To describe French track cyclist Felicia Ballanger as the favorite to win the gold medal in the sprint events in Sydney is an understatement. Since finishing second in the world championships in 1994, the 29-year-old from western France has commanded the top spot on the winners' dais in every major international competition she's entered save one — and on that occasion she came away with the silver medal. All of which makes it highly likely she will leave Sydney with at least one more Olympic title. So, just how good is this French phenomenon?
"I'm not sure there's ever been an athlete who has dominated their sport and discipline as completely as Felicia has — in cycling or anywhere else," marvels Serge Barle, manager of the Jean
Delatour racing team, which signed Ballanger last year. "She's as strong physically as she is mentally, and she focuses on one thing alone: training and racing to win."
And win she has, filling a trophy case that few athletes in any sport can rival. During last October's world championships in Berlin, Ballanger won an unprecedented fifth consecutive sprint title, which — with the five 500-m speed crowns she's bagged since 1995 — brought her world title haul to an astounding 10. During that period, Ballanger also won the gold medal in the sprint event at Atlanta and added four French national championships to her collection. At Sydney she has her sights set on taking gold in two events: the sprint and 500-m speed races.
How does Ballanger explain her incredible dominance? After all, iron-disciplined training regimes are common to all world-class riders. Ballanger believes that what sets her apart is the instant responsiveness and efficiency of her musculature — a capacity for speed and power that she admits "is rare for a woman."
It is a gift that is perfectly suited to sprinting. In the three-lap sprint event, for example, the two competitors ride most of the race slowly and strategically, jockeying and maneuvering before bursting into a final, brief sprint to the finish line. Ballanger says her leg muscles seem to generate power more rapidly than those of her opponents, which gives her a significant edge. The same is true in the 500-m speed event, in which riders hit top speed as fast as possible, then maintain it to the finish line as "muscle burn" sets in. "I tend to reach my peak speed faster than most people," she explains, "and from there it's a question of just holding on."
But despite her physical advantage, Ballanger's domination began, she says, only after she'd "worked hard to improve my mental approach to racing, which had clearly been my weak spot."
After a disappointing performance at Barcelona in 1992, she began working with a sports psychologist to try to visualize upcoming races and envisage victories that she could realistically achieve. "In a sport like sprint cycling, involving both power and a kind of dueling finesse, you really need to be as strong in your mind as you are in body," Ballanger says. "I feel that's my case now."
Despite her confidence and track record, Ballanger says she is taking nothing for granted in the lead-up to Sydney. She describes herself as only one of three favorites for the gold medal, along with Australia's Michelle Ferris and China's Jiang Cuihua. "Nothing is ever easy or won in advance at these kinds of competitions," she explains. "If you ever begin thinking of yourself as No. 1, or start looking past a race, you're begging for disaster."
Whether the outcome, Ballanger says she will always be proud of her unique career achievement: having become the first female cyclist to turn professional. Her signing last September by the Delatour team, she says, remains a personal milestone and one she feels will open doors for others.
"Cycling in general has had a macho problem, and I'm happy I could be the one who finally got women into professional cycling," she explains. "Meanwhile, I think the credibility attendant on professionalism is an important recognition for track cyclists of both sexes — and of the sport itself, which remains rather obscure in the minds of many people."
In the coming days, however, Ballanger will be thinking less about her sport and her fellow riders than about extending her winning streak through the Sydney Games. Many are betting she'll do just that, because even if Ballanger refuses to consider herself the favorite, it's hard to see what other term would fit.