Olympic spots on the line at cross-country cycling worlds in Mont-Sainte-Anne

MONT STE ANNE, Que. — Olympic spots are on the line this weekend as Canada’s women’s national cross-country mountain bike team tackles the challenging course at Mont-Sainte-Anne, east of Quebec City.

The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) is holding the world championships for a record third year at the popular ski resort, the breeding ground for a crop of Quebec stars in the sport. About half of the 70-member strong mountain bike team hail from the province.

Most of the team was introduced today at the competition site, where some 700 cyclists from 44 countries are expected to compete in various categories.

The most attention will likely be on the women’s elite cross-country team as they look to lock up spots in next summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo. Canadian women have been contenders in the sport even since it joined Olympic competitions in Atlanta in 1996. Alison Sydor won silver in those Games and Marie-Helene Premont, who hails from the Mont-Sainte-Anne area, repeated the feat in Athens in 2004.

Three-time Olympian, and 2016 Olympic bronze medallist Catharine Pendrel of Kamloops, B.C., is hoping to earn a fourth trip to the Games.

“It’s definitely been a bit more of a slow burn than I had anticipated,” Pendrel, who turns 39 next month, said about her season so far. “I’ve been riding well and each race has gotten progressively better. Last World Cup I was fifth so I’m definitely happy with that progression and I hope to keep going up.”

It’s an important weekend for Canadian riders, with a chance to use home-course advantage in the chase for an Olympic spot.

“The mountain bike world championships are the most important event in the calendar — and it’s in Canada,” Pendrel said. “If one of the women or men do the top five here it’s an automatic selection for Tokyo. Honestly all of us here are trying to get the best results as possible a good result here is never going to be a bad thing for Tokyo.”

The return to Mont-Sainte-Anne also gives the veteran a chance to improve on last year’s race here, when she finished 16th at a World Cup stop.

“It was my first race back after breaking my humerus so I was quite nervous and not riding up to full speed, so now I get to come back and do the race I’m capable of.”

Haley Smith goes into Saturday’s race on an unexpected high. Smith currently holds the seventh spot in UCI rankings.

“It hasn’t sunk in that that is where I’m sitting right now,” the 25-year-old from Uxbridge, Ont., said. “I can’t think about it too much because it doesn’t feel like it’s me.”

She said her strategy was to do “a fair amount of point chasing in the early season.” An early competition in Greece netted her wins in all three races she entered.

Smith said her goal this weekend is “to have fun and enjoy the fact this is potentially the only time I’ll get to race world champs in my own country.”

As it stands now under qualification criteria Smith said she would be the first choice for the team.

“But there are still two races to come before Tokyo,” she said, adding Pendrel is coming on strong and may overtake her.

Head coach Dan Proulx says Canada is beginning to see the fruits of an aggressive development program.

“The last time Mont-Sainte-Anne had worlds in 2010 was the start of a very big push for excellence in all mountain bike disciplines,” he said. :Some of the athletes you see here actually got their start around 2010.”

The Mont-Sainte-Anne championships also mark the first time riders of electric mountain bikes will be in competition in a UIC championship. Canada has eight men and two women entered in the debut races.

Elite men and women compete in cross-country Saturday and downhill on Sunday.

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