“Best case, I die. Worst case, I end up as a tetraplegic.” Not many people laugh after telling you their doctors have spelled out the end of their racing career in such brutal terms, but Cecile Ravanel is not like most people. Looking into her eyes as she tells me this, she doesn’t flinch or hesitate, rather you get the feeling that she is that rarest of things in our modern world: she is genuinely happy.
Her path to the top of the Enduro World Series was an unusual one. For a start, she is one of the few riders to have successfully made the jump over from XCO. While many elite XC racers have lined up to try their hand at the discipline, none other has actually won a race, let alone a title. Yet when you start to dig back through her career, it becomes apparent why she adapted so well.
In the French system, young riders are expected to take part in all aspects of the sport, only specializing in a given discipline as they get older. Growing up in the South of France, Cecile was competing throughout her junior years with another rider from just down the coast. Another rider who is the same age as her, went on to summit the peaks of our sport and today is her best friend: Sabrinna Jonnier. She recalls the 1995 French championships, “It was me and Sabrina. She took second in the DH and first in the XC, I got second in the XC and won the DH.” Yet as much as she enjoyed downhill, reality intervened, “At that time it was hard to get support for a woman racing downhill in France, as an Olympic sport it was much easier to go into XC racing.”
She had a strong junior career, lifting the XCO Junior World Championship in 1998. While she was a decent enough racer in the years that followed, it is probably fair to say that her career was less than stellar, the highlight being a bronze medal in the team relay in 2009 (alongside Cedric). Although it’s worth noting that she was a two-time winner of the Trans-Vesubienne, an XC race in the South of France that can be best compared to doing two EWS rounds, on the same day and where you’re on the clock the entire time on a short travel bike, with long bike-carry sections designed into the course. After meeting her husband, Cedric, on the race circuit in 2000, they became teammates soon after. In many ways, and in contrast to their enduro years, Cedric had the stronger XCO career, with a Worlds silver medal in the XCO in Les Gets in 2004 his highlight. Today he is more than comfortable with this role reversal, joking as we shoot photos, “I’m ok with just being here to make dust to make Cecile look good.” Life on the XC circuit was tough though, as Cecile explains, “At the mid-season or at the end of every season, there was always so much stress to negotiate and when we stopped on the XC circuit I decided with Cedric that we didn’t want to live like that anymore.”
A Second Act
Cecile and Cedric were there at the very first round of the EWS in Punta Ala, 2013. But by the time they arrived, this second act of their career looked very different from the first one. Cedric explains that “We were tired of the uncertainty of chasing sponsors every year. There’s so much pressure that it takes away from the pleasure of riding bikes. If you have to do well to pay your bills then how can you relax and enjoy it?” Cecile explains further that, “We only went to enduro to see how it went, to travel, to enjoy it as it’s easier than XC.” So when they switched to enduro they not only had their own programme, but they had both started to take coaching qualifications so they had a plan for what they would do after racing. In fact, their willingness to talk about retirement sets them apart from most racers.
To be successful in racing you need focus. Without dedicating your life to your sport you will never stand atop a podium, that much is undeniable. For many professional riders, excellence on track comes at the expense of excellence in their academic or working lives. There simply isn’t enough space for most to achieve outside their sport, which becomes a problem if you find yourself in the job market at 30+ with your only work experience being, “I was fast on a bicycle.” That means that many riders are uncomfortable or unwilling to discuss what they will do when they retire, they are focused on today and what they need to do to be the best racer they can be. In fact, the word ‘retire’ itself becomes a dangerous word to throw around in some corners. Not so for Cecile and Cedric, they don’t seem to see it as an end, just moving on from one exciting phase of their lives to another one.
In France, coaching riders is a tightly regulated profession, the qualification takes a year to achieve, but once you have it is a much more structured and compact world to survive in. So alongside their racing, they were working hard at home to get ready for the next phase of their lives. With those coaching qualifications they have taken on much of the work for the local kids club in Frejus, helping young riders of all ages to learn and progress in the sport. Then they built their team structure with the end goal of helping bring through young riders – this year they will have four promising young racers under their wing (don’t forget that last year their young protege, Antoine Vidal, won both the EWS Under-21 category and the silver medal at DH Worlds). Plus they are training riders, and Cecile designs custom helmet wraps for themselves and their friends, something that one day may become another business for them. They have what you can only describe as very full lives away from racing.
