Pauline Ferrand Prevot: pressure, respect and being able to say no
A conversation with reigning World Champion Pauline Ferrand Prevot is the number 19 in the series 20 heads for 2020, who would have been one of the big favourites at the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Albstadt. The 28-year-old Frenchwoman has achieved something unique in her career. However, she has already experienced the other side of the coin. This is not the only reason Ferrand Prevot has a lot to say – and she does.
It is not easy to get an appointment with Pauline Ferrand Prevot. In the end there is only enough time for a short conversation on the phone. Why this is, is explained to a certain extent during the interview. Either way, the Frenchwoman has something to say also in a short time and she does it in a very friendly and at the same time sovereign way.
Pauline Ferrand Prevot started cycling around the age of six. At the age of 27 she has „collected“ a total of eleven cycling world champion titles. Five individual titles on the mountain bike, two on the road and one in cyclo-cross, as well as three team titles for France. But what she has achieved true legend status for is the unique feat of becoming world champion in three disciplines within twelve months. First in autumn 2014 in Ponferrada, Spain on the road, then in January 2015 in cyclo-cross and finally in September 2015 in Andorra on the mountain bike – at the age of 23. In 2019 she managed to become both cross-country and marathon world champion on a mountain bike within three weeks.
In between, however, Ferrand Prevot also had to face great challenges. 2016 was a very difficult year mentally, in 2017 she slowly came back and finished third in the World Championships. 2018, however, was then marked by performance-inhibiting endofibrosis (kinking of an artery in the pelvic region), which was not diagnosed until the end of the season. In early 2019, she was operated on, and then again in early 2020.
Pauline, how are you doing in these difficult times with the Corona-related limitations?
I’m fine, thank you.
You had a second operation earlier this year for endofibrosis. How has that been going so far?
Yes, it was January 10th. Now I´m doing fine. The surgery went really well. I think I can say that everything is back to normal, to my old good level.
You became world champion in September, first in cross-country and then in marathon. Did you not feel anything then?
No, at the Worlds it was still okay. But later I was in South Africa in a training camp. It was still good there too, but when I got back I had pain in my leg again. It wasn’t exactly in the same place as before, but a bit higher. But it was the same leg, the same artery.
Does it happen often that endofibrosis recurs?
No, and they don’t know why it did. It might have something to do with my position on the bike, but what is certain it that my artery is not like other people’s.
When Pauline Ferrand Prevot won the three World Championship gold medals 2014/2015 within one year, this was not enough in her home country crazy for cycling. This extraordinary, historic achievement was not enough for the country’s cycling journalists to „decorate“ her with the cross-gender national Velo d’Or (Cyclist of the Year). The winner was road rider Thibault Pinot. Maybe it has something to do with the lower regard for women’s cycling and that the majority of journalists are male. When she was voted International Cyclist of the Year by the American magazine Velonews – also a cross-gender award – she could not bite back a side blow – obviously the journalists elsewhere were less macho. Moreover, mountain biking is not as important as road racing in the country of the Tour de France.
Pauline Ferrand Prevot’s talent is no accident. Her parents were cyclists, her uncle Ludovic Dubau was French cross-country champion in 1994, her cousin Joshua Dubau was U23 European champion in 2018 and won two U23 World Cup races, one of them in Albstadt.
Your parents were cyclists. So your path was a little bit predestined, at least for road cycling. But you also discovered mountain biking for yourself. When you were young, what did you define yourself as? As a street cyclist or as a mountain biker?
I started out on the road because my parents were also road cyclists. But at the age of eight I started mountain biking. Then my parents also started mountain biking with me. I liked it too and I kept going. So I did everything at a very young age and I always wanted to do all disciplines.
So you felt like a cyclist rather than a road or mountain biker?
Yes, that´s right. I like cycling in general.
In France road cycling is a popular sport and much more popular than mountain biking.
..yes, mainly because of the Tour de France.
Do you feel that people today have more respect for mountain bikers as well?
Hmm, I don’t know. Road is really big in France. With the gold medals of Julien (Absalon) and Julie (Bresset) it surely has gained more recognition and people are more interested. Yeah, maybe it’s growing.
