He’s now waited long enough. After being side-lined for almost four months, Paul Penhoët will finally return to racing in early May. The young sprinter from Groupama-FDJ suffered from an anterior cruciate ligament injury shortly before new year and had to undergo a hard and meticulous rehabilitation. Yet, he’s now ready to fight like never before and sat down to tell us all about it.

Paul, the races are coming!

They are! I’ll be back on the Circuit de Wallonie, with “La Conti”. My first goal is the 4 Jours de Dunkerque, and we thought it might be good to put on a bib beforehand. Jérôme [Gannat] said I could race with them, and I’m already excited, for sure. When I resumed training, I didn’t immediately think about racing because I didn’t know how long it would take for me to get back into shape. It was unclear. However, things are going really well for now, we planned my return two weeks ago and it is already often on my mind.

“It was like my leg had no more muscles, it couldn’t take weight”

How do you feel physically as we speak?

I’m doing well. I got back on my bike about five weeks ago, and the legs are coming back better than I thought. I expected it to be worse after three months off the bike. I still have physiotherapy sessions on my knee to get everything back to normal. I still feel some tension, but it is light, and most importantly, it does not penalize me and does not damage my knee. This is “normal” discomfort three months after the surgery. I almost live with it. I know it’s not counterproductive, so I forget about it. Usually this is something that disappears four months after the surgery. By the time we get to the first races, I should no longer have to be concerned about it.

You were recently on a training camp with a few teammates. How was it?

This camp was initially in my program since I was supposed to do the Giro. After my rehabilitation, I asked Philippe [Mauduit] if it was still possible for me to join. He told me it was planned, and I was super happy. I could do two good weeks of work at home before meeting the team in Tourrettes-sur-Loup. To be back with the guys and the team brought me back even more into my “normal” daily life. Time feels longer when you are alone, and for sure, I missed these moments. I just wanted to be back to this life I love. It was really nice to feel this atmosphere again, especially since we weren’t staying in a hotel but in a house. We had a chef to cook for us, we’d set the table, we’d play cards in the evening, we were in a small group. It was more friendly. It felt good to experience it again. On the bike, we had quite a similar program, as the guys who were there had taken a break after Roubaix and were building up for the Giro. It was a bit of a similar schedule to mine, it matched really well.

Can you take us back to the origins of your injury?

It was December 28, on my birthday. I was doing a gym session and was working on explosiveness by jumping on a high box. After a jump, my knee twisted on a landing. I didn’t really feel any particular pain at the moment, I didn’t hear any cracking either, but when I put my leg back in front to take a step, I fell. My knee gave out. Right away, I was like, “wow, that’s weird.” It was like my leg had no more muscles, it couldn’t take weight. I stopped the session after that. My knee swelled but not much either. I thought it was a small sprain, but I wanted to be sure. I called Jacky [Maillot] who told me to do an MRI. I got an appointment the next day, and the radiologist suspected a rupture of the anterior cruciate ligaments. I thought “s***”. But as it had happened the day before, he told me that it was only a suspicion and so I kept a little hope. Then, 4-5 days later, I had an appointment with the best surgeon in Lyon for this injury. He had me do physical tests and was unequivocal: it was indeed a rupture of the cruciate ligaments. He told me that he could operate on me the following week, on January 11, and that saved me time.

“I put things into perspective early on”

What was your reaction to the diagnosis?

I felt everything was falling apart around me. I didn’t really understand, actually. I had mostly heard about this injury in football… I do a lot of gym, muscle strengthening, so I thought I would be immune to injuries of this type. Ironically, this happened as I was working on my main quality. It’s just bad luck. This is exactly what the doctor said. The quadriceps was well muscled, I had no muscle differential with my hamstrings, the kneecap was genetically strong. I then thought that maybe I was tired after the training camp in Calpe, that it was a bit cold in the garage, but after a while I stopped looking for a reason and I moved on with this reality.

When the team communicated about your injury, you already seemed determined on social media…

I don’t think I hit rock bottom at any point. Mentally, it was for sure very hard because I had a lot of goals at the start of the season, but I put things into perspective early on. From the moment the diagnosis was clear, I said to myself “it’s done, you can’t do anything about it, you have to move on”. This is how I am. I told myself it was going to make me stronger, and all the messages I got also said that. I quickly got back into a good state of mind, and I was already 100% focused on rehabilitation. When I got the surgery date, I was fired up. I was happy to have surgery fast and to have found a good surgeon.

