At July’s La Course by Le Tour de France, the first Frenchwoman at Le Grand Bornand was Edwige Pitel in fifteenth place. Exactly around about where the skinny climber has been finishing for the last ten years.
You would need to take a glance at her UCI license to realise that she is 51 years old. The result was nothing new or remarkable to Pitel though: the Breton has been beating people decades younger for her entire racing career.
“I don’t feel my age. If I know how old I am, it’s only because everybody tells me each time I do something. ‘Oh, you’re 44, you’re 45, you’re 50.’ Otherwise, I would not even remember,” Pitel says over the phone in perfect English.
Pitel only began racing in earnest in her mid-30s, having started out as a runner. That pursuit gathered pace during a computer science PhD at Imperial College in London. As captain of the university running club, she would do laps of Hyde Park by day and snap up student discount West End theatre tickets by night.
However, her skinny build meant she suffered an injury at least once every year, so she turned to cycling as a recovery activity. Pitel became a formidable duathlete, winning world titles in 2000 and 2003. Back then, the prize money in the sport allowed her to focus on it full-time. “The problem was that it was not well recognised in big events like the Olympics,” she says. “I wanted to do that at least once in my life. That’s why I switched to cycling.”
She impressed to the extent that she was selected for the Olympic road race and time-trial in 2004. Off the bike, she has fond memories of sitting next to middle distance running legend Hicham El Guerrouj on the bus to the athlete village. On it, the experience made her want to explore her potential.
“When I went to the Olympics, I knew nothing. It was my first year in cycling and I was completely new. If I had the experience I have now, I would definitely have done better,” she says. “It was like starting a new game again. That’s also why I’ve kept my motivation. I would not still be in cycling if I had already been doing it for 30 years.”
One downside is that Pitel is still playing catch-up on a technical level. “I don’t like to be in the middle of the bunch with people around me,” she says. “I’m not afraid of being close to them, but I fear someone else’s crash making me fall. I think too much about a possible fall that I can’t control.”
Fittingly for someone based in the Alpine city of Grenoble, Pitel has shown that she is made for races that are “the harder, the better.” Over the years, the climber has finished inside the top ten in the World Championship time-trial, the Tour of Flanders, Grand Prix de Plouay, Tour de l’Aude and Grande Boucle Féminine.
She is also a two-time French time-trial and road race winner. The “best memory” of her career was her 2016 triumph (below): at the age of 49, she put the likes of Pauline Ferrand-Prévot and Audrey Cordon-Ragot to the sword in Vesoul.
It’s especially impressive because she has worked as a computer system engineer for Grenoble council for the last decade. As a top-level athlete, she at least gets a superior time off allowance from the French state during the racing season. In return, she works “like crazy” in winter. “I basically start training in January, later than most of the girls,” she says.
“But I don’t mind missing the Classics, I’m more of a summer girl. I prefer the stage races where it’s sunny and my aim is more the championships: French, European, World, which are later in the year.”
However, she has never returned to the Olympics since her Athens debut. Her 2016 national title came too late for chances of Rio Olympic selection, which still smarts with her. “My age was a factor. Four years ago, when the new staff arrived, the the technical director came from rugby, he didn’t know anything about cycling so he brought a new staff with him. Most of them were not in their own field and the new women’s coach [Sandrine Guironnet] back then just took my age against me right from the beginning. I never had a chance with her,” she claims.
She takes issue with their decision to take one leader and one helper, Ferrand-Prévot and Cordon-Ragot; “It was not a good reason. In the Olympics, the selection is simple: you take the best girls you have.” Guironnet has since left the job.
Through the years, Pitel’s enthusiasm and endurance seems undented. She intended to stop top-level racing last autumn, but a broken scaphoid and ankle postponed a dream racing trip to America and, ultimately, retirement. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist and I didn’t want to finish on a bad thing,” she says.
Tired of the same European circuit, she crossed the Atlantic this spring for six weeks. She visited the Grand Canyon and had plenty of results out there. At the Joe Martin Stage Race in Arkansas, she finished fifth, five seconds ahead of Chloe Dygert, the world pursuit champion and Olympic silver medallist, who is a full three decades younger.
Pitel has been quite a lone wolf for several season: in France, she often finds herself without team-mates, as they are split by regional committee, and she has guested for several outfits for WorldTour events in recent years.
However, joining Russian team Cogeas-Mettler in July meant she could get valuable WorldTour racing at La Course, the Tour of Norway and the Tour of Tuscany.
Now, there will be a happy ending to the season for Pitel, picked in France’s six-woman team for the World Championships road race in Innsbruck, her first since 2013.
She saw the route last year while in Italy. “It’s hard but not as hard for women as it is for the guys,” she says. “But it’s 156 kilometres, a lot of elevation and the [three-time] repetition of the hill will be hard.”
Will Innsbruck 2018 be her permanent farewell? “You never know. I’ve really enjoyed this year,” Pitel said in the spring. “I should be stopping because I have my job and I’ve been telling my colleagues it will be my last year [of cycling]. But I wouldn’t put my hand on heart about it as I’ve changed my mind a couple of times.”
Indeed, last week, she told me that she hasn’t made a decision one way or another. Allez Edwige, here’s to another few years of age-defying feats.
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