Inside Simon Pellaud’s journey back to cycling’s highest level

'If I'm here right now it's because I was struggling'

Just as Simon Pellaud was getting used to WorldTour racing, his first stint at top level cycling was torn away. He joined IAM Cycling as a stagiaire in 2014, and the team folded at the end of the 2016 season. After three seasons, he was a promising 23-year-old rider with no home. 

Those first few seasons hadn’t been easy. Pellaud admits that he struggled to meet the next-level mental and physical demands of the WorldTour after being called up from a small Swiss team. He has a picture of himself crying after finishing his second Vuelta a Espana in 2016, overcome by how hard he had worked to get to that point, and facing down the prospect of starting over.

“I can say that I wasn’t happy. I was really looking for myself, looking to find out what was good and bad for me as a person and as a cyclist,” Pellaud says. “Everything was gray. There were no bright colors in my life at that moment.”

Everything was gray. There were no bright colors in my life at that moment.

Six years later, Pellaud has made his way back to the WorldTour level as one of Trek-Segafredo’s new riders for the 2022 season. He caught the eye of team manager Luca Guercilena at last year’s Giro d’Italia with his daring breakaway attacks while riding for the Pro-Continental team Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec. He calls Trek-Segafredo his “dream team.” 

“The Trek family is something famous in the WorldTour peloton,” Pellaud says. “It’s not like other teams where people are just there to do the job, to push the pedals. There is something more here.”

Pellaud has found a level of contentment that, before his journey began, he never knew he was missing. After IAM Cycling folded, he was considering two options: Continue racing in Europe with a small Swiss team, or change environments entirely by going to the U.S.-based Team Illuminate. To that point, he had never left the confines of a traditional cycling career path, instead trying to stand out among hundreds of other predominantly European riders who also dreamed of one day driving the break at a grand tour.

Simon Pellaud enjoying his ride during the Trofeo Alcudia, part of the Challenge Mallorca. | Photo: Luis Angel Gomez, SprintCyclingAgency©2022

At a critical juncture of his career, the traditional path failed him. So Pellaud adopted a mantra that has served him for the last six years. He decided to “do it different.” He wanted to sign with the American squad, giving himself an opportunity to take a leadership role as well as race all over the world, outside of the traditional road racing circuit. The team couldn’t provide him much, however — a small salary, plus “two bibs and one bike,” according to Pellaud — so he started a crowdfunding campaign around the hashtag “#doitdifferent” and raised more than 17,000 Swiss francs to give him some financial security as he took on a risky new venture.

Soon after joining his new team, Pellaud took a trip to Colombia. The experience changed his life.

In the winter of 2016, Colombian teammate Edwin Avila invited him to his home outside of Bogota to train and escape the Swiss cold. Pellaud accepted the offer, and was blown away by his teammate’s hospitality. Avila let Pellaud sleep in his room while he slept in the same room as his parents. “For me that was something really big.”

I was just there, living as a Colombian. Not renting something.

The more Pellaud explored the country, the more he realized that Avila’s graciousness was commonplace. He discovered a culture that felt centered on sharing and community unlike anywhere he knew. What was supposed to be a short trip turned into weeks. Pellaud only left Colombia so he could undergo surgery in Switzerland after breaking his elbow. He returned to Colombia in the summer of 2017 to race the Vuelta a Colombia, then started imagining a more permanent stay.

After the race, Pellaud met another friend who was able to lend him an apartment and a car outside of Medellín. 

“I was just there, living as a Colombian. Not renting something,” Pellaud says. “And that made me stop. I was like, ‘That’s where I want to live.'”

Pellaud decided to set roots in Santa Elena, a cycling training mecca at 8,300 feet above sea level. He built a small house there, and continues to split his time evenly between living in Colombia and Switzerland — six months in one place, six months in the other.

Survived the day. | Photo: Luis Angel Gomez, SprintCyclingAgency©2022

“That’s where I found myself. I started to be a new me,” Pellaud says. “I started to enjoy my life like never before. Before I was in the WorldTour, I was living in a nice small house in Switzerland. I had a car, I had everything. Then I arrived in Colombia, and I had nothing. And I found that the less things I had, the happier I was.”

Pellaud redefined himself as a rider at Illuminate, and eventually Androni, jetsetting wherever he could make it in time for the race start. He’s one of a select few riders to have won a race on four different continents. All the while, he cultivated a fervent following. Those fans who crowdfunded his early career? They’re still by his side. 

The money he raised went into a fan club bank account, so that people didn’t think Pellaud was using it “to go on holiday and drink beers,” in his words.That fan club still regularly meets to watch Pellaud race. He says that a recent event drew 160 people. The fan club is perhaps his biggest motivator.

I found that the less things I had, the happier I was.

“They’re the reason I have so much energy to train every day, to go deeper and deeper,” Pellaud says. “It’s a big part of who I am and what kind of rider I am.”

Pellaud dreams of winning a grand tour stage, but he also knows he won’t be jumping in breakaways as frequently on a Trek-Segafredo squad that has a burgeoning general classification rider in Giulio Ciccone and classics maestros like Jasper Stuyven and Mads Pedersen. That’s just fine to Pellaud. He knows that the grit he displayed while captivating viewers at the Giro d’Italia will be invaluable while pulling at the front of the bunch or protecting the team leader on any given day.

Pellaud is happy. That’s the important thing. He considers himself lucky to have found a place in the world that brings him true joy. And ultimately, he’s grateful for those trying months in 2016, when he was cast adrift and forced to find a new shore.

Simon Pellaud, free and happy. | Photo: Sam Needham

“If I’m here right now it’s because I was struggling,” Pellaud says. “It’s because I never gave up. I could have given up so many times after the experiences I had. But I was always fighting for my position, for my dream. And Trek Segafredo is the team that I was always looking at.”

Pellaud is exactly where he always wanted to be, not just racing at the WorldTour level with a team he has long admired, but at peace with whatever happens next.  

“It’s like a rebirth to be here. It’s something massive for me,” Pellaud says. “I’ve done everything from the local race in Colombia to the biggest races in the world. I’ve raced all around the world. And now I’m part of this massive project and massive opportunity. 

“I’m just living the dream.”