When it comes to a tumultuous time on the bike, you need look no farther than the career of 28-year-old French cyclist Pauline Ferrand-Prévot. As the only cyclist in history to hold the road, cyclocross and mountain bike world championships in the same 12-month period, Ferrand-Prevot quickly established herself as an all-rounder in the 2015 season at the age of just 23.
The next years saw the usual mix of challenges and triumphs but then, in 2019 chronic leg pains – later revealed to be iliac artery endofibrosis – threatened to derail Ferrand-Prévot’s career for good.
Despite undergoing two operations, she went on to claim two world cups and two world championships in the 2019 season, including bagging the biggest prize in the sport, the UCI Mountain Bike XCO World Championships. It was an against-the-odds comeback that has already gone down as one of the greatest in cycling history.
“Winning is not always easy,” she tells Rob Warner in the new episode Rob Meets Pauline Ferrand-Prévot. “I think you have much more bad days than flying days. You just have to keep pushing.” Here’s how.
Be patient and keep your goals in mind
With her January 2020 surgery planned well in advance, Ferrand-Prévot had plenty of time to prepare… not that that made it any easier to spend time off the bike! As she explains, the key to staying focused was making a plan and seeing it through without becoming too impatient.
Recovering is like racing; you keep your goal in mind and you work for it.
“I knew I would be off the bike for some time, but I also knew I was in way better shape than I was the previous year for my first surgery,” she says. “When we found out that the endofibrosis had returned I had a quick discussion with my surgeon, and we decided how we would handle it. This made things clearer for me and I could plan my recovery. The hardest thing was that I knew what was in front of me and I would have to be patient, which isn’t exactly my cup of tea! Recovering is like racing; you keep your goal in mind and you work for it.”
Get back on the bike
Having experienced one round of surgery, Ferrand-Prévot was in a better position to recover second time around and knew what she could expect from herself during the recovery period.
“I was in better shape this time so I went back on the ebike a lot faster! I felt good pretty quickly and the data showed that I had reached the same fitness level as at the end of 2019’s season just two months after the second surgery,” she explains. “I knew I would be ready for what was my 2020 main goal: the Olympics.”
Take one day at a time
Naturally, an operation is going to affect your training schedule. At an amateur level, this might be frustrating. But at the top level, ensuring you recover properly is absolutely vital. While a four week ban on cycling was tough for Ferrand-Prévot, she knew it was essential not to run before she could walk. Accepting this from the start prevented her pushing too hard too soon and causing further damage.
“I had to start really slow after the surgery because my artery had to heal,” she says. “I was told I could do no sport for four weeks. But I knew I would come back easier than last year and I knew I had the time for that, so I took one day after another, focusing on every step and how I was feeling along the way.”
Look for the silver linings
Surely one of the most difficult setbacks for any athlete at the top of their game was the news that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would be postponed to 2021. For Ferrand-Prévot, the news brought mixed emotions.
“Since the announcement of the Olympic Games delay, I must admit that I feel relieved,” she says. “It has really freed me. France and Spain are the only countries where athletes are currently confined to their homes. I understand this from a health point of view, but from a sporting point of view, equity between nationalities seems difficult to ensure under these conditions. It made me uncomfortable. When I heard the Olympics had been delayed, a weight fell from my shoulders.”
Expect the unexpected
Ferrand-Prévot’s current recovery period isn’t the only setback she’s faced along the way – far from it. One of the most memorable occurred during the 2019 Val di Sole World Cup race when Jolanda Neff appeared from behind on the final lap resulting in tense challenges and a sprint finish. Embracing the element of surprise, then, is vital for any competitive rider.
“I know anything can happen right up until the finish line,” says Ferrand-Prévot. “That’s why I never underestimate my rivals in a race. The only thing I can control is what I do on my bike; how I pedal, how I keep focused on giving my best. There’s a quote from the Roman emperor Marc Aurèle that speaks to me, ‘May I have the strength to accept what could not be changed. May I have the courage to change what could be changed. And may I have the wisdom to distinguish one from another.’ That’s my tool to deal with the surprise.”
Use setbacks as fuel
One of the key risks for MTB riders in particular is a nasty crash. Ferrand-Prévot experienced exactly that at the start of the 2019 MTB World Championships in Mont Sainte-Anne. Despite eating dirt, she went on to claim gold. The key, she explains, is taking it all in your stride, and using it as motivation.
“That race was the exact mirror of my whole year; a difficult start and a bright finish,” she says. “When I crashed, I went back on the bike with one thing in my mind, ‘Let’s see what you can do with that!’ So, as with my surgery, I accepted I had to be patient, to overtake the riders one by one, to stay curious and motivated, to see what I would achieve in that race. And, as we won the gold medal of the team relay the days before, I knew my feelings were great, I knew I was strong, so I gave all I have.”
Reach deep into yourself for the resources to make it through
A spectacular part of Ferrand-Prévot’s 2019 season return to form was taking the rainbow stripes at Mont Sainte-Anne in 2019, claiming a second XCO mountain bike World Champion title in the process. But it nearly wasn’t so; caught up in the moment, Ferrand-Prévot had miscounted the laps, believing she had one less to do. How did finding out she had one more lap to go affect her performance? Well, it only made her more determined.
“It was an amazing and strong feeling to cross the finish line as the new XCO world champion!” she explains. “It was a kind of revenge on all the hard times I had to go through, that gave such an intense taste to that moment! Concerning that ‘unexpected extra lap’, well, I knew I rode the hardest so it was out of question for me not to reap the fruits of all the efforts I had made! When you live such moments, you find deep in you the resources you need to reach your goal.”
Set your own parameters of success
Not all setbacks have occurred on the bike, of course. As a child, Ferrand-Prévot’s mother thought riding bikes wasn’t ‘girly’ enough and signed her up to ice skating instead. Thankfully, Ferrand-Prévot stuck to her guns.
“I explained to my mother that I couldn’t stand to be judged,” she says. “[Ice skating] had given me a strong feeling of unfairness, and competing has nothing to deal with that kind of inequity. That’s why I love the bike so much; if you’re the strongest, you’ll be the first (except if you have mechanical problems, for sure, but your performance doesn’t depend on somebody else’s judgement). As my mother and my father ride bikes, well, after that first unconvincing figure skating experience it was easy to come back to riding.”
Appreciate the now
Something you might not know about Ferrand-Prévot is that she has a tattoo that reads ‘life is a joke’ on the back of her neck. The story behind it has driven her career for the last few years, as she explains.
You just have to appreciate the moments you’re living. Try to stay present.
“It’s a kind of mantra I made at the end of 2018,” Ferrand-Prévot says. You know, I was so high with my three world titles in 2015 and so low after the Rio’s Olympic just one year later. [The tattoo] is a way to remember that you mustn’t take yourself too seriously, because life can play with you in the most unexpected ways. You just have to appreciate the moments you’re living. Try to stay present.
Believe in your capabilities
From missing a flight to having no luggage show up, the life of an international professional athlete is uncertain to say the least. The one mantra that keeps Pauline Ferrand-Prévot going when the unexpected occurs?
“Since Rio, I know that anything can happen,” she says. “But, as the 2019 season demonstrated, I also know I can trust myself to face any situation. I’ll always find my way.”