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Faster with friends: Canada’s cross country women take on the world together

Building community and keeping it fun pays off for female Canadian cyclists

Mont-Sainte-Anne Haley Smith Sandra Walter Catharine Pendrel

by Tara Nolan

The world championships in Mont-Sainte-Anne this past August provided a weekend of exciting, gnarly, nail-biting moments shared, of course, on social media. A photo on Vélirium’s Instagram account stood out: Catharine Pendrel and Haley Smith with their arms around Sandra Walter after she crossed the finish line at the women’s cross country race. Pendrel re-shared it with her own proud caption: “When your friend has her best-ever world championships on home soil 22 years after her first worlds as a junior.” Walter confirmed how much it meant through her own re-share.

Sandra Walter
Sandra Walter racing her third UCI World Championships at Mont-Sainte-Anne. Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn

There have been subsequent posts where you see Pendrel and Smith doing a stage race together. Then you see all three at the Olympic test event and at a late-fall training camp. The images stand out. Usually, you see an athlete portrayed in isolation. But here are three competitors on different professional teams with different sponsors who are supporting and motivating each other.

There’s more to these friendships than sportsmanship or a shared desire to be good teammates when the women are racing or training together with maple leafs on their jerseys. The bonds between Pendrel, Walter and Smith actually make them better riders. But, the effects go beyond the trio. Their connections and their support system can foster more strong female cyclists. They also can show young riders what a fun and competitive cycling community looks like, which in turn could keep more girls active in the sport.

Pendrel and Walter’s friendship goes back to 2006 and 2007. Sandra had family in Switzerland and invited Pendrel to travel around with her and do World Cups. Both women remember this time fondly when they were splitting travel costs and stuffing things into a tiny car for races. Later, Pendrel’s husband, Keith Wilson, started coaching Walter. Their careers and friendship have evolved together. “We were building a friendship to enable us to follow our dreams and do what we wanted to do,” Pendrel says. At home in B.C., they’re able to get together once in a while to ride together for fun.

Mont-Sainte-Anne Haley Smith Sandra Walter Catharine Pendrel
Haley Smith, Sandra Walter and Catharine Pendrel after the finish line at world championships in Mont-Sainte-Anne. Photo: Nick Iwanyshyn

The two even work together before World Cups, pre-riding the courses. “It’s pretty rare to find that person who you can actually prepare with,” Pendrel says. “We have this other level of communication.” Walter agrees, saying they’ve pre-ridden so many times, they can just make a plan and there is no question of the goal: “It’s very organic and comforting.”

Both women speak to the confidence they give each other, which can help with nerves or to bring one’s head back into the game if they’re feeling off. “When they are pre-riding at a major competition, the two of them create an environment where the mood is light and fun, but their focus is on performance,” Wilson says. “Both of them have long careers with consistent high-level performance because they have always kept it fun.”

And what about sharing lines? “Whoever has the best legs and the best day – they’re going to win no matter what, whether you’ve showed them your secret line or not,” Walter says. “Being able to share in your friend’s success is really important for your development and for the long run.”

Smith was brought into the fold a bit more recently – there are 13 years between her, and Walter and Pendrel, a fact all three of them admit they don’t really notice. Pendrel had seen Smith coming through the national mountain bike program and both had worked with Dan Proulx, Cycling Canada’s head coach for mountain biking. When Pendrel was sidelined with a broken arm in 2018, Smith reached out to ask if she’d be interested in doing the Swiss Epic that fall. “It gave me the goal at the perfect time, and something to strive for,” Pendrel says. So the two got to know each other better. In 2019, they won Epic Israel. Walter says she’s learned a lot from Smith as she has gotten to know her, as well.

Perskindol Swiss Epic 2018 Catharine Pendrel
Pendrel lead’s teammate Haley Smith at the 2018 Perskindol Swiss Epic. Image: Nick Muzik. Image: Nick Muzik

According to Fast and Female, an organization with a mission to keep girls healthy and active in sport (Pendrel and Smith are both ambassadors), “The first and most fundamental reason girls participate in sports is for a sense of belonging.”

“I think it’s important for sport to be portrayed as a social enterprise,” says Smith. Adds Walter: “For me, mountain biking started as a social activity and I got into it through friends – one of the main things for me is that it’s something that I share with people who I care about and that’s what makes it so fun.”

The Canadian national team seems to take the idea of a shared experience to heart in how it has shaped its program. “Even though it’s an individual sport, we’ve always used a team approach,” Proulx says. “We know that riders are stronger when they can work together.”

But, how can you be competitors and be friends? “Someone else’s success doesn’t mean you won’t have your own success,” says Smith matter of factly. “It’s a massive energy drain to hold yourself off from what could be positive energy in creating relationships.” The alternative is loneliness and isolation.

For Smith, who considers herself an introvert, social confidence has always been an issue. During the past couple of years, however, she feels better equipped to put herself out there. “I think having supportive relationships in your field of pursuit is one of the biggest impactors on your well-being.”

Catharine Pendrel

Steven Bray, a professor of sport and exercise psychology at McMaster University, is currently doing research that looks at mental fatigue and how it affects physical performance. He comes from an alpine ski racing background, but it’s easy to find links between alpine skiing and mountain biking – in which success largely depends on an individual’s performance. In each discipline, friendships develop as athletes see one other at competitions. He agrees that by supporting fellow teammates, rather than just focusing on yourself, you can reap the benefits mentally. “You can push each other to achieve more. Through that support, you’re able to do more than you could on your own,” he says.

“When you have somebody on your team who says, ‘I believe in you,’ that gives you so much more energy to overcome whatever it is that you’re feeling,” Bray adds. Certainly positive attitudes and feeling supported by competitors can only help, especially in the pressure cooker that is competitive racing. In other words, the good karma you put out into the world can only help you.

