When I saw Pauline Ferrand-Prévot win the world championship on a hazy September day in Ponferrada, Spain, I felt as if I was witnessing not just the coronation of a new champion but a bona fide changing of the guard in women’s cycling.
The young Frenchwoman was not the favourite to win the rainbow jersey that day, but it wasn’t for want of talent. She was already a seven-time French national champion in four disciplines — road cycling, time trialing, cyclocross, and mountain biking — not to mention a former junior world champion. But save for the prestigious one-day classic Le Flèche Wallonne Féminine, the 22-year-old hadn’t won a major road race at the elite level.
The favourite in Ponferrada was Dutch rider Marianne Vos, who, along with Belgium’s Eddy Merckx, is the finest rider the sport has ever seen. She’s won everything. For many, the talk wasn’t about who would win but about how Vos would win. Would Vos, the London Olympic champion, attack on the climbs and cross the finish line solo, or would she, the seasoned world champ, wait until the end to outsprint the stacked field?
When four riders, including Vos, attacked over the last climb on the final lap, it looked like it was game over for Ferrand-Prévot, who couldn’t quite keep pace. But PFP, as she’s called, fought on, and, to her surprise, the Vos group had slowed after the descent. With 300 meters to go, Vos sprinted, and it was the crafty Ferrand-Prévot who jumped on her wheel first. The young gun soon surged past the Dutch master and didn’t look back. She’d timed her sprint perfectly, winning by inches and taking her greatest victory.
But PFP wasn’t finished. A few months after sprinting to gold in Spain, she lined up in Tábor, Czech Republic, to race in the cyclocross world championship. And in what was the most thrilling women’s ‘cross worlds in years, PFP stunned the favourites with a near-perfect ride in the cold and the mud to take another gold medal. And once again she beat Vos, herself a seven-time world ‘cross champion.
No one should write off Vos, of course. She herself is still only 27, and Vos and PFP are teammates when they aren’t racing world championships. But if in fact Vos is slowing and a new breed of younger riders is taking over, its leader is PFP.
For the Reims native, the remarkable pair of gold medals was the crowning achievement after a dream season, and no other rider, male of female, dominated cycling the past year like Ferrand-Prévot. In her we see the speed and racecraft you usually find only in the great riders.
Today, at just 23, and with seemingly endless talent, the question is, how great will Ferrand-Prévot be?
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