Pauline Ferrand-Prevot: This could be the greatest challenge of my life

Interview with Frenchwoman on getting her career back on track

Pauline Ferrand-Prévot bought a dog this summer and called it Rio. Perfectly understandable for a medallist at this summer's Olympics, but less so for someone for whom those Games hold only the most miserable of memories.

Ferrand-Prévot was in a very dark place when she spotted the French bulldog puppy in a pet-shop window. Holed up in her friend's apartment in Paris for two weeks, she cut herself off from the world, reeling from the disappointment of finishing 26th in the road race and abandoning the mountain bike race in Rio.

The Games were all she'd thought about for the best part of a year and climbing off the bike was the final straw in a season that had veered far from the script she'd written for herself by becoming road, cyclo-cross, and mountain bike world champion between 2014 and 2015. 

"Cycling was what I loved to do the most but it has become my biggest nightmare," wrote Ferrand-Prévot a couple of weeks after the Games, claiming that becoming a triple world champion was the worst thing that happened to her.

The precocious success - she's still only 24 - bred lofty expectations, and she became fixated on the Olympics as next in line on the palmarès. A tibial plateau fracture last winter set her back at the start of this year, however, and she was then plagued by sciatic nerve problems, which, despite a long list of treatments, was never fully understood or remedied.

The Olympics had almost become an obsession and, as such, she was too eager to make up for lost time and pushed herself too hard when she should have been gentler on her body. It all came crashing down on the final descent in Rio.

"I said to myself: 'I'm not getting back on a bike - that's for sure'," Ferrand-Prévot said in a confessional and cathartic interview with L'Equipe magazine in November. "What's the point now? The Games are gone and I have to wait four years for the next ones - it's too far away."

Meeting Rio was, perhaps, the first step towards coming to terms with what had happened – of purging that day in Brazil – and moving forward.

And looking ahead is what Ferrand-Prévot is doing as Cyclingnews meets her in Mallorca, where she is in the swing of her first training camp with her new Canyon-SRAM team.

"This is something I really needed," says the Frenchwoman. "I've found new motivation. It's a new team, new bike, new teammates, new staff. After the year I had I really needed the change of air."

With a smile on her face and a spring in her step, Ferrand-Prévot is redeveloping the hunger to rise once again to the top of the sport, and has already come a long way from barely being able to think about cycling without feeling sick to her stomach. 

"Eventually I said to myself: 'life goes on, this isn't me, I've got to do something else'," she explains.

"I went and did a rally car race, saw a different environment, met new people, and I said to myself, 'it's not the end of the world, I need to carry on'."

After that she got back on the mountain bike but it was far from a happy return - she crashed on her very first outing and spent two days in hospital. "Fate must really be against me," she thought.

Gentle rides on the road bike followed, though, and soon her boyfriend Julien Absalon, himself a racer, suggested doing the Megavalanche mountain bike race for the first time. The taste for competition returned. 

"It was still hard in the head, and I thought that maybe I'd never return to my best level," she admits. "But after some proper training I saw a progression and I said to myself: 'if the team believes in me it's not for nothing, and I owe it to myself to continue to try and make the most of myself'.

"I also said to myself that it could be the greatest challenge of my life. I wanted to be world champion in three disciplines, and I did that. Now the goal is to return to the top level, and I think that's maybe even harder than becoming world champion three times."

'Now it's time to look ahead'

Ferrand-Prévot has resisted recommendations that she pick one discipline and specialise in it, and she will continue to combine road and mountain bike in 2017 - "I can't picture myself just doing one or the other, I need the variety".

That said, the need for a complete break from the sport heading into this winter has meant that cyclo-cross has fallen by the wayside. Instead, she will carry on riding her mountainbike over the winter as she moves back up through the gears with her training, with a return to competition on the road pencilled in for late February or early March.

"If my performances are good I'll do all the spring classics," she says. "Then after that maybe lean back towards mountain biking again. My coach Gérard Brocs knows how to plan things with the two, so the task now is to put together a well-organised plan so that I can get back to feeling good on the bike again."

Ferrand-Prévot insists she's not putting any pressure on herself and she is grateful that her new team shares that attitude, with both parties happy to put results to the back of their minds for the time being. 

"It's a year to come back to the highest level," says Ferrand-Prévot. "Then, for the major objectives, we'll see in 2018. For now, 2017 is about returning to the peloton, finding my old level, enjoying it again, and having a balanced life – being happy with what I'm doing and living my passion 100 per cent.

"The objective is more a personal one. I don't really have performance objectives – it's a out rediscovering the joy, the sense of fulfillment and enthusiasm, that I had before."

In the darkness of that post-Rio hangover, it looked like Ferrand-Prévot's Olympic experience might signal a premature end to a career that had the potential to become one of the all-time greats of the sport. 

Now, though, aware that she can't turn back time, she is determined to harness the bad experience and make something good of it. 

"Everything I did last year could serve me well. 2016 was just awful, but you have to know how to analyse why, and not make the same mistakes again. It's not a complete waste of a year; it’s a learning curve that has provided me with a few important lessons.

"What happened, happened. I said becoming world champion was the worst thing to happen to me, but what's done is done. I made errors but I don't think they're irreversible. They cost me badly, but they're not things that will last forever. So I think they'll serve me well, and now it's time to look ahead."

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