“I was at the bottom of the abyss. It was really tough,” François Pervis says, recalling the summer of 2012.
As Mickaël Bourgain got the nod for the keirin, his fellow Frenchman sat and watched in London as a frustrated, non-competing substitute – for the second Olympics in a row. It was bad enough watching his colleagues racing, let alone seeing the dominance of Team GB.
Pervis decided he needed a change. So, just after the Games, he went back to school: keirin school, in Japan. It was a chance to escape the cruel world and to rebuild so he’d return stronger. His first digs, an old training centre, were character-building, to say the least. They lacked hot running water and he would occasionally encounter some inquisitive Japanese snakes.
After two months, he upgraded to an apartment. During his spell out there, Pervis lived like a monk, hiring a scooter to get from his place to the velodrome, and racing every fortnight.
He would ride a heavy steel frame in pouring rain and driving wind. Sprints were longer than usual – sometimes 800 metres – and his rivals didn’t play nicely.
“It was a big battle with the Japanese: blocking me, stopping my speed,” he recalls. “It’s very dangerous, so it was tough for me mentally, but I progressed." He’d often find riders ganging up against him in paid cartels.
Pervis attributes his recent form to those hard months in Japan. When he returned home, to the comparative luxury of carbon frames and 250-metre indoor velodromes, he felt stronger than ever in body and mind.
“The week before leaving for the world track championships, I told the French media ‘I’m going to Cali for three gold medals,'” he says.
World titles in the kilo, keirin and individual sprint, the holy trinity of track sprinting, duly fell to the 29-year-old a fortnight ago. Throw in his December dismantling of the kilo record, and the Frenchman’s molten-hot winter seems perverse, a bolt out of the blue.
In truth, he’s one of the most experienced sprinters on the scene. But it’s been ten years of fits and starts to reach the sport’s summit.
After a barnstorming Olympic debut in the kilo at Athens 2004, finishing sixth as a teenager, only a year after deciding to focus solely on track cycling, his progress was interrupted by a series of debilitating injuries.
The worst was when he broke a vertebra in his back from overtraining. “My body just said ‘stop’. When I do very heavy weights – because I broke my back, effectively – the pain returns. It’s been like that for ten years."
His financial reserves have been sorely tested too. The French system differs from the lottery-funded GB one: elite riders are charged with finding their own sponsors, usually from their home regions, to support them. “In France, the economy has tumbled over the years. It’s down to me alone to find the money to pay for my house, my insurance and to put food on the table. It’s difficult… the British way is good, you don’t have to lose energy over sponsors or money,” he says.
When talk turns to inspirations, French Olympic star Florian Rousseau is mentioned before he alights on a surprise influence, Sir Chris Hoy. "Because he started in the kilometre, like me, and he won it all afterwards: the kilo, the keirin, the sprint and team sprint. And he wasn’t young. But it grew over four, five seasons, he showed you can be strong.”
“I started winning at 28, I didn’t win at 22 like Baugé and Kenny, it took longer,” he adds. “And for his character too: he’s a grand monsieur, always with a smile on his face.”
Away from the gladiatorial combat of the velodrome, Pervis likes to relax by indulging his favourite pastime, carp fishing, on the banks of his native Mayenne river. In fact, that’s one added bonus from racing Revolution in London this weekend: he can hopefully pick up a few angling magazines on the way. "The techniques, the equipment, it’s an incredible scene over in Great Britain,” he says.
So what does Pervis make of the performance of the biggest fish in the track pond, Team GB, at the world track championshps in Cali? It was the first time since 1998 that the men failed to land a medal.
“I’m not worried for Great Britain,” he says. “I know that in two years, at Rio, they’re going to be super strong. They’ll have no problem; I think Cali was not an important race for them.”
And that’s what it all boils down to: Olympic success. Would he swap his three world titles for a gold medal at Rio 2016? He says yes before I’ve even finished the question.
Round 5 of the 2013-14 Revolution Series takes place on March 14-15 at Lee Valley Velopark. Tickets are available here.