, while mixing several mountain bike World Cups into her programme throughout the season. She will also aim to compete in both mountain bike Worlds in Switzerland from September 3-6 and road Worlds in Austria on September 23-30.
Asked if she could complete the hat trick of world titles again during her career, Ferrand-Prévot didn't discount the idea. "It's too early to speak about winning again in the three disciplines."
With the Tokyo Olympics just over two years away, Ferrand-Prévot will begin preparing for her biggest career goal of winning a gold medal, which has so far eluded her. In which discipline is anybody's guess.
"I, of course, want to compete in Tokyo. We will see in 2020 if I will do both disciplines or will choose to focus on one."