You have decided to focus on mountain biking. Didn’t they ask you in France why you don’t focus on the road? There is more glory to be had there.
(Smiles). Yeah. But I don’t ride a bike to be famous. I just want to do what I love. Right now, my biggest motivation is becoming an Olympic champion. It’s the only title I yet need to win. I had to choose between road and mountain biking. I don’t think you can do both. Or, you can do it, but you can’t be top class in both disciplines. So I had to choose. I have to admit that I like mountain biking a lot, because of the atmosphere, as well as for the performance (the requirement profile). You have to go full throttle for an hour and a half and I like to get the best out of me. What I also like is the respect among all the female riders. I think these are the reasons why I chose MTB.
So you also notice what other riders, like Maja Wloszczowska (Poland) have already said. There are the races as hard fights, but there are also friendships and a lot of respect.
Yes. And I like that a lot. You can give everything in the race and then you respect what the others have done. I really like this atmosphere. It’s very nice. I think it also has to do with the fact that it’s a super hard sport and you can’t lie (in the sense of benefiting from others in the race). It’s a bit different on the road. You can ride in the slipstream and it’s a lot about tactics.
So Pauline Ferrand Prevot appreciates the respectful culture in the ladies’ field. However, she also confirms that in the race the competitors fight against each other with full commitment. Twice she herself clashed with the current European Champion Jolanda Neff. In the U23 race of the European Championships in St. Wendel the two collided 200 metres before the finish and crashed. Ferrand Prevot first stood up again and crossed the finish line as the winner – without cheering but shaking her head. Especially spicy: They rode in their respective national jerseys at that time, but during the season for the same team Liv Pro XC.
In 2018, Neff and the one year older Ferrand Prevot were in a chasing group in the battle for third place at the Cyclo-Cross World Cup in Hoogerheide, when Neff overtook the Frenchwoman on a sloping slope and Ferrand Prevot was unable to keep on track. Both fell and were eliminated. Neff broke her collarbone.
The Swiss Jolanda Neff is one of your big competitors. You associate many duels with her, but also two incidents that have been much discussed. In St. Wendel at the U23 European Championships and at the Cyclo-Cross World Cup in Hoogerheide 2018. How would you judge that in retrospect and what is your relationship with Jolanda like today?
For me it is simply competition. Jolanda is a great competitor and so am I. We both want to win and we are both very strong characters. I think it is normal that we have this kind of conflict in races. I really have nothing against Jolanda. For me she is the best female mountain biker in the world. We certainly have a lot of respect for each other and we don’t have any conflict with each other. We are just very ambitious and love to win.
So there are no reservations left?
No, absolutely not, no. When I see her win, I’m also happy because I think she’s a very good role model for mountain biking. We need her. You know, I’m not an envious person. If I lose because I’m not strong enough, and the others are better, then that’s part of the sport.
In 2016 Pauline Ferrand Prevot did not win a World Cup race, had health problems (sciatic nerve). And still she competed in Rio de Janeiro in both road and MTB races. A few weeks after the Olympic Games, she wrote on the social networks that cycling had become “a nightmare” for her, and that mastering it was “perhaps the greatest challenge of my life”. She was stuck in a deep hole and left open whether she would continue her career at all. She was looking for distance, riding rallies among other things. When she was back in the saddle of her mountain bike for the first time, she crashed and spent two days in the hospital. Not a happy restart. Her partner, double Olympic champion Julien Absalon motivated her to do the Megavalanche on the island of La Reunion and thus helped her to regain the joy of the sport.
The year 2016 was very disappointing for you and culminated in quitting the race at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Afterwards you even talked about how cycling had become a nightmare for you, that you had completely lost the desire to do it. What did you learn from that?
I learned that you have to be happy to perform. In 2016 there was this injury. But it was also mentally hard after I won these three world championship titles within a year. It was difficult to cope with it. I was certainly not happy on my bike and in my life. It was a nightmare for me, yes. But I have learned a lot and today I am so much stronger, also in my head. I just want to be happy and ride my bike. Training with a smile and with fun. That is certainly the most important thing for me.
And this is working out now?
