Profile: Cecile Ravanel's XC Roots, Recovery, & Whether She'll Race Enduro Again

Jun 30, 2020
by Matt Wragg  





“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.


Cecile Ravanel profile. Montaroux France. Photo by Matt Wragg

Cecile Ravanel profile. Montaroux France. Photo by Matt Wragg
Cecile Ravanel profile. Montaroux France. Photo by Matt Wragg

Cecile Ravanel profile. Montaroux France. Photo by Matt Wragg


bigquotesIt 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.

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: Sabrina 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."


Cecile Ravanel profile. Montaroux France. Photo by Matt Wragg

Cecile Ravanel profile. Montaroux France. Photo by Matt Wragg

Cecile Ravanel profile. Montaroux France. Photo by Matt Wragg
Cecile Ravanel profile. Montaroux France. Photo by Matt Wragg

Cecile Ravanel profile. Montaroux France. Photo by Matt Wragg

Cecile Ravanel profile. Montaroux France. Photo by Matt Wragg
You can tell a lot about a couple by the presents they give each other. This pitbike was Cecile's wedding present from Cedric. She got him a flight in a fighter jet...


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.


Cecile Ravanel profile. Montaroux France. Photo by Matt Wragg

Cecile Ravanel profile. Montaroux France. Photo by Matt Wragg
Cecile Ravanel profile. Montaroux France. Photo by Matt Wragg

Cecile Ravanel profile. Montaroux France. Photo by Matt Wragg

bigquotesI never raced enduro to win. It was just for the adrenaline, for the pleasure of riding fast.

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.


Cecile Ravanel profile. Montaroux France. Photo by Matt Wragg

Cecile Ravanel profile. Montaroux France. Photo by Matt Wragg

Cecile Ravanel profile. Montaroux France. Photo by Matt Wragg
Cecile Ravanel profile. Montaroux France. Photo by Matt Wragg

Cecile Ravanel profile. Montaroux France. Photo by Matt Wragg

Cecile Ravanel profile. Montaroux France. Photo by Matt Wragg


Impact

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."

bigquotesIf 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.

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."


Cecile Ravanel profile. Montaroux France. Photo by Matt Wragg

Cecile Ravanel profile. Montaroux France. Photo by Matt Wragg

Cecile Ravanel profile. Montaroux France. Photo by Matt Wragg
Cecile Ravanel profile. Montaroux France. Photo by Matt Wragg

Cecile Ravanel profile. Montaroux France. Photo by Matt Wragg

Cecile Ravanel profile. Montaroux France. Photo by Matt Wragg


The Future

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."


