When IAM Cycling closed their shutters at the end of 2016, Simon Pellaud was one of many riders left out in the cold. He had spent two years in the WorldTour by that point, and twice completed the Vuelta a España, but no team offered him a contract that winter. Professional cycling has always been a remorseless business. A return to normal life awaited. So it goes.
Cycling had seemingly finished with Pellaud but the Swiss decided that he had not yet finished with cycling.
After launching a crowd funding campaign, he resolved to continue racing as a globetrotting member of US Continental outfit Team Illuminate. He spoke dreamily of the sense of adventure he felt at riding low-level races in new locations. A nice winter story, but few imagined the illusion would endure.
It’s a long, long way, after all, from the Vuelta a España to the Tour de Taiwan, Pellaud’s first race with Illuminate. The road less travelled took him onwards to the Tour de Azerbaijan. The Tour de Korea was followed by the Sibiu Cycling Tour in Romania and the Tour of Almaty in Kazakhstan.
Yet, by the Tour of Rwanda at the end of the year, Pellaud was still there. He won a stage, but that didn’t earn him a return to the big time. Not that it bothered him. He signed up for another year with Illuminate, flitting constantly between continents and seasons. The salary didn’t warrant those efforts, but cycling, he says, was always for love and never for money.
"In Switzerland, if you want to make your fortune, you’re better off working than riding a bike," Pellaud tells Cyclingnews at the Tour de San Juan, where, riding for Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec, he placed 15th overall.
"But cycling is what I wanted to do. I live for it. For two years, I was travelling to races at a lower level, with just a bike and a salary that might be late in arriving. It was a bit difficult, but they were also the two most fantastic seasons that I could have experienced, both from a human standpoint but also as a cyclist."
A new life in Colombia
Pellaud eventually begun to build a life for himself in Colombia, a curiosity that has since earned him the moniker of El Suizo Colombiano.
His first trip to the country came almost on a whim. The winter of 2016 was a harsh one in every respect; heavy snow tempered his ability to train at home in Martigny, and so he elected to travel to Bogota to train with his new teammate Edwin Avila. Amid the gloom of losing his place in the WorldTour, the weeks spent in South America felt life affirming. When Pellaud returned to Europe, all he could think about was getting back to Colombia.
"I’d spoken about it a lot with several Colombian riders, who kept telling me I should go there to visit them," Pellaud says. "That first time, I stayed near Bogota, with Edwin. I liked that well enough, but then when I went to Antioquia, around Medellin, well, I decided I wanted to live there."
The polyglot Pellaud, who carries Spanish in his quiver of languages, settled quickly in Medellin and was welcomed into a local training group that includes new Colombian champion Sergio Higuita, while Rigoberto Urán lives nearby.
"They call it the city of eternal spring and the climate is ideal for cycling," says Pellaud, though he notes that his presence in Colombia is not entirely due to his career as a cyclist. "Over time, I met my girlfriend there, I bought some land and I’ve built a house.
“The initial choice to live in Colombia was also a financial one, because Switzerland is very expensive. When I’m in Switzerland, I still live with my parents because I couldn’t afford to get my own place. Colombia allows me to have my own place."
In 2019, Pellaud left Illuminate for Swiss Continental squad IAM-Excelsior, which grew out of his home club in Martigny. Though the squad offered a largely European racing programme, he continued to toggle between his homes on two continents and proceeded to enjoy his best-ever season, claiming victory at Flèche Ardennaise and the Tour Mirabelle, as well as second at the Swiss Championships.
It seemed an advertisement for the effects of living and training at altitude, though Pellaud maintains the benefits of his Colombian life are mental rather than physical.
"I didn’t go to Colombia for the altitude. I went because it felt like a paradise for me, and it just happens to be a paradise that’s 2,500 metres above sea level," he says.
"Then the reason I wanted to stay in Colombia was the people and the mentality down there. People don’t have a lot but they’re happy. They’re always smiling. It’s really changed me.
"I had some moments in the WorldTour when I was down. I wouldn’t call it depression, but there were periods of ennui. And living in Europe, it can be grey, whereas in Colombia, the weather is good. I’ve met incredible people there. It corresponds with who I am."
Pellaud picks an example from cycling to highlight the difference in mindset between Europe and his adopted home.
"You can spend three weeks in the peloton at the Vuelta a España and not speak with anyone," Pellaud says. "But then I arrived in Colombia to ride the Vuelta a Colombia. It’s 11 days long, but by the midpoint of the race, I’d already spoken with half the peloton. I really like that."
On to Androni
The Mirabelle win and some all-action displays for the Swiss national team at the Tour de Romandie were enough to draw some attention from Pro Continental squads for 2020, and it was hardly surprising that Androni-Sidermec manager Gianni Savio, always with a finger on the pulse of Latin American cycling, was among those to express an interest in acquiring his services.
"Whether it was the Tour of Colombia or a 2.2 race in Asia, I treated them with the same respect I gave the Vuelta a España," Pellaud says. "I kept doing the métier very seriously all the time, and I think that’s what paid off and helped me to get a contract. I kept developing as a rider and now I’ve reached my physical maturity."
Pellaud insists, however, that returning to the status of full professional was not a motivating factor during his period of wanderlust and low pay. If he continued racing bikes these past three years, it was simply because it was part of what he liked to do, no more and no less.
"It was a way of discovering more of this planet and that’s what inspired me to keep racing," he says. "The last few years, I was at a low level from a cycling point of view. But from a human point of view, these were my best years, driven only by my passion for the bike and for travelling and meeting new people."
At the Vuelta a San Juan last week, Pellaud was meeting with his new teammates for the first time, having spent the winter in Medellin with the blessing of Savio. Now 27 years of age, Pellaud is in line to make his Giro d’Italia debut this May, and he also harbours hopes of linking up with the Swiss national team once again at the Tour de Romandie or Tour de Suisse, if his Androni duties allow it.
"I had several options, but Androni was interesting because they give me freedom to continue with the kind of cycling I love. It’s an aggressive, attacking team, without a lone leader," says Pellaud. "This year, I have very high objectives, higher than I’ve had before, like going to the Giro."
Another lofty goal is earning selection for the Swiss team for the World Championships in Martigny. The race takes place on the very roads he grew up on, he has friends on the local organising committee, and he would be the focus of hometown support.
It raises an obvious question: where is home now?
"It’s hard to say. I still feel at home in Martigny, of course, but my chez moi is what I have built in Colombia," Pellaud says. "I’ve got two homes, you could say."