A Retrospective: Catharine Pendrel Wraps Up Pro Career

A Retrospective: Catharine Pendrel Wraps Up Pro Career

When Catharine Pendrel said at the 2021 UCI World Cup Finals in Snowshoe, West Virginia, that it would be her last World Cup race, her fellow racers didn’t believe her. But after a long and very successful career that included winning two cross country mountain bike world championships, an Olympic bronze medal and eight Canadian national titles, the 41-year-old, who just became a mom earlier this year, knew it was time for the next chapter of her life. We caught up with the Kamloops-based racer to learn more about her career, her comeback after having a baby and what may be next.

Photos by Kenny Wehn and David McLaughlin

Catharine leading Sofia Gomez Villafane through the race barricades.
Photo by Kenny Wehn

Stan’s NoTubes: Stepping into the way back machine, how and when did you get into racing and turn pro?

Catharine Pendrel: I started racing in 1997, two weeks after I had started learning how to mountain bike. I was growing up in New Brunswick, Canada, and I did the provincial race circuit. In Canada, we have the Canadian Summer Games, and I knew I wouldn’t make it to them that year, but I thought it would be cool to go and was motivated to do so four years from then.

When I moved to British Columbia, I took a year away from racing because I had been having trouble finding balance in my life. In New Brunswick, none of my friends rode bikes, but when I went to school in BC, it turns out that I found that balance as an athlete and ironically even as a triathlete.

Catharine with a wet towel draped around her neck after a hot XC event.
Photo by Kenny Wehn

SNT: You obviously found a way to keep that balance even while competing at the highest level. What cycling accomplishments stand out in your memories of your career?

CP: The big ones are the Olympic medal and the world championships wins . The second world championship and the Olympic medal came after times when I’d lost confidence or had an injury, and didn’t know if I could still be at the highest level. So they were the most rewarding.

The CLIF Team rostered decaled on the side of their team van.
Photo by Kenny Wehn

SNT: You spent much of your career with one of the most enduring teams in the sport of mountain biking. It was known as the Luna Chix women’s team and eventually morphed into the co-ed Clif Team. What was that like, and what made the team so successful?

CP: I had a breakthrough race at the world championships in 2007, and started racing with them in 2008. Before that, I had never felt like I was good enough to send them a resume. They called me back within two days and were like, “Oh, you were looking for a team?” It was amazing.

The team was the baby of Clif Bar owners Gary and Kit , and they really believed in it. They wanted to create a team that provided female role models and gave women an equal opportunity in pro sports. A team founded on belief has longevity. They also picked the right staff who stuck with it. Team Managers Waldek and Dave were there from the start, and our mechanic Chris came on one year afterward. Waldek was good at finding the racers who, if they had the right support, could progress to the next level.

The stability of our team was great. We didn’t have to worry about contracts or lots of equipment changes. The team was great for supporting its racers, and it was a good fit for me.

Catherine celebrating a tight finish with her then teammate Haley Batten.
Photo by Kenny Wehn

SNT: Speaking of equipment, what are your favorite Stan’s wheels?

CP: I run Stan's Podium wheels. Over the years, the courses have changed, but what was a technical game changer was being able to go tubeless and run Stan’s sealant. And now we have tire plugs like the Stan’s DART, so you can not only avoid most punctures, but you can address the ones you do get very quickly.

A big part of the consistency of our team was our equipment like wheels, tires and sealant. I think I’ve done 102 World Cup event starts, and I’ve only had two punctures. That goes a long way toward having the best career you can have.

Catharine celebrating a great result at the 2019 Sea Otter Classic.
Photo by Kenny Wehn

SNT: In your many years racing as a pro mountain biker, the sport has changed a lot. What have you noticed the most, and how have they affected you?

CP: When I started World Cup racing, the winning times were two hours. Now it’s 1:20 to 1:30. It’s made the racing faster and more dynamic. You don’t ride into a race. The changes played into my hands because I was a go-fast-and-fade rider, so I made a huge jump when courses got a half hour shorter.

The courses have also gotten shorter and more feature-oriented. You had to pick up a whole new skill set. It wasn’t just picking lines over roots anymore. You had to be good at jumps and drops. There was more of an intimidation factor. In our sport, you would see a feature added to a course and the first year, only a handful of women do it; the next year, you’d come back and every person was doing it. Previously, there had been just a lack of exposure, so features were being put into races before the riders had been exposed to them and acquired those skills.

The skill level in the women's field has progressed a lot. The depth of talent has been really awesome.

Cathariine on the podium at an Epic Rides event with her longtime teammate Katerina Nash.
Photo by Kenny Wehn

SNT: This past year was extra special for you, and we’re not talking about the pandemic. You had a baby and made an impressively fast comeback to be able to participate in the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Tell us about that journey.

