When former cyclo-cross world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prévot lines up to race, expectations are high, even if it's been two years since her last competition in the off-road discipline. The Frenchwoman handled the pressure with ease at the weekend, claiming fourth in DVV Verzekeringen Trofee in Essen and victory in Vlaamse Druivencross, both in Belgium.
"When you are there on the start line, and you've been former world champion, it doesn't matter if you start in the last line or first line, you know everybody is expecting something from you," Ferrand-Prévot said in a team press release. "Even if it's the first time in two years that you're racing, people are still expecting something. I just tried to push away that pressure."
Ferrand-Prévot previously dominated the road and off-road scenes, winning world titles for the road (2014), cyclo-cross (2015) and mountain bike (2015). She took a step back from off-road disciplines after the Rio Olympics in 2016.
"I didn't enjoy not racing at all," she said. "But I needed the break. I needed to have time away from the bike after the Olympics, and last winter was a good time to do that. I would have liked to race. But that time away was important."
She gradually introduced mountain biking back into her schedule in February with her road team Canyon-Sram. She ended the season with podiums in both the MTB World Cup and Women's WorldTour.
She also added cyclo-cross racing to her fall and winter program to help prepare for the 2018 spring classics, particularly Strade Bianche. Since she's earned no points, she must start each race in the back row, and she knows her comeback was an unknown.
"It's been two years without racing cyclo-cross, and even if I was at the top in 2015, I cannot know what my level will be like against the new competition of women that is racing now," she said. "I know that I don't want to go to an international race to finish in 25th position. But it's hard to know what to expect after such a long time from racing at that level. I am using cyclo-cross now as my motivation to be good for the spring."
In Essen, Ferrand-Prévot started at the back and finished in fourth, 42 seconds behind the winner and current world champion Sanne Cant. The next day in Overijse, again on the back row, she moved her way through the field quickly, showing her dominant technical skills in the snow and mud to take the win ahead of Cant and Lucinda Brand.
"I'm super happy with my weekend," Ferrand-Prévot said. "Not just for the win today but also because of Saturday's race in Essen. I didn't know what would happen, what my form was like, what to expect in that race. I started last in line and fought hard all race to finish fourth. I was happy because I didn't feel great, but more so because it gave me confidence for the rest of the season.
"In Overijse I had better legs. I started last but quickly made it to the front of the field. I felt confident in the technical parts, and I was strong on the sections that needed power. I didn't expect to win. I came here to start the international season and to have fun."
Ferrand-Prévot set a five-race program with her team Canyon-Sram. Having completed the back-to-back races in Belgium, she will next start the two upcoming World Cups at Namur and Zolder, and the Superprestige in Diegem, all as a lead-up to French National Championships in January.