France's Mathilde Gros began track cycling in 2015. Three years later, she competed in the Chariloto Cup, before becoming European champion. It was a statement from the 21-year-old who is set to compete at Tokyo 2020 in a country she both knows and loves.
Mathilde Gros always dreamt about the Olympic Games. But in 2008, whilst watching TV alongside her father, it was the sport of basketball which made her dream to become an Olympian.
“I started to play basketball at age three. That was my passion, basketball was my life,” the reigning double European keirin champion told Tokyo 2020.
“At Beijing 2008, when I watched the USA’s women’s team win the Olympic gold, my father was sitting next to me and I said to him, ‘Dad, I want to compete in the Olympics. Not matter what sport, I want to go to the Games’. Then he laughed.”
In those days, her father’s reaction may have made sense. Gros spent most of her time on the basketball courts of Provence, in the south of France where she grew up. Her dream was to become a basketball player and hated cycling at the time.
“I had only ridden a bike once and that was a mountain bike. I hated it and I never tried again.”
The exercise bike that changed her life
Gros continued to pursue her sporting dreams and joined the Young Hopes basketball program in Aix-en-Provence in 2012, with the overall aim of turning her passion into her occupation. But in a random twist of fate, she climbed onto an indoor exercise bike in her second year.
That experience that would change her life forever.
“The data was impressive, considering my age and lack of experience on the bike,” she recalled.
She showed outstanding natural talent, which over time and after much discussion between her coaches, led to being noticed by Justin Grace, the French Olympic coach.
“In the end I was unable to continue with basketball, because I wasn’t tall enough and hadn’t reached the required level,” admitted Gros. “Then I received a call from Justin Grace who invited me to join the National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance (INSEP) in track cycling.”
My goal was to compete in the Olympics and to win.
So I took the path of elite sport in track cycling.
Flying to Japan three years later
In September 2015, Gros joined INSEP to begin a life rooted in a sport she wasn’t yet familiar with. Just two and a half years later she became the five-time Junior European Champion and five-time elite National Champion.
She then received another phone call - this time from Japan. On the other end of the telephone was Benoit Vêtu, the French coach of the Japan national track cycling team. He invited her to compete in the foreign team in the 2018 Chariloto Cup - an honour afforded to just a few track cyclists.
Keirin is a track cycling discipline that began in the mid 20th century and made its Olympic debut for women at London 2012. In Japan, keirin is highly popular, with a large fan following and its own professional circuit. Sometimes international athletes are invited to compete in the events, which is exactly what happened with France’s rising star Mathilde Gros.
"I didn't expect that they would call me," explained Gross. "I was just 18 and I didn't have an international record in elite keirin events.”
The cyclist travelled to the other side of the world for two and a half months, “with no family or staff”, to compete in the competition against the best local and international track cyclists, such as 2018 world champion Nicky Degrendele from Belgium, Natasha Hansen from New Zealand and Stephanie Morton from Australia.
"They all became my friends," she added.
She also met some of her Japanese counterparts. It was the initial experience of Japan that she will never forget, not only because as she called it as “one of the best of my life”, but also because of the quality of the relationships she made with the Japanese people.
“We couldn’t speak with them in Japanese and they couldn’t speak English, so we had people translating but we still managed to communicate really well. They were interested in our lives as foreigners and asked lots of questions. I built strong relationships with them and we’re still in touch, even though it’s been quite a long time since I was in Japan.”
A stay in Japan that ended her fears
In the summer of that year, Gros travelled to Glasgow, Scotland for the European Championships, where she won bronze in the individual sprint event as well as her first international gold medal in the keirin event.
Her stay in Japan had taught Gros a lot, but it also helped her overcome an earlier trauma. During the Polish stage of the 2017-2018 World Cup in Pruszków, the French athlete suffered a bad fall while travelling at over 60km/h in the final of the keirin event. It resulted in an acromioclavicular dislocation and multiple torn ligaments in her shoulder.
"Thanks to Japanese keirin events, I managed to get over my fears of falling," she said.
Herman Terryn, my coach, was looking at me
asking himself what he would do with me.
Coming close to quitting
Looking back, Gros’s track cycling journey began with a fall. On her very first day at INSEP, she fell on her first ride. A few months later in her first competition, she fell again. It was an unlucky sequence of events that almost caused her to quit the sport.
“The first time I attempted [riding in] the INSEP velodrome, I fell and a big splinter got stuck in my buttock. Herman Terryn, my coach, was looking at me and asking himself what he would do with me," she said with a smile.
"I needed a month and a half before I could race again, as I was afraid. In my first competition the following January, I fell twice in 15 minutes and had splinters everywhere. I almost quit track cycling. I even went to the train station to go back home, but finally I changed my mind.”
Experience brings a second European title
Today, Gros’s decision has been proven to be the right one as she is the reigning double European champion in keirin. She won her second title after another stay in Japan where she competed in the same keirin tour. It gave her the experience needed to win another gold medal while not in her best condition.
However at the European Championships, Gros was eliminated in the qualification round and needed the repechage to advance. Finally, she reached the semi-final where she had nothing to lose.
“I wasn’t the favourite, given my performances and feelings. So I raced differently to the year before, where I had taken the lead and won," she explained.
"There were girls that were better than me that year and in the final I was blocked into third position on the last lap and I told myself: ‘well, we’ll see.’ But the pace was tough and the girl ahead of me couldn’t endure it and, as I hadn’t made an effort, I gave everything through the last turn and final straight. I don’t know where it came from but I was making a comeback and on the line I threw my bike. I felt unconsciously that I had come first. It was an explosion of joy.”
21 years later, Olympic gold
Gros won’t be able to defend her title in the 2020 European Championships this November as the French Cycling Federation decided not to send any riders to the event as a result of COVID-19 pandemic. So the next major international event will take place in Japan.
As Gros’s world ranking allowed her to win a quota for France in both the individual sprint and the keirin, she should have the opportunity to chase her Olympic dream at Tokyo 2020. It is a dream that was unthinkable back when she was watching the USA women’s basketball team at Beijing 2008.
If it does happen, she will return to the “wonderful country with friendly, respectful people” to ride in the Izu Velodrome, where she "feels great", and try to win Olympic gold. It gives her two chances to pay homage to French track cycling, 21 years after two legends, Florian Rousseau and Félicia Ballanger won gold at Sydney 2000.