63 Comments

  • 84 0
 Fascinating article. Crazy that someone that dominant in the sport regrets not being even faster haha. I guess the best never rest. Best of luck in the next chapter Cecile, thanks for all of the years of pushing the boundaries.
  • 10 0
 I guess that is mainly why they are on another level. So commited and critic with themselves, you can see how much progression pros can take through work and dedication. Inspirationnal for sure!
  • 5 0
 It sounds like she really embodies the growth mindset idea. Being able to just focus on going fast and having fun releases some of the pressure of feeling like she needs to be on top or winning all the time. She just focuses all her energy on riding the way she wants and it sure pays off.
  • 52 1
 What a read. Is someone cuttin' onions in here?
  • 35 0
 That was a great article. Bon chance Cecile and Cedric for your future ventures
  • 28 0
 I learned a few things from this article: Cecile's injury was a lot worse than I thought (and she's a complete badass), the French national system for cycling is incredible and must be a big part of the reason there is so much French talent, and Matt Wragg's work is almost always my favourite.
  • 15 0
 What a great mountain biking couple! That was a cool read.
As someone that has also had a spinal cord injury (MX), I'm here to tell you, it's hard to push it out of your mind.
I've just accepted that my progression on the big stuff is limited in exchange for longevity in the sport, and more importantly for my kid.
  • 3 0
 While I haven’t had that severe an injury, I’ve got the same mindset. I’ve had some scary concussions and now have two boys who I want to be there for. I’ll never reach the top level, and riding with my little shredders will be enough for me. Though I’m decently quick compared to how slow I used to be, I’ve never been able to keep up with my fast buddies. So for me there’s not much to gain and a lot to lose.
  • 2 0
 Agreed. I'm 57, and this winter had bad crash on a jump line and broke my collar bone... I'm def focusing on longevity and fun more now. I'll work on my skills and still try and get better at jumping, but leave the big stuff and tricks to the kids.
  • 17 0
 What an exemple for everyone!
  • 11 0
 I will really miss Cecile racing but I'm also really pleased she's taking the decision to step back a bit. It's heart warming when top athletes recognise how lucky they are after such crashes and compare themselves with others that weren't. Top racer and ambassador for the sport. All the best for the future.
  • 8 1
 She’s the most underrated great of MTB. What she did in EWS was stunning. To be so dominant. She won by huge margins. If it hadn’t been for the accident, she could have carried on at the top for many years. A true great of the sport!
  • 9 0
 One of the best articles i seen on pink bike, more like this please. I was a pleasure to see you ride Cecile, best of luck to you and Cedric. Merci pour les bons souvernier.
  • 8 0
 Wowzers! "I never raced enduro to win. It was just for the adrenaline, for the pleasure of riding fast." And with that trophy case!?!?
  • 6 0
 Great article @mattwragg actually the best thing I've read in a while. It's been a pleasure/privalige to watch Cecile racing over the years and to see the battles with T-Mo and ACC. Hope your well man
  • 7 0
 Cecile is an awesome rider and such an inspiration plus she seems like a genuinely nice person. Good job (-:
  • 4 0
 Great article. I didn’t know Cecile’s injury was that serious and it sounds like that’s how she would prefer it. Would have enjoyed seeing her get pushed by the upcoming women riders and go out on her own terms, but her EWS legacy is unquestionable. A sobering reflection on how fast things can change, and that it’s our choice whether to make lemonade.
  • 7 0
 All the best Cecile for the future. You are a champion on and off the bike
  • 7 0
 Great article, thanks Pinkbike, thanks Cecile!
  • 4 0
 Now this is a couple that really dedicates their lives to their passion for the sport in a good way. Absolutely beautiful article. Good luck and all the best to Cecile and Cedric.
  • 3 0
 would her injury had been any different if she had been wearing a neck brace?? I ask because I know I'm guilty of understating the potential risk of a trail and wearing the appropriate safety gear for a certain type of trail.. the gnarlier the more things to protect yourself you should wear.. one the least worn things are neck braces..
  • 10 0
 The fella who explained the cone of death to me also explained why in that sort of crash a neck brace is no help. The only neck brace that would, he explained, would more or less touch the helmet, leaving virtually no range of motion.
  • 1 0
 @mattwragg: thanks for the reply dude, much obliged
  • 1 0
 @mattwragg: Makes total sense, since she basically speared the tree with her head. Frown A brace can't help with that.
  • 1 0
 @mattwragg: That is interesting. I feel like Chris Leatt explained on the Downtime Podcast how that kind of impact would still be dissipated somewhat over the collarbone & shoulders with a fullface/neck brace combo. Could be totally wrong though.
  • 3 0
 Really wonderfully written article. Thank you for the exposition along with the interview! Cecile is really inspiring and sets a great example for others entering the sport (especially in her openness and forward thinking about the next steps after racing).
  • 3 0
 I saw last year Cecile in California as she was watching the competitors.
Seems like nobody recognized the true Queen of Enduro. (Isabeau is still only a princess, peasants)
Got a selfie with her. She's the reason I'm such a big fan of Commencal.
  • 2 0
 Anyone have any further info on the coaching thing in France? I'd be curious what is all done, whats mandatory and why it would take year to have even basic coaching qualifications? I assume its somewhat based on the snowsports guiding there which I understand is pretty rigorous.
  • 1 0
 In France, coaching for money is very well regulated (whatever the sport, whatever the level...), and the diplomas take between one and five years to pass, depending on the sport.

