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Canada's Catharine Pendrel won a World Cup mountain bike race in Italy on Saturday. FILE PHOTO: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
Canada's Catharine Pendrel won a World Cup mountain bike race in Italy on Saturday. FILE PHOTO: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

ALLAN MAKI

Pendrel reaches for the (very) top Add to ...

There are ghost riders, pale riders, riders on the storm, and then there is Catharine Pendrel, the spirited rider. The mountain biker who'd grind her way up Everest if she could, who loves it when the downhills are steep, the trails narrow and the competition as thick as a B.C. forest.

That's what turns Pendrel's crank and it's what has made her the best female rider in cross-country mountain biking. Last year, she won the overall World Cup title. This year, she's won several events and is ranked No. 1 by the International Cycling Union. Her goal is to win a medal at next month's world championships in Switzerland.

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Next year, she's aiming for the very top, a medal at the 2012 London Olympics.

It will be the most exacting ride of Pendrel's career, and to accomplish it she will have to put aside two glaring setbacks, attack a growing list of rivals and be every bit as fit mentally as she is physically.

"Can we talk later?" she asks.

Pendrel and her husband, Keith Wilson, have arrived in their Volkswagen Golf, racing gear in the back seat, two black mountain bikes strapped to the rear of the vehicle. The drive from Revelstoke, B.C., to the Canmore Nordic Training Centre has taken longer than expected because of the rain. Eager to get to work, Pendrel straps on her helmet, adjusts her racing shoes and is off to wheel around the cloud-capped Rockies.

Canada's national team coach likes what he's seeing.

"She's mature and level-headed but I also see her maturity as an athlete," Dan Proulx says of the 29-year-old Pendrel. "In the last year, her learning has excelled. Going against riders at the front end of the race, she's getting more experience. She's getting to where she's fighting for gold at every World Cup."

Pendrel's drive to succeed is fuelled by twin disappointments. The first occurred at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, her first Summer Games. She was matched up against Irina Kalentieva of Russia for third place. On the final hill of the last lap, Pendrel took a chance and tried to change gears only to fumble the shift. Kalentieva ended up passing her for the bronze. Pendrel pedalled through the finish nine seconds later.

Then, there was last year's world championships in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Que. Again, Pendrel and Kalentieva were joined at the hip, this time for the silver medal. Once more, the Russian pulled away while an American racer (Willow Koerber) edged Pendrel for the bronze.

"Clara Hughes was at the race commentating for CBC and she said, 'Catharine being fourth at the worlds was the best thing for her. It will keep her hungry,' " Pendrel recalls. "At the Olympics, I was still very excited with my result. I feel I did everything I could in that race. In hindsight, you can always see better - like not trying something new on the last lap. But you have to create separation. That's what I was trying to do."

While twice missing the podium in such high-profile races could have blown her confidence, Pendrel chose to examine them in a different light so she could wring out every benefit.

She's watched the video of her world championship race dozens of times. She's worked on her mental toughness with sports psychologist and former Olympic gold medal-winning rower Kirsten Barnes. And just two months ago, Pendrel met with fabled mountain biker Alison Sydor in Victoria to talk about the intricacies of their sport and how to win when it counts.

"We had coffee and chatted," says Pendrel, who was born in Harvey Station, N.B., and rode horses before taking to mountain biking and moving to Kamloops. "[Sydor]retired recently and is still a wealth of knowledge. There are some things you don't lose, like how to drop [translation: shake]a rider. That's probably what I have to learn with Julie Bresset."

Bresset of France is a rising star on the mountain-bike circuit. At 22, she has powered her way to the front of the pack, trading wins with Pendrel while proving to be a next-to-unshakeable foe.

"I think, for Catharine, Julie is the best thing ever," Proulx assesses. "They ride at the front of the race and challenge each other. They're good at the same things. I think it has reinspired Catharine to have both a challenge and someone new to race. The two together seem to be opening a gap on the rest of the world."

Ever the pro, Pendrel jokes she is practising her French so she can read Bresset's blogs and gain insight into her rival. When it comes to what makes her roll, Pendrel know precisely how the lead-up to London will play.

"Going into Beijing I had the advantage of being the underdog. [Canadian teammate]Marie-Hélène Prémont was the silver medalist from 2004 Olympics and a lot of media attention was on her. I got a smooth, quiet ride into the Olympics," the three-time Canadian champion says. "Now, anything less than fourth will be a disappointment.

"The thing to remember is: let that be your excitement rather than stress you out. Let it be something great."

For the spirit.

Follow on Twitter: @AllanMaki

 

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