Catharine Pendrel is one of the most well known and respected riders on the World Cup circuit. She is a fierce competitor on the bike and one of the most approachable, admirable and friendly faces in the pits. A two time World Champion in 2011 and 2014 as well as Rio 2016 Olympic Bronze Medalist and Commonwealth Games 2014 Gold Medalist. She has won the World Cup Overall in 2010, 2012 and 2016 and has a total of 12 World Cup Victories. Catharine is one of the most successful cross country mountain bikers of all time.
Bec McConnell: Catharine, you are one of the most decorated and experienced Women currently racing on the World Cup circuit. What keeps you coming back season after season?
Catharine: Thanks Rebecca, I guess I like the challenge. I like how the sport has forced me to grow and progress my riding. I love the people, the lifestyle and I still feel there is more I can do as a racer.
Bec: A few years ago you were one of the most dominant riders, regularly on the podium or winning World Cup races, have you ever had a season where you weren’t on the podium and do you struggle if you are unable to bring those performances each race?
Catharine: I guess it’s a good thing I had to think hard about whether I have had a podium free season! My last World cup win was 2016. I think 2018 was podium free. I did break my arm that year and was out for June and July… but to be honest I was a 7th place rider, not a podium rider that season and yes it was hard. When you are coming up in the ranks, each race is an opportunity to have a break through. When you have been top 5 in the World for 8 years… that is where your expectations are, it is really tough to see your level drop, but I still believe I can win. Sometimes it just takes more convincing.
Bec: You are one of the toughest riders out there, regardless of what position you are in you always give 100% and it has paid off more than once. In Rio 2016 you were last in the start loop and finished with a Bronze medal. How do you keep your head down and just suffer even when it’s not going your way and have the belief that it can still work out?
Catharine: I don’t feel I am always good at this, but I try to be. I remember coming up and seeing amazing riders give up just because they weren’t in a podium position and I thought that sucked. I didn’t want to ride like that. I want to be the rider that goes all in. Sometimes it takes a lot more self-talk than other times. Winning is easy when you have the legs, it’s overcoming adversity and staying in the game when you don’t feel 100% that takes grit. In Rio I knew how I wanted to feel when I crossed the finish line, that I had given my best on the day. I had a crash and mechanical and was 1:30 back on lap one. I took a second to say “I can’t believe this is my Olympics” and then made the decision it wasn’t going to be. I was going to chase back as hard as I could and make the best of it. It turned out pretty amazing!
Bec: Power to weight is super important in our sport and there are some girls who are incredibly lean. As a more mature and experienced rider does it concern you to see young women pushing the limits of what some may consider ‘healthy’ and do you feel it is sustainable and are there any risks with this?
Catharine: Wow this is so interesting. There are definitely riders pushing the limits on leanness and it is so hard because you see them succeed and feel you have to be there too. It is easy to see them as being more disciplined and hence a better racer and feel guilty, but we may be admiring disordered eating. When I was in South America for the Pan am Championships the first question a 16-year-old girl had for me was how are we all so skinny? Because that is what is really visible in our social media, I think young riders are focusing on the wrong path to success sometimes. First you need to work on watts and skills and a healthy body weight will follow healthy eating and balanced training. I love seeing women’s media that emphasizes their strength and skill, how hard they work, rather than focusing on their appearance.
Personally, I am heavier now than I was at my peak because I felt it was important to have a period after so many years without. It is hard not to attribute my performance drop to weight gain even though it may be a tiny piece of the puzzle, I am not in my early 30’s anymore! I have been quite lean most of my career, but also very healthy and high performing, but I have also broken 4 bones since 2013. They were hard bone breaking impacts, but I can’t say that being so lean for so long did not maybe have an impact which does worry me a bit seeing other women striving to be thinner.
Bec: The Canadian Women’s team has a pretty awesome dynamic and it seems that particularly yourself, Sandra Walter and Haley Smith work hard to lift each other up and support each other. Is it ever difficult to support younger riders knowing they may become a threat in years to come?
Catharine: Yeah, I feel pretty lucky to be surrounded by awesome women. It’s not really hard to support younger riders because I have always felt that the better my competition is the better I can be. If someone else does the same work and surpasses me then I just have to work harder. It’s hard to go from fighting for wins to fighting for top 10’s and be working just as hard, but I am still learning!
Bec: Which riders do you see representing Canada in Tokyo 2021? Why?
Catharine: Currently Haley Smith, myself and Emily Batty have all met the selection criteria for the women and Peter Disera for the men. With only two women’s spots, one of us will have to watch from home. I think the strongest riders of 2021 will be there and the world has to return to normal before we will see who that is.
Bec: Will you continue racing after the Olympic Games or is retirement on the horizon? And does the postponement of the Olympic Games affect your future plans?
Catharine: To be decided!
Bec: Unlike many other riders who live in harsh winter conditions, you often choose to say at home and train in the winter rather than taking training camps in warmer climate. Why?
Catharine: Leaving home would mean I would rarely see my husband. Earlier in my career I did not have the money to travel so learned how to train effectively with skiing and trainer rides. I found a really successful rhythm doing this and am able to keep more life balance by staying home. Sometimes it is really tough when it is -20 or when I haven’t mountain biked for months and I see my competition out progressing their skills, but I think it has enabled me to have a longer career and it makes me really excited for outdoor miles come spring.
Bec: As we know over the last few years a couple of riders have tested positive for banned substances. You were pretty vocal through your blog and social media regarding your thoughts and feelings on the situation. Do you think mountain biking is a clean sport at the moment?
Catharine: I hope so! I think you have to believe it is or you could feel defeated already on the starting line. I have seen a lot of women I trust are clean win races. This shows me the level of clean racing is the best level in the world.
Bec: Most of us racing World Cup’s only race cross country events or the occasional stage race. Are there any events that you really want to do, or what is your favourite event/race?
Catharine: I really enjoy stage racing and the more singletrack the better! I would love check out more races in Greece, Spain and South America, but BC Bike race and Single track 6 are probably the most fun races.
Bec: After so many years of travelling, what are the things you cannot travel without and what little things do you have or do to keep you as comfortable as possible on the road.
Catharine: I am pretty adaptable. As long as I have ear plugs, an eye mask and good coffee I am good.