You don't have multiple levels (like you do, if i understand correctly), but only two : one that covers basically 99,99% of the field, and one that very few people pass, that's targeted to very high level (national teams, etc...)

Hope i helped, if you want more infos, feel free to ask !
  • 2 0
 Yup, this one resonates.

I had to get 5 vertebrae fused together in my early 20s. That's a tough time to have to start telling yourself that "No you shouldn't hit that jump or sketchy rock roll" but if it means getting to continue to enjoy this sport and life in general, it's worth it.

The good news is, these doctors have gotten pretty darn good at this kind of surgery so it's not that much of a life altering injury any more.

Best of luck with what's next Cecile!
  • 2 0
 Is easy to stay out of hospital, but mountain biking can be dangerous, but up to you how much you want to push your limits?
Too much will may be end in getting hurt!
Personally l like to push as much as I can with out getting hurt, so may be 90% of ability
  • 2 1
 People that blame others for their actions should really think about it from others prescriptive, rather than being selfish
But accidents do happen, is all part of the learning process
You do not get innovation without first trying something that may not work?
  • 1 0
 I think there is something wrong with this DH track in Mandelieu. 3 years ago a riding buddy of mine had a big crash on this track and now is incomplete tetraplegic. Basically he can walk for a little bit like in his house but for the rest of the time he is a electric wheel chair. He lost a lot of feelings in the arm, leg etc etc. Cedric and Cecile had big crashes on this track too. It looks like a lot of serious accidents on this track.
  • 2 0
 I damaged my disks between C6-C7 3 years ago on a stupid OTB during an endurando ride, falling and compressing on the head. Now I take it easy and ride for the fun of it.
  • 1 0
 Yes, they are beautiful dogs. What breed are they? As for Cecile and Cedric, I'm happy for them that they still have a nice home and each other, and a good life. That's nothing to sneeze at.
  • 1 0
 They are Mallinois (sp?) and Alsatians - they're usually bred as attack dogs for the police here in France, but it says a lot about Cecile and Cedric that they've raised them to be absolutely adorable to be around.
  • 3 0
 Wishing Cecile and Cedric the best. What a difficult event to overcome. Best article on pink bike this year.
  • 4 0
 Beautiful dogs!!
  • 2 0
 Clicked for the dogs, stayed for the great article and photos.
  • 3 0
 Life seems pretty good over there!!
  • 3 0
 That was really, really well written Matt.
  • 2 0
 Pinkbike needs more of Matt's work. You really elevated the quality of content on the home page today, thank you.
  • 1 0
 Great to see athletes who can put life in perspective and not continuing doing something just because they are good at it.
  • 1 0
 So brave to be honest with yourself to make it public official. Much love and respect on the rest of your journey ????
  • 3 2
 Why did I have to read this. This article makes me reconsider MTBing Blank Stare
  • 3 0
 As in you're reconsidering if the risk is worth it?
  • 4 0
 Me too. Especially as a local shredder who even tried some DH worldcups now is paralyzed from a similiar crash head first into a tree.
  • 4 0
 @ADHDMI: Yes that's what I meant.
  • 29 0
 Really? When I ride I'm always conscious of the risks (maybe too much), but I'd rather take the consequences and have lived like this than be too scared to live fully.
  • 3 0
 I understand your point. I'm not a particularly talented rider, but I am getting faster (started late in life). I'm 35 - wife family, dependants and all that. Safety is always a consideration.
I've got some metal in my neck already and it constantly plagues my mind - but its a real tricky one as hesitation or self doubt on features often ends up in a worse result than letting the bike go and sending it.
One thing reading articles like this does do to me is start looking at what protection I should be wearing......
  • 12 0
 @mattwragg: It's always interesting to hear how folk perceive risk. I feel more exposed in my (pre COVID) 10 minute road commute than barrelling down a hillside. I'm 44 and still getting a little faster each year, although I know my limits; no DH for me and no super big jumps. I figure I could lose control and hit a tree at 30mph but then I could trip over a shoelace and fall in front of a bus. Live life!
  • 9 0
 @sourmix: I fully agree with your comment regarding feeling safer on a trail than on the road - for me I think its to do with control. On a hill I'm in control of my own risks (mostly), on a road I'm not - I'm putting faith in others...
  • 7 0
 We get one go round. Maybe my mentality will change as the years go by (I'm already 52), but the way I see it is, live life to the full as much as you can. If you spend life worrying about what could happen, you'll never do anything much. And yes, I've had some pretty bad accidents over the years.
As I get older I'm reining it in a little, but riding is such a huge part of my life, I struggle to imagine an existence without it.
  • 5 0
 @sourmix: Shoe laces should be banned, surprised that they still exist or pass any risk assessment?
  • 11 0
 @sourmix: I'm fully with you on that. As @eddieantifreeze says, it's control - I can make my peace with something bad happening because of my actions, which is mostly the case off-road, while on the road the galaxy of shitty drivers and a*sholes are more likely to take that control from you, which I do struggle with sometimes.
  • 6 0
 I think it is all about speed. this is why I prefer technical and slow trails compared to even easier but fast ones.
  • 1 0
 I think backing it down to XC type terrain and speed lowers the risks a lot. I've been riding since the mid-90s and nearly all the serious injuries I know of have either involved collisions with vehicles on the road or DH tracks. XC seems relatively safe, and while it certainly still has risks, they are likely inline with any other adult sport.
  • 3 0
 @danbgbg: I am just walking again after four months on crutches. Four days riding in Queenstown, last trail, walking speed tech, endo and landed flush on my hip. Snapped my femur. All pinned together. At least with some speed it may have reduced the directness of the impact. So it can happen at any point I guess. Not being able to walk properly for that time has certainly given me some perspective.
  • 3 0
 @ChazzMichaelMichaels: Yep, did the same some years ago when I crashed at about 10kph. Shit happens.
Keep on healing dude.
  • 2 0
 @ChazzMichaelMichaels: sorry to hear that.
Yes, bad falls are possible at any speed (bad luck), but speaking about neck compression injuries in that "death" zone, I still think it is speed.
every 10km on top add big chunk of much nastier injuries.

