If Canada had one almost certain gold medalist coming into the London Olympics it was Catharine Pendrel.
Pendrel, 31, had been dominating women’s mountain biking. She was the defending world champion, held the No. 1 ranking and had won a test event last year on the Olympic course at Hadleigh Farm, east of London.
She could feel it too, telling reporters during training this week that she felt capable of winning and that replicating her fourth place finish in Beijing in 2008 would not be satisfactory. “I am going into this going for a medal,” she said with quiet confidence.
So what happened?
Pendrel not only finished ninth in Saturday’s 29-kilometre race, she fell back steadily after an opening charge and was out of it by the 5 kilometre mark. She ended up finishing 3 minutes and 36 seconds behind the winner, Julie Bresset, 23, of France who led almost from the start and finished in 1 hour 30 minutes and 52 seconds. Sabine Spitz, 41, of Germany came second, 1:02 back, followed six seconds later by Georgia Gould, 32, of the United States.
“I’ve never gone backwards in a race like that before,” Pendrel said afterward, struggling to keep her composure. “It’s like usually I’m going forward and I’m attacking and aggressive. I just wasn’t. I just never found my rhyme.”
Explanations were hard to come by. She had no bike trouble, no crashes, no problems covering the uneven terrain. She just couldn’t keep up. And after pushing the pace at first, and even briefly taking the lead, she simply faded. By the mid-way point she was nearly a minute behind Bresset and kept falling back.
“What can you say? Definitely not what I expected to do, not what I hoped for. I felt so exceptional [Friday]. Today I just didn’t have it,” she said.
She apologized to family in friends in her hometown of Kamloops, B.C., many of whom got up at 4 a.m. to watch the race on television.
“But it’s just what I had on the day and unfortunately this day only comes every four years. So maybe in Rio.”
Canada’s other entry, Emily Batty finished 24th. That was also disappointing since she has four top ten finishes this season on the world cup circuit. Batty, 24, crashed during training runs on Hadleigh Farm this week and suffered a minor fracture to her collar bone. She decided to race anyway. “I’m feeling like my heart is broken,” she said afterward. “It has been a two year process and to be dealt the cards I was given four days ago was definitely a challenge.”
It is now up to officials at Cycling Canada to figure out what went wrong. National mountain bike coach Dan Proulx did not answer questions Saturday, leaving it to Cycling Canada’s high performance director Jacques Landry to try explain.
“We came in here with podium aspirations and wanting to win this race,” Landry said. “We all know the result. We have to look at what can be made better moving forward.”
Landry said officials will hold a de briefing session with the athletes coaches and staff to figure out what went wrong. He dismissed suggestions Pendrel couldn’t handle the pressure of being the favourite.
“She copes with this type of stress and this type of pressure very well in these circumstances,” he said. “Obviously she’s not where she should be in this race. This is not her position.”
He added that while her finished was “unexpected”: "There are some off days. It’s cycling. It’s the Olympics.”