Feature | Athletics

Exclusive! Renaud Lavillenie puts Dakar Rally motorbiking ambitions on hold... for now

The Olympic champion has unfinished business in the pole vault but then wants to have a season racing on two wheels and compete in the epic Dakar Rally.

By Rory Jiwani and Guillaume Depasse ·

Pole vaulter Renaud Lavillenie has won almost everything in athletics.

At 33, it's understandable that he might have one eye on the future, but the Frenchman has revealed in an exclusive interview that he's not yet done with his track and field targets.

Lavillenie claimed Olympic gold at London 2012 before losing out to home favourite Thiago Braz in Rio four years later.

He even broke Sergei Bubka's 20-year-old absolute world record in the Ukrainian's hometown of Donetsk in 2014 with a vault of 6.16m.

That mark stood until February this year when the event's new superstar Mondo Duplantis cleared 6.17m in Torun, Poland before going one centimetre higher in Glasgow.

Lavillenie's only gap in his collection is a world title, and he suffered desperate disappointment in Doha last year when he failed three times at 5.70m to miss out on the final.

He has returned to form this year, finishing just behind Duplantis in Clermont-Ferrand before being voted top European male athlete for March thanks to his victory at the French Indoor Championships.

With Tokyo 2020 postponed for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the next World Athletics Championships shifted to 2022 as a result, Lavillenie has a bit longer to wait to achieve his immediate goals.

But, speaking exclusively to Olympic Channel, he revealed he is already looking forward to switching to racing motorbikes at the end of his career.

Unlike some of his rivals, the Frenchman's training has barely been interrupted.

Lavillenie has everything he needs to practise in his back garden with younger brother Valentin, who finished sixth in the Doha pole vault, performing commentary duties.

And he believes he is still a match for Duplantis and co. in the high-pressure environment of major competition.

“I know I am still competitive tactically. I am still able to make the right jump at the right moment under pressure.” - Renaud Lavillenie to Olympic Channel.

Keeping up with Mondo

Duplantis is undoubtedly the man to beat in pole vaulting at present, and Lavillenie is far from surprised at his rise.

In fact, the pair have been firm friends for a long time.

Lavillenie said, “I've known Mondo since 2013. I met him at a competition in the United States in Nevada where there are something like 1000 pole vaulters. He was only 13 back then and he was already jumping 3.80m.

“Straight away there was a connection between us. He was very nice, we stayed in touch and I followed his performances. When he cleared 5,80m for the first time in winter 2017, I sent him a text asking him which pole he had used. We chatted and then, yes, we became closer. He came to train in Clermont-Ferrand for a few days.

“It's something I really appreciate and it's a human relationship where we bond as humans rather than simply a vaulting relationship.

“We can talk everyday and not only about our sport, we can talk a bit about everything. It just happened naturally and it's a genuine connection."

"When I saw Mondo’s progresses in 2018, I knew it was just a question of when - maybe a few years - he took it." - Renaud Lavillenie

So how did he feel when Duplantis broke his world record this year?

“I'm not going to tell you I was happy to lose the record, that would be silly," he added, "But I was happy for him because I like him. And I know what this record means, the amount of work it represents, so in the end I was proud of him and the way he beat the record."

The American-born Swede is already European champion and, now he has taken the pole vault to new heights, surely the Olympic title is his for the taking?

Lavillenie is not so sure.

“If you go back six months to the World Championships in Doha, you had Mondo, Piotr Lisek, and Sam Kendricks who had cleared 6m twice each during the season. So everybody was expecting to have to jump 6m to be on the podium.

“In the end, you had two athletes at 5.97m [Kendricks and Duplantis] and Lisek in third on 5.87m which was unexpected. But it's a championship, the pressure is different, the way to approach the competition is different.

“When you're at a meeting, you mainly compete against yourself. The aim is to go higher than your usual performance. In a championship, the performance does not matter too much. What matters is your final position.

“In Tokyo, there is little chance you could win gold if you don’t clear 5.90m as in pretty much every competition nowadays. But will 6m be necessary to get on the podium? Reasonably you would think so, but there are no certainties. The one who achieves the perfect competition, not missing attempts and putting pressure on the others by doing so, will be close to the gold medal."

Lavillenie Claims Pole Vault Record in London 2012

French pole vaulter Renaud Lavillenie loves motorsport and drives to reach ...

Aiming for more success, before a career in motorsport?

Lavillenie is approaching the end of his pole vaulting career, although he could keep going until Paris 2024 on home soil.

As for the delayed Tokyo 2020 Games, does he think he can challenge for a medal? Or are the best days of 'Air Lavillenie' behind him?

“I think we have already seen a good part of the best! That said, I have surprised myself by being able to still jump big and with a high level of intensity. I was extremely disappointed by my performance in Doha, and I want to make it up for it.

“I probably won’t be able to go as high as I’ve been in the past but I know I am still competitive tactically. I am still able to make the right jump at the right moment under pressure.

“In a championship, the pressure and therefore the jumps are different. You jump differently, the goal is different. So I can still shake things up in a championship, I want to at least!" - Renaud Lavillenie

Renaud Lavillenie reacts after his third failure at 5.70m in qualifying at the 2019 World Championships in Doha

He also insists that Duplantis taking his world record has not affected his will to win in any way.

“I have never lacked motivation throughout my career. The strength of the competition or lack of it, or whether I was performing well or not, has never affected my motivation.

“Mondo made a huge step up in the last year but three or four other athletes having improved also. There is a lot of mutual respect and joy at being able to experience incredible moments together. It’s only good vibes and it's great to come to a competition with a smile because, one, I am able to do what I enjoy and, two, I do it with people I truly appreciate."

While retirement is not in his immediate thoughts, Lavillenie already knows what he will do after athletics.

He will be switching from the field to the track - the racetrack, that is – to indulge his love of motorsport.

In 2013, he finished 25th in the Le Mans 24 Hours for motorbikes but was forced to abandon the following year.

Two wheels are definitely where his passion lies.

“What I like is the adrenaline, the speed sensations, always pushing your own limits. I find this feeling incredible on a motorbike. And then taking bends with your body almost off the bike at high speed, it’s just crazy. Once you’ve tasted this, it stays with you.

"Pole vaulting is a discipline where you have to commit mentally and physically. There’s also a risk, the pole can break, and it is my daily routine. Basically, I am not the type of guy who likes to stay on his sofa and do quiet stuff."

"What I like are activities with sensations, adrenaline, where you have to push your limits. With motorbikes, I tick many of these boxes!" - Renaud Lavillenie

“When I'm finished with the pole vault, one of my dreams would be to do one season in a championship. I'm not sure whether it would be endurance or speed, I don’t know yet. But I would have to train a lot to be faster" Lavillenie told us.

“I won’t do it to win, I don’t have the ability, I’d do it for my own pleasure. But I want to try it in good conditions so it needs to be thought through. Right now I just love to ride, on a track or just for a trail on the roads, but there is no concrete plan.

"I am lucky enough to have good connections in the motorbike world so I will wait until I'm closer to the end of my pole vault career to get this going so I can have one fun season at least.”

One of those connections is his friend, five-time Dakar Rally winner Cyril Despres, and the epic desert race is definitely in his thoughts.

“The first task I am working on already is to do Le Mans 24 Hours in a car and that will take some time to organise. After that, the Dakar would be great and the good thing with motorsports is that you can do them even if you’re older." - Renaud Lavillenie

“In athletics, at around 35-38, you are at the end of your career. In motorsports, actually that’s maybe when you start being better.”