This may be the key to Cecile’s success. She admits that “I never raced enduro to win. It was just for the adrenaline, for the pleasure of riding fast, to progress on my bike, to work on my technical skills. With a couple of days a week with the club, the work at home with the design, the training, the team, if I have time to ride my bike it’s just pure happiness. And when I get to race weekends it’s like a holiday for me for a week, all I have to do is ride my bike.” With three enduro world titles under her belt, it’s hard to dispute the formula. With the freedom that came with success, she could push things even further and race World Cup DH. While we all marvel at how Minnaar can stay at the sharp end at his age, Cecile is the same age, had never raced DH at the level before and posted top 10s in the four races she competed in, podiuming in two of them, cementing her claim to being one of the best all-round athletes the sport has ever seen.
Going into the 2019 season it is clear that she was loving the challenge of World Cup DH. There’s no ego there around her potential though, more that she enjoyed it and was excited at pushing herself in a new direction. As she puts it, “I had learned a lot that winter, how to go fast fast, while I don’t know if I could have reached the pace I found in training at a race, I was really happy with how I was riding. I feel like I found a new pace.” But with pace comes risk.
The DH track in Mandelieu, just West of Nice on the Mediterranean coast of France is a popular training ground for local riders. You’ll often find the Vergiers, Daillys, and Nicolais of the racing world testing there. It overlooks the sea, it rides well all year round and it’s easily shuttled. It’s a decent challenge, but nothing too extreme, although everything in the South of France is rock-clad.
It was just a normal run. It was just a small error. But that error left Cecile hurtling, head-first at race pace towards a tree. It’s the kind of crash that sends chills down the spine of most mountain bikers. A product designer who had spent his life creating protective gear explained to me a few years ago about the “Cone of death.” If you draw an imaginary line out from the top of your skull and then trace around it an imaginary cone with a 15-degree angle, you are tracing the directions of impacts that kill riders. Cecile hit the tree in that zone.
When we start to talk about her injury we search together for the right word somewhere between English and her native French. The word sensationalize doesn’t exist in French, so we end up settling on “dramatize.” That’s her biggest worry talking about her injury – she doesn’t want to dramatize it. “I see some riders talking a lot about their injuries, but that’s not my way. I was lucky. I was lucky I was injured in France. I was helicoptered off the site, I had great care, great doctors, and at the end of that, I don’t have to worry about the cost because we have a good system here. I’ve managed a career of 11 years without any big injuries. You can get injured like this crossing the road, you see children having much worse injuries than I did every day, today I’m ok. I was lucky.”
In the impact, she fractured her C5, C6, D3, and D4 vertebrae, plus suffered a significant concussion. The higher fractures in her cervical spine were considered unstable by her doctors, which meant they needed to be fused together with a plate. That mass is a risk for her. Her doctors tell her that were she to suffer another big crash that added mass would likely mean that the fused vertebrae would impact either above or below causing a clean break, killing her, or leaving her tetraplegic – with no sensation below the neck. Her one regret? “If I could have used everything I learned that winter, with Commencal, with the engineers, with the settings, my position, I would have loved to have tried it at a World Cup. I’m not sad about it, but it is a shame. I mastered things quite late on, but I’m happy I got to that level.”
That track in Mandelieu has something against the Ravanel household. Just weeks before Cecile’s accident, Cedric suffered a spinal injury on the same track, barely 200m from where Cecile was later to be helicoptered off the hillside. Fortunately, his injuries were less severe than Cecile’s and he has made a full recovery. As they both recovered they turned their focus once more to the future. Cecile recounts that “After I was injured, Cedric and I started working on the next level of coaching qualification, to become expert trainers, so we could manage the French national team, for example, or train trainers. I don’t think I’ll manage the national team, but it’s a way for me to keep on learning things. Part of the qualification is about management, English, which I should really learn [laughs], mental preparation, financial management, and even the risks of social media. It’s interesting.”
With the structure, they have built for the team, in many ways their lives will not change too much. They can carry on traveling and riding, although last year it was tough, “I traveled a bit last year, but I couldn’t ride too much,” Cecile recalls. “I tried to accompany the team on recce days, but it hurt too much, I got too tired. I made an objective to be able to ride by Whistler, I wanted to do a lap of Dirt Merchant, but it was so hard, I just got so tired so quickly in the evenings.” Even though her days of competing for world titles are past, she is still going to be traveling the world, riding bikes in amazing places, only now it will be in more of a mentor role than as an athlete.
But then there’s that spark again. A flash of mischief in her eyes. “This year I was hoping to enjoy it a bit more, do all the recce days and maybe… if I’m feeling good… maybe do an EWS round I really enjoy. I have a great memory of the race in Chile, on that amazing volcanic dirt, it was crazy. It’s the feeling I have been missing – the adrenaline, the speed. I love riding there, you’re flat-out, you just disconnect your brain.”