LONDON (VN) — Heading into the 2012 London Olympics, there was perhaps no nation with as much depth in the women’s cross-country mountain bike category as Canada.
Coming out of the 2012 Olympics, there is perhaps no nation with as much disappointment.
In world champion Catharine Pendrel and young star Emily Batty the team had perhaps the biggest pre-race favorite and a rider capable of reaching the podium.
Canada’s off-road talent on the women’s side is so deep that the national federation had to leave behind veteran Marie-Hélène Prémont, an Olympic silver medalist in Athens in 2004 and a national hero who had prolonged retirement for one last shot at Olympic gold.
On a sunny, windy Saturday 40 miles east of London, however, nothing went as hoped for the Canadians, who were left wondering what might have been after Pendrel had an inexplicable off day, finishing ninth behind winner Julie Bresset, while Batty struggled just five days after fracturing her collarbone while training on the Hadleigh Farm Olympic mountain bike course.
Both riders were upset at the finish line, seemingly fighting back tears while they spoke to the press — or perhaps recovering from a private outpouring of emotion at the finish line.
Pendrel did not have a tangible reason for her disappointing performance, and she admitted as much.
Having won the 2011 London Prepares test event on the same course at Hadleigh Farm, and after winning three World Cups in 2012, Pendrel seemed certain to medal. Yet after riding with the leaders for the first two of six laps, the world champion slowly faded backward, finishing more than three minutes off the winning time.
“It’s not what I expected today,” Pendrel told a large group of reporters. “It’s not what I hoped for. It’s not what we prepared for. The efforts were just hurting me. Every effort I made, the girls were able to rally. I just didn’t have it on the day. I thought I was coming around but the girls were just passing and passing me.”
Asked if the initial pace, which started very quickly, had been too much, Pendrel said her husband, Keith Wilson, had actually been encouraging her to up the pace after Pendrel, Bresset, Sabine Spitz and Britain’s Annie Last had opened up an early lead on the first of six laps. That move was brought back, however, setting up another split with Bresset, Spitz and American Georgia Gould that would define the final podium.
“I’m not sure what happened,” Pendrel said. “I didn’t have any bike issues. Normally I am really aggressive and out of the saddle and attacking. I don’t know if I used up all my energy being excited to race and just didn’t have it today.”
Like Pendrel, Canadian Cycling’s high performance director, Jacques Landry, was also at a loss for words.
“All I know is that she gave her everything. That’s her style. That’s what both riders came into the race with. They wanted to give everything and represent Canada as well as possible,” Landry said.
“Our team around our athletes is top class. The preparation may be faulted at some point in time. We’ll have to go back and look at our data and how things go. We came in here with podium aspirations, and wanting to win this race.”
For Batty, the only comfort she could take was that she did have a tangible reason for her finishing 24th, just two weeks after finishing fourth at the Val d’Isère World Cup.
After crashing on Tuesday, X-rays revealed a non-displaced right collarbone fracture. Though she was able to race, she was not able to tackle the course’s technical descents at full strength.
“My head is not broken. My legs are not broken. My heart is broken,” Batty said. “I was able to climb. I was able to race. I just wasn’t able to descend very well.”
Batty said after her crash — which saw her fly over the handlebar on a steep, technical descent and land on her right shoulder — doctors initially told her she hadn’t broken anything, based on her range of motion. X-rays finally found the fracture, though because of its nature, she was cleared to race.
“The orthopedic surgeon said there was no way it would displace,” Batty said. “He didn’t even want to give me the X-ray, and said he was very shocked to see what he did see. Ultimately they treat the injury, not the X-ray, and because I was feeling so good the doctor came on course with me and definitely thought I was good to go. I didn’t want to let my dream pass me. I wanted to race.”
Batty said she “went through all the emotions” in the days between Tuesday’s crash and Saturday’s race, describing it as “a challenge.”
“I was on the trainer the first two days,” she said. “Yesterday I rode a few laps. I was confident in my ability and the strength in my arm. I felt it was just going to come down to my head. I tried my hardest.
“Despite the circumstances, I was not going to not compete here, no matter what. Being a Canadian is all about strength and pride and that’s exactly what I came into this race with. I didn’t want to let any of my fans down. I felt I was strong enough to compete.”
Both riders will now focus on the September 1 world championship race in Leogang, Austria — and both are sure to hope for another shot at Olympic glory in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
“I’m sorry because I know everyone in British Columbia got up at 4:30 to watch me,” Pendrel said. “It’s just what I had on the day, and unfortunately this day only comes every four years. Maybe in Rio.”
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