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Any awkwardness Pauline Ferrand-Prevot might have felt arriving at Ineos Grenadiers’ winter training camp in Majorca a fortnight ago, a couple of days after France had disposed of England in the cruellest of fashions at the World Cup in Qatar, was misplaced.
Ineos Grenadiers may be a British team, but that does not mean their riders were exclusively backing Gareth Southgate’s men. Aside from fellow French rider Pavel Sivakov, and various French staff on the payroll, Ferrand-Prevot – a multi-discipline world champion who has become the team’s first female signing – had allies in a number of the Grenadiers’ Celtic contingent, including Welsh duo Geraint Thomas and Luke Rowe.
“I’ve been made to feel very welcome,” Ferrand-Prevot says. “Mainly, it’s been great getting to know all the guys. Previously I only really knew them off the TV. I’m really excited by this move. I think it is the next step for me and will help me achieve my goals.”
The feeling is mutual. Tom Pidcock, the rising star of British cycling, describes Ferrand-Prevot as “a machine” and someone he can learn from. Rod Ellingworth, who effectively runs the Grenadiers these days with Sir Dave Brailsford working across various Ineos sporting projects, says the presence of a serial winner – Ferrand-Prevot won four world titles this year alone – and a female one at that, has had an immediate impact on the group dynamic.
“Having Pauline in this camp has already created a different vibe, a different energy,” Ellingworth says. “You can definitely feel a difference in the team. I tell you what, she b—– knows her stuff. There’s a reason she’s been a world champion across so many disciplines. Because she’s world-class. She’ll push us as well as the other way around. It’s exciting. We’re spreading our wings a bit.”
The question is: by how much? After years of pressure, first on Sky and then on Ineos, to introduce a women’s team, could Ferrand-Prevot’s arrival herald a change of attitude on that front? “I guess it potentially is a step towards that [a women’s team],” Ellingworth says. “But to be honest, Pauline’s signing is very focused. We’ve brought her in with a very clear goal in mind. A clear project. “If we do ever start [a women’s team], we’ll do it from scratch. And we’ll do it our way.”
The “project” to which Ellingworth is referring, the reason Ferrand-Prevot has joined the British super-team, is, of course, Paris 2024. She may be a nine-time world champion across cyclo-cross, gravel and road but in three attempts, at London, Rio and Tokyo, across road and MTB, the Frenchwoman has never won an Olympic medal. Joining Ineos’s “off-road squad” will, Ferrand-Prevot hopes, rectify that.
“Off-road squad” sounds rather grander than it is. Consisting at the moment of just Pidcock and Ferrand-Prevot, both working with Pidcock’s long-time coach Kurt Bogaerts at races and from their base in Belgium, the squad is small in size. But it has already delivered Olympic mountain bike gold for Pidcock in Tokyo.
Ferrand-Prevot is hoping that experience and specialist knowledge can rub off on her as she targets MTB gold on home soil. Not to mention training with elite male riders at these camps. When we speak she is just back from a five-hour group ride with, among others, Rowe.
“You can imagine how that was,” she says of riding with one of the peloton’s hardmen. “We did like five hours, with some sprints thrown in. But it was super fun. It is good for me to ride with the guys. It pushes me. It’s also good to ride in a group as I mostly train alone back at home. It forces me to spin the legs at a faster speed, so it’s good for cadence work.”
For now, Ferrand-Prevot is building up to the Cyclo-cross World Championships at Hoogerheide in February. She believes she can reclaim the title she won in 2015, saying: “Because I know how hard I can work. And when I really focus on something I know I can achieve it.”
Longer term, the goal remains clear. Paris 2024 dominates Ferrand-Prevot’s thinking. Asked whether she would like to see Ineos recruit more women, Ferrand-Prevot nods.
“It would be cool if they did sign some others but, if not, I’m also happy with that,” she says. “For now this is all new to me and I have to get used to everything and focus on myself. Sometimes you have to be a bit selfish, for sure.
“I want that Olympic title. It’s why I’ve joined. It is the only title I haven’t won. It’s the one I want the most. It’s in France, in front of my home fans. It’s the dream … I think if I’m ever going to win an Olympics, it has got to be that one, no?”