Did you experience any “hard” moments?

The worst moments were regarding the immobilisation time. When they first suspected a cruciate ligament injury, I did what everyone else would have done in that case. I went on the internet. They were announcing crazy things, from nine months to a year. I thought “it cannot be possible!”. As I went a little deeper, I realized that it was more related to sports like football or rugby. After speaking with Jacky, we gave ourselves a deadline of three months. It was optimistic, but in the end, it went as planned. I’m really in the shortest possible deadline. I was lucky despite my misfortune.

“I’m really touching wood […] but everything has been very smooth”

What was your recovery process like?

After the surgery, the doctor was clear with me. It was absolutely necessary to already start a little rehabilitation the next day, or it could really extend the recovery time. The beginning is very important. During the first week, the knee was super swollen. It was shocking. I couldn’t tense my leg, it was like the nerve connections no longer existed. The goal was then to wake the quadriceps up by doing contractions alone, lying down. It wasn’t easy, but since I was doing it most of the day, it progressed pretty well. After a week, I continued doing this, which I combined with electrostimulation. I was also told that the sooner I got rid of the crutches the better, so as not to lose too much muscle. I was limping a bit, but I could at least put my body weight on my leg. There was also very important work to get the full extension back. If you don’t do this from the start, it can lead to a loss of mobility for the rest of your life. The flexion work came later because it normally returns once the knee decreases. Fifteen days after the surgery, I was able to go to the physiotherapist, where I began to have treatments and massages, then it was a long fight to regain muscle. Even though I was “only” bedridden for two weeks, I lost quite a bit of it.

Did you also attend a rehabilitation centre?

Six weeks after the surgery, I indeed went to Capbreton for three weeks in a rehabilitation centre, where we really worked a lot. I had physiotherapy from the beginning to the end of the day, every day. The slightly optimistic goal we had set with Jacky, but which I believed in, was that I would be able to ride outside when leaving Capbreton. In the end, everything went well and that’s what I could do, exactly two months after the surgery. Before that, I had done a bit of rollers in Capbreton, but without pushing too much, and above all to drain the muscle a little and get used again from a cardiovascular point of view. The return on the road was gradual, like when you get back on your bike after the winter break. I also had to be channelled a little, because I would have ridden hard from the start if I had listened to myself. We managed it really well with Anthony [Bouillod]. With Jacky, we were also waiting to see how the knee would evolve with the return on the road. It was pretty positive. We could speed things up and put in great training loads at home because the knee was not reacting. I’m really touching wood, even today, but everything has been very smooth.

Have you now returned to a normal training pattern?

Absolutely. The only difference is that I don’t do gym yet. Instead, I continue to do physiotherapy sessions. Otherwise, I’m really in a classic pattern. For me, the recent training camp was a bit like the one I usually do in December, and I felt even better than that, since we could increase the workload. It went really well on the endurance rides. Once, we did a seven-hour session with 4000 metres of elevation gain; I felt great during and after. I just have to add intensity on this good basis, and I think I will be ready for the Circuit de Wallonie.

“Since the injury, I see things a bit differently”

Psychologically, how have you experienced these four months away from racing?

Paradoxically, I felt a mental shift. I told myself that being a pro was an incredible opportunity, and that it could stupidly stop at any moment. Now, being super professional and serious about everything comes automatically to me. It’s even multiplied by two. So, I haven’t done much in recent months because I was 100% focused on getting back into shape. I’d do physiotherapy, and when I’d come home, I’d rest. I resumed gradually so as not to ruin everything, but at the same time, I pushed all the parameters to the maximum so that the knee evolved in the best possible way. Since the injury, I see things a bit differently. Anything that can contribute to having in better shape, I now do it naturally.

You said several times that you were not entirely satisfied with your 2023 season. What did you miss?

I aimed for three victories, and I got two, but apart from that, it was more the fact that I didn’t win in the WorldTour or in a real bunch sprint. I planned to do it this year and that’s also the goal the team set for me at the start of the season. There are still quite a few races left and I hope to achieve it.

Last year, you achieved 28 top-10 finishes, including two wins. How do you make of this statistic?

I see it positively. I am still young, and I will still improve in the years to come. If I can do even better in the sprints, my consistency will allow me to score even more. That’s for sure. I think that being consistent is a very good thing, I just have to continue to progress. I want to be a rider who wins, who is consistent throughout the year, and who can be counted on no matter the season. I don’t want a career with ups and downs, as sometimes happens with sprinters.