“When riders can work together, their chances of success go up considerably,” says Proulx. “Our women’s team has an ever-increasing level of co-operation and trust that makes a big difference when they compete against the rest of the world. A positive vibe and camaraderie act as a force multiplier.”

Smith, who came to mountain biking from hockey in which there is a built-in team structure, felt like an outsider at first when she started racing. She soon realized that those feelings were all in her head. “My oldest friendships have come from hockey because of that forged-in-the-fire effect,” she explains. “As much as I like to think and say that you can be really close friends with your competitors, which you can, it’s harder in an individual sport than hockey. My tendencies to be protective of my results and my racing – they’re challenged in this individual sport because you have to be able to celebrate the victories of your competitors even when you didn’t have a victory.” Smith has realized that supporting and celebrating your teammates and friends’ successes makes you feel less bad about your own failures.

Haley Smith at Mont-Sainte-Anne 2019 world championships. Photo: Nick Iwanyshyn

“Haley came from team sports, and I really think that a team environment is important for her, and she misses that in mountain bike racing,” says Smith’s fiancé and cross country racer, Andrew L’Esperance. “To have friends like Sandra and Catharine doing the same thing as her, supporting each other and building that team environment through their friendships, is awesome.”

Pendrel credits hockey with giving Smith a whole other perspective on sport, which has the potential to help other racers. “No one racer is amazing at everything, but if you surround yourself with people who are experts at one aspect, you can maybe improve one aspect for yourself, too,” she says.

A 2008 paper published by the Women’s Sports Foundation, which was founded by tennis legend Billie Jean King, features a list of reasons why girls drop out of sports at two times the rate of boys. A lack of positive role models is one of them. Even though social media has the unfortunate, inexorable power to affect a user’s self-esteem, the amount of people putting out positive messages should swing the pendulum in the other direction. Being honest about how hard it can be to cope at the elite level, both physically and mentally, while showing respect and joy at opponents’ successes can only help to encourage new young athletes. “It’s great to see leaders within the team modelling teamwork and collaboration for future generations. It’s important for young people to see that,” says Proulx.

Walter says every once in a while, a young athlete will come up to her or text her. “When I was 12 or 13, I would never have called up a Trish Sinclair or a Lesley Tomlinson and asked them to go for a bike ride with me,” she says.
“I’m really hoping we’ve created this welcoming, approachable environment so that they’re able to do that. I would have loved to have those opportunities as a young athlete. We have so much to share, so much experience, and we want to share that and be seen as approachable.”

Smith says she wishes she had learned these lessons earlier in her career. “I would tell a young racer to challenge themselves to celebrate the successes of their competitors; it makes you grow and makes the whole pursuit less stressful and more fulfilling,” she says. “I would tell them too that everybody wants to be their friend. Open up your heart and let people into your journey.” Smith believes if you can teach young girls to be friends with their competitors, they’ll probably stay in the sport longer.

Both Smith and Pendrel admitted their performances at the world championships at Mont-Sainte-Anne were disappointing. “There was a certain comfort in seeing each other at the finish line and knowing that we gave the best we had,” Smith says. “When we looked back and saw Sandra cross the finish line, it was a very happy feeling. Though I didn’t have the race I wanted, it was cool seeing a teammate have one of her best races ever. Her race also put four Canadian women in the top 20, which was a sweet moment to be a part of.” Adds Pendrel: “Sandra reaching her goal that day was the cherry that absolutely made the cake.”

One upcoming event that will be both a physical and mental test hanging over all three riders’ heads this winter is the Tokyo Olympics. At the moment, Canada has two spots for the women’s cross country competition since it’s sitting in fourth place in the UCI’s Olympic qualification ranking. If a Canadian had finished in the top-five at the world championships in September, she would have Olympic priority. Now, Cycling Canada will be looking at performances at World Cups. The World Cup at Nové Město in the Czech Republic at the end of May will mark the final event that the sport’s governing body has listed for Olympic selection.

Mont-Sainte-Anne Haley Smith Catharine Pendrel
Haley Smith and Catharine Pendrel after the finish line in Mont-Sainte-Anne. Photo: Nick Iwanyshyn

Back in the fall, Walter got a last-minute opportunity to join Smith and Pendrel at the Olympic test event in Japan after a late cancellation by Emily Batty. Pendrel points to the positive energy Walter brings to the team and says that Proulx wouldn’t have extended that invite to just anyone. “He knows what a good teammate she is to Haley and me,” she says. “Just her being there raises the whole level of the team.”

Walter said she kept having to pinch herself. “I was so energized by the opportunity and really savoured it,” she says. “The Canadian team is so strong and the chances of me making it to Tokyo are so slim.” Walter acknowledges her role was to support learning the course. “We were essentially creating lines that are going to be ridden in the Olympics. The rocks looked like puzzles we had to figure out.”

“Everyone is pretty nervous,” Pendrel admits. “We’re all going into next year with high pressure and wanting to have a high performance at that first event.” Ultimately, she knows that whoever gets to go will represent the country well.

As hard as it will be for the women who don’t make it to the Olympics, you know they’ll be cheering like hell for their fellow Canadians, rooting for them along with the rest of the country. Smith, Pendrel and Walter have a friendship that is more profound than mere sportsmanship. These are relationships based on trust and respect and a love of riding together.

“When I had my podium at Nové Město, as soon as they crossed the finish line, they hopped a fence they weren’t supposed to, to come and hug me,” Smith says, remembering the reactions of Pendrel and Walter at Smith’s first World Cup podium finish this past May. “You can choose to be protective and reclusive, or you can soak up their energy and try to give it back. It’s not always first nature to be that way, but that’s how I want to be. They’re motivating me to become a better person and competitor.”