anyway, heal fast! I often think about the injuries vs happiness ratio in MTB, and still can't decide... so far it's been hugely beneficial for me, but I've been lucky to not have a bad crash. also being a pussy helps.
  • 3 0
 @mattwragg: I think "I'd rather take the consequences" ... is easier to say before they arrive than afterwards. :-)
I just hope I never have to find that out the hard way.
  • 3 0
 @mattwragg: Well, If you're somewhat serious about riding enduro, downhill or park you're going to end up in the hospital. In my (soon) three years of riding I did twice. Thankfully both times only meant 4-6 weeks off the bike and the injuries will most likely not have done long term damage. I think about two thirds of my riding buddies have been to the hospital at least once in the past two years. And our riding season is not even 4 months long. Maybe we're not the most talented bunch but there's no denying that mtb'ing is f*cking dangerous. And of course we're all aware of the risks. But let's be honest, there is a big portion of denial helping with that. And I'd make a strong case that you're only really aware of the risks off the bike. Once you put a leg over the bike and start riding that sweet rowdy trail the risks are not in your head anymore. You try to push to that sweet spot just at the upper bound of control and comfort zone. Because that's where you have the most fun, adrenalin and learn the most.

That's even a big part of why I love mtbing. You have to concentrate so hard that is no room for thoughts in your mind. It's very freeing because of that.

"You spend hours thinking, designing, questioning. Also you can spend a few seconds lost in one moment. No time to think, just reaction, focus. All the worry and the want washed away by the rush."
  • 1 0
 Nice story and some nice trail dogs too.

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