“I let time do its work”

What is your relationship to victory?

This is quite simply what I train for and get up for every morning. It’s something that I constantly have in mind. From this point of view, there are certainly more frustrating moments than the opposite during a season, everyone knows that, but I do miss the victory quite fast. When I win in the Tour du Poitou-Charentes, I want to do it again straight away. And if it doesn’t happen the next day, we postpone it to the next stage. As soon as victory is achieved, I quickly move on. I want to win again as quickly as possible. In the same way, you should not leave too much room for doubt. If I don’t win on a given day, there’s another chance the next day. We really live in the moment.

Can you be satisfied with second place if the winner is stronger?

I accept it because it’s a fact, he was stronger in the sprint. But I can’t be satisfied with it. I can’t be content with second place, otherwise you enter a vicious circle where you’re content with everything.

Given the large field of strong sprinters nowadays, do you think it’s increasingly hard to reach ten, fifteen victories per year?

In my head, a little voice tells me that this will happen to me one day. And even if it’s not 15 victories per year, the beauty of the victories also matters. Then, when you take the start with the 2-3 best sprinters in the world, you’ll obviously have a conservative approach in the sprint if you think it is impossible. It’s not easy because it’s the process that the brain makes on its own, but you need to go against that and do your race without thinking about it. If they win fifteen victories a year, it means they are the best at the moment, but I am not a defeatist. I actually can’t wait to return to racing because I feel that my state of mind has changed a lot. It was already very good before, but I feel something different inside me, and I really want to see what it can bring in the race.

You have often spoken about Olav Kooij and Arnaud De Lie. These are the riders you want to compare yourself with?

This is mainly because we are from the same generation and that we were together in the young categories. I look at everyone, obviously, but it’s more meaningful with them because we knew each other younger and I often sprinted against them, especially Kooij. When I see their breakthrough, I could think “damn, I’m late”, but as I already said, I have never been precocious and I’m telling myself I’ll inevitably get there one day. I still have many good years ahead of me. I always have this slight pressure deep inside me, but I ultimately tell myself that such things as condition and level are really personal. I’ve moved on from that. Perhaps I looked too much at this comparison at one point, now I let time do its work, I do my own training, and I will do everything to fight with them at the highest level.

“Win as fast as possible to gain back confidence”

Did your first full year in the WorldTour bring you certain answers?

It did for sure. I noted that in the WorldTour, on very flat sprints, starting very fast five kilometres from the finish, it was harder for now. Yet, I don’t close any doors. I still am very motivated for this type of effort, and I know that the strength will come with time and doing big races. I also noted that I was really comfortable compared to the other sprinters on slightly harder races, or on the climbs. I think that this is an opportunity that I must make the most of. The races’ courses are getting harder and harder, which goes my way. I still want to work on speed and strength, but without forgetting this versatility which can give me access to great victories, including in the WorldTour.

How do you see your return to racing?

Mentally, I will be 100%. Physically, we’ll have to see. I will be on the Circuit de Wallonie to put on a bib without any pressure. The other option was the Tour du Finistère, but given that I had won it last year, the team preferred an easier restart. The goal is to be 100% at the 4 Jours de Dunkerque. After that, my calendar includes the Boucles de la Mayenne, the Tour of Slovenia and the French championships. I say to myself that I don’t have much time to waste anymore. I hope and I think that we will be ready quite fast with Marc [Sarreau]. I will be fully motivated, and I think he will be too. We’ll for sure need to sort 2-3 things out but I think that motivation will play a big role.

Having missed four months of racing, what goals do you set for yourself this season?

I’m really disappointed not to be able to do my first Grand Tour with the Giro because I was really looking forward to it. That said, my calendar includes races that can suit me quite quickly, such as the 4 Jours de Dunkerque or the Boucles de la Mayenne. The goal will be to win as fast as possible to gain back confidence and be able to add up the victories. I also hope, later in the season, to win in the WorldTour. My goal was three wins last year. With a reduced season, I think that scoring three this year, including one at the highest level, would be an evolution. I think I’m more than capable of it. If I said I wanted to win fifteen races by the end of the season, that would be nonsense. I have always been down to earth. I ask a lot of myself, but that goes well with being realistic, I think. My demanding nature is more about the process, the daily life, the training, and everything that goes around it.

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