Yes. I’m also probably less hard on myself. Before, I was very hard on myself. If I didn’t do this or that in training, I felt bad. Now I have started to feel myself. I discover my body, feel when I need a break and I think that’s really super important.
It was certainly a physical problem as well, but you say the mental side was more serious.
..yes, I’m sure. In France, if you are among the victors, they praise you to the skies. I was still very young and everyone expected me to win the gold medal at the Rio Olympics. But I was not ready to win. In my head I was still very vulnerable. It’s complicated to be ready when people expect so much from you.
Pauline Ferrand Prevot is not the only world-class mountain biker who has pushed herself to her own mental limits between personal ambition and weight of expectation. Record World Champion Gunn-Rita Dahle-Flesjaa (Norway) has already told us about this in 2000, but more recently the Olympic champions of 2012 and 2016, Julie Bresset from France and Jenny Rissveds from Sweden, experienced a massive burnout and depression respectively, which caused them to take a one-year break. Alexandra Engen (Sweden) was also affected by a severe mental exhaustion.
A few years ago, Julie Bresset said her difficulties had to do with the fact that she had not learned to say ‘no’.
Yeah, right. I can’t do that either. It’s getting better now, but I wasn’t able to before. That’s why I have someone at my side now, who takes over the no-saying for me. I’m not the type of person who says no. But this has put me in a difficult situation.
Jenny, Julie, Alexandra,… do you think it happens more often to women to end up in this situation?
Yeah, maybe. It can happen to women more often.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t really know why, but I think we’re pretty good at pushing our bodies to the maximum. Also, the diet is more complicated for us than it is for men. Because of hormones and other things. When we push our bodies to the maximum, at a certain point it’s no longer normal. It is difficult to deal with it. I hope that in the future fewer women will be affected. And I also hope that young female athletes can be taught how to exercise and how to eat without too many restrictions. I think there is still a lot of work to be done to prevent this.
You recently posted in social media about Marianne Sicot, who explained her use of doping – in a nutshell – with the abuse by her team boss. You criticized her role as a victim.
Yes. We women get into the victim role and don’t act the way we should. Sicot said she was doping because of someone else. Because the guy told her she was too fat, she thought she had to take it. It shouldn´t be like that. Doping can’t be the way. I work hard and seriously, trying to find a good balance. That’s what everyone should do.
Doesn’t the issue go beyond sports? Isn’t it a social issue that women are not forced to define themselves through their bodies?
Yes, yes, sure. I think we have to be strong and not let ourselves be forced into the victim role. As a woman you can say no, I don’t want that. I don’t want to take naked pictures of myself, whatever. We have the right to say no.
Let’s get back to a sporting issue. The UCI has put together a massive competition package for September and October. How do you see this?
(Laughs). Oh, it’s going to be pretty exhausting. But it’s the same for everyone and I am very happy that we can race again. When you think back on the situation in April, that was really bad. It’s good that we can race again. For sponsors, riders, for everybody.
Do these seven weeks need special preparation?
Yes, it will be a super long season, everyone has been training since the beginning of the year. Of course it needs special preparation.
Unfortunately the Worlds in Albstadt had to be cancelled, but there could be another World Cup race there in 2021. What is your personal relationship to Albstadt?
In 2014, I won there and it was really a day I will never forget. I had won my first World Cup in Nove Mesto a week before. In Albstadt I was super nervous because people expected me to win again. I wanted to win with a big lead, just to show everyone that I was rightly there.
That worked out well. You won with almost three minutes ahead.
Yes, that’s why I have very good memories of Albstadt. It is physically very demanding and when you win in Albstadt you are super strong. So, those are very good memories. And of course I like the atmosphere too. It would be great if it worked out with the World Cup.
Short profile Pauline Ferrand Prevot
Grew up in: Reims, France
Profession: cycling professional
Mountainbike: Cross-Country World Champion 2015, 2019, four World Cup victories XCO, two in Short Track, Junior World Champion 2009, 2010, Team World Champion 2014-2016, Marathon World Champion 2019
Cyclo-Cross: World Champion 2015
Road: World Champion 2014, Junior World Champion 2010, Junior Vice World Champion individual time trial, winner Flêche Wallone 2014
Photos: Marius Maasewerd, Armin Küstenbrück