CP: Every woman’s journey is going to be different, and everyone has different circumstances. Your pregnancy, delivery, and recovery can all go differently. I wouldn’t say my pregnancy was easy, but I focused on training as consistently as I could. I couldn't push as hard as in a normal year, but I thought that the consistency would give me a solid base.

I knew after giving birth that leaning toward the conservative side would be better than doing too much too soon. You are more prone to injury when pregnant and postpartum.

My husband was coaching me and could see on the ground how it was going. We had a goal that it'd be great to get back for the May World Cups, and my progress was rapid. I was always optimistic about getting back quickly, but then in the first month of coming back, I realized how far I had to go.

I’m super happy with how we managed it and what we were able to accomplish. I got to have my family on the road with me during my last year on the World Cup circuit. I know I became a much better racer. I knew I was getting better even if my results didn’t always reflect it.

Not everyone’s pregnancy will go as smoothly, but it was good for my competitors to see it doesn't have to be family or career. You can do both.

Catharine at the front of a deep women's field at an Epic Rides event.
Photo by Kenny Wehn

SNT: Can you provide any more details on that comeback experience training-wise?

CP: I had Dara on January 26th. On February 26th, I started doing some loading.

It was exciting training. For years, I had worked hard to get one percent faster. But this spring, I could up things like watts by 10%. It was fun to have a rapid progression again in my training! But then I got to the point where at 3-4 months, the progression slowed down a lot again. That first World Cup was a shocker.

Training is different now as a mom. I don’t come home and just get to recover. I come home and take care of and play with my kid. It’s awesome to come home to cuddles.

SNT: Did you experience any of the fear that some women report during training and racing after having your baby?

CP: I wouldn't say that I did. I was more hesitant and not up to speed when I first came back, but it’s because I was more cautious while pregnant and had gotten out of the practice of taking risks. If you've avoided slippery trails, you have to go back on them and relearn how to adapt.

The women's field from a stacked Sea Otter Classic field.
Photo by Kenny Wehn

SNT: Like you said, every woman’s experience being pregnant and becoming a mom is different, but do you have any advice for fellow women who want to have a baby and race amongst the best women in the world?

CP: Obviously you need great support. My husband was able to take the year off. That was key. We could have used one more support person if it hadn’t been COVID times. We both tried to balance getting to train. We were always doing trade-offs, and race weeks were especially challenging. It was a big thing for my husband and me to not get to ride together. That had been an important element of our training.

You need support people, including one who can travel with you if you’re going to do this. You need to be able to be able to prioritize and be ok with not getting done as much as you used to do. You might not be as on top of your emails any more, for example. You have to choose your priorities: mine were family and training. Then you do what you can around those. You have to plan for more recovery, especially early on. We would never know how we would sleep, so I could never go too far over the edge. That was important for both injury prevention and training performance.

SNP: During this past year and many previous years, you’ve traveled all over the world. What have been some of your favorite places to ride and race and why?

CP: We don’t really get to mountain bike a lot when we’re traveling for the races, but on a mountain bike, Czech was one of the most fun race courses. Czech is one of those places you just want to go back and ride for fun. Switzerland was also really fun for mountain biking. On a road bike, I really enjoyed Italy and France.

Catharine and the rest of the women's field captured right after the start at the Sea Otter Classic.
Photo by Kenny Wehn

SNT: So what’s next?

CP: I’ll be focusing on her as my husband goes back to work. I think I’ll always stay in the bike industry.

And I won’t be competing at the highest level any more, but maybe I’d show up in Mont-Sainte-Anne sometime if I could somehow maintain really awesome fitness?

Catharine holding her bike above her head while rocking the World Cup leaders jersey.
Photo by Dave McLaughlin

SNT: As you step out of the pro ranks, others have been stepping in. Anyone catch your eye as someone we’ll be seeing atop more podiums?

CP: Every year, we’d notice more and more the Under 23 women when they’d age up. During the pandemic, we effectively had two crops of girls come up in one year. Some you never saw develop, so it was less expected of them. All of the sudden there were a lot of new faces taking it to the front of the race. It’s exciting. It’s what you want to see in the sport.

Loana Lecomte and Evie Richards will be at the top for a while. Sina Frei, too. Mona Mitterwallner of Austria was a first-year under 23, so she couldn’t upgrade this year and do the Olympic qualifying races, but you’ll see her more. Hungarian Kata Blanka Vas was fourth at the Olympics after typically placing third in under 23 races.

SNT: Based on your experience, any advice for young women with their own Olympic MTB dreams?

CP: Find ways to keep sport and striving for the top fun. It takes years to get there, so you have to be able to stick it out when the races are and aren’t going well. Make it fun and find balance. Make sure you're doing something that you love and want to work hard for.