Catharine Pendrel won a gold medal for Canada at the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Champery, Switzerland, on Saturday afternoon. It the first world title of Pendrel's career and the first elite women's cross country title for Canada since Alison Sydor won in 1996. Maia Wloszczowska (Poland) finished second and Eva Lechner (Italy) was third.
"There have been a few years of me getting sixth and fourth, but I never before got a world championship medal," said an elated Pendrel. "I was so consistent on the World Cup circuit in recent years, and I've always wanted to put it together on the big day. Today that finally happened."
On the start loop which preceded six full laps, Pendrel and Wloszczowska raced at the front together. Twelve seconds back, Gunn Rita Dahle Flesjaa (Norway) and Lechner chased. Alexandra Engen (Sweden), Irina Kalentieva (Russia) and Nathalie Schneitter (Switzerland) led the rest.
By the end of lap 1, Pendrel and Wloszczowska were firmly established in the lead together, with a 30-second advantage over Lechner and 45 seconds over Kalentieva and Dahle-Flesjaa. The two leaders appeared well matched and seemed to work together well.
Then, disaster struck on lap two for the defending world champion Wloszczowska. She flatted and Pendrel immediately pulled away.
"I got the flat tire on the longest downhill at the end of the lap," said Wloszczowska. "I finished the downhill riding my bike, and then I ran to the tech zone plus rode the flat a bit more. I'm happy that my crew made a good switch of the wheel and that I could get back in it and chase the others."
Wloszczowska got a fairly speedy wheel change, but it cost her 1:15 and a place as Lechner went past while she was in the pits. The Italian had moved ahead of Kalentieva while Dahle Flesjaa still chased in fifth
With one lap to go, Wloszczowska had powered her way back into second place and was just 36 seconds off Pendrel. The Polish rider looked strong and chased well, but Pendrel wasn't going to let go of her first chance to win the rainbow stripes.
"I was nervous knowing Maja was coming back for me," said Pendrel. "At the beginning of the race, I had realized we were riding equally. She was climbing exceptionally well. I tried to get the descent on that third lap, and that's when she flatted. I knew she could come back and was motivated."
The Canadian national champion crossed the line to add the title of world champion to her palmares. She finished in 1:46:14.
"In the days before the race, I had had an email from (former Luna teammate and past world champion) Alison Dunlap, and she said that at the Worlds, you have to race the last lap like it's a time trial. She won her Worlds by moving from third to first on her final lap. I don't know if a climb has ever hurt as badly as that last climb today."
Wloszczowska took silver 28 seconds later - she had made up some time, but it wasn't enough.
"It's ok to have silver. I'm happy with it," said Wloszczowska. "I feel like a winner today. I'm happy that Catharine won. I think somebody out there wanted me to have a flat tire because Catharine deserved the rainbow jersey like nobody else. I know I was strong to ride with her today, but it's life in sport. I'm glad I could get to the tech zone, get a wheel and still get on the podium. That was the greatest battle of my life today." The Polish rider may not have won the Worlds for the second time, but she rode like a world champion nonetheless.
Lechner ended up with bronze. "Today I had all the luck I was missing last year. It was a big battle. I always believed in my chances and gritted my teeth and fought hard the whole time. People were having problems everywhere. I was strong here last year, but this is really something very special."
Kalentieva held on to fourth at 2:05. The former world champion declined to speak with Cyclingnews after the event.
Schneitter overtook Dahle Flesjaa for fifth place and finished at 3:27, 13 seconds in front of the Norwegian.
Schneitter said she was spurred on by the crowds, including her fan club. "I had problems at the start and never had a chance to fight for the medals, but I moved up to fifth. I felt good and this shows that I can prepare for a big race and do well, so it's a good sign for the Olympic race next year." It was her best result yet this season and the best Worlds result for the third-year elite racer.
Dahle Flesjaa was happy to end her season on such a high note. "Being top six at a world championship is good. Being looked at as a medal candidate for this race, I wouldn't have dreamed that at the beginning of the season. I could feel very early on that I was missing that extra two to three percent today, but I still fought until the end. The most important thing is to be in good health again and to feel strong on my bike again."
It was a good day for the North Americans with three Canadians and four Americans in the top 20. Behind winner Pendrel, Emily Batty (Canada) was eighth and Marie Helene Premont was ninth. The Americans brought home 10th, 11th, 15th and 20th with Lea Davison, Heather Irmiger, Mary McConneloug and Georgia Gould.