The Luna Chix Pro Team claims it is “the most successful, longest-running team in the history of professional mountain bike racing (regardless of gender).” The team hopes to expand on that record next month and land three riders on the podium in the women’s cross country race at the London Olympics.
The women’s team includes the world champion, Canadian Catharine Pendrel, the U.S. national champion, Georgia Gould and Czech Katerina Nash, who currently sits behind Pendrel in second in the World Cup. They’ll face off against each other while representing their respective countries in the London and each stands a realistic chance at standing atop the podium, especially after they swept the podium at the Windham World Cup last month.
Following the rainbow
In August of last year, the North American teammates got a taste of the showdown that will ensue next month when they battled it out on the London Olympic course at Hadleigh Farm. Gould and Pendrel were neck and neck until Gould crashed in loose gravel around a corner on the last half lap and lost 56 seconds, eventually finishing second.
Gould recalled the Olympic test race when speaking to Singletrack.com in December. “On the last corner I wiped out and I was sliding for long enough that I thought, ‘wow, I’m sliding for a long time… still sliding,'” she remembered.
A lot has happened since that race, but with the Olympics close at hand the teammates have been reliving that history in the two most recent World Cups, both of which Pendrel won, but not before Gould proved that she is on form to beat the world champion.
Gould led the World Cups in Mont-Sainte-Anne and Windham for the majority of both races by substantial margins until untimely mishaps had her reeling.
“Georgia has definitely shown that she is the fastest woman in the world right now,” the world champion told VeloNews after the North American World Cups.
In Mont-Sainte-Anne, Pendrel won the Canadian World Cup race for the second consecutive time. Gould led for most of the race and stayed out of trouble on the slippery course. She missed the first World Cup victory of her career, after having more than a 50-second lead, when cramps set in on the second-to-last lap and her pace let up until Pendrel passed her.
A similar scenario played out at the sixth World Cup in Windham when the U.S. champion led by 50 seconds with one lap remaining and was prepared to ride to victory. With the race nearly over, Gould pinch flatted in a rocky section, and leapt off her bike to refill the flat. Gould still had the lead by the time the finish line was nearly in sight, but the tire had gone completely flat again. Gould dismounted and began to run her bike across the line, with a win still within reach.
Nash launched a sprint against Pendrel as they came to the final 100 meters and after a moment’s hesitation, Pendrel responded and took the dramatic win.
“I was pretty certain that I was going to win,” said Gould, “and I had allowed myself to think ‘I’ve got it in the bag.’ My first thought was just, ‘come on, not now! No, no no no!'”
Gould wound up third behind her teammates after twice having her first World Cup win in sight. Pendrel said she considered backing off when she saw Gould off her bike near the finish in Windham.
“That was definitely one of the hardest moments I’ve ever had in sport,” said Pendrel. “My heart was crushed seeing Georgia. At first I kind of sat up and was looking at Georgia and looking at the finish line and then I saw Katerina sprinting and everything I had just worked for was in jeopardy.
“It was the worst circumstance: it was a teammate, it was the last seconds of the race. There’s all these dynamics and you only have a couple seconds to react.
“The reality is, in mountain-bike racing, when someone gets a flat, it’s a race of individuals… and at the end we are all competitors.”
Gould agreed that her teammate had to overtake her.
“I think it ended for me in the best way possible in that situation. I don’t want someone else deciding that I win the race. I want it to be me winning the race.
“Some people are thinking, ‘her teammate should have sat up’ but that did not occur to me. If anything I would have been like, ‘no!’ That’s not how I want to win. Just race your bike.”
If anything, the “ruthless” nature of mountain-bike racing that Pendrel explained with regards to the fight for individual success has pushed each of the Luna Olympic contenders harder to reach her potential.
“Every year we keep surprising ourselves and raising the bar and showing each other what we each can do. Even though all three of us are in our 30s, we keep getting faster,” said Pendrel.
Taking the Queen’s gold
The battle between the three fastest women in the world in Windham will reach its pinnacle on August 11 when the teammates line up at Hadleigh Farm in Essex for the Olympic race wearing their national colors.
“I’m not resting on any past accomplishments,” said Pendrel. “I don’t want to underestimate any of the other women out there.”
In these days leading up to the event, Pendrel says she is not expecting anyone to come out of the woodwork for the first time, but between the top contenders she isn’t jumping to conclusions. All it comes down to is a difference of one or two percent, she said.
“It’s not like someone is going to come knock your socks off, but it’s about who gets that one or two-percent gain on the day.”
Gould is pleased with her fitness and, though also hesitant to make assumptions about her competitors’ progress and unwilling to jinx her race by speaking too soon, she is optimistic about her chances and clear that her recent misfortunes were just that — misfortune — and that she had the form to win both races.
“I’m confident that my fitness is good and I’m hoping that over the next few weeks I can continue to build and get enough faster and that I have plenty of time (in the Olympic race) to stop and change a flat and massage out my leg cramps,” Gould joked.
Her luck took a turn in the right direction at the national championships last weekend, where Gould built up a sufficient lead on her nearest chaser that she was able to take her final lap conservatively and avoid mishaps. She pulled on the stars and stripes jersey as women’s cross country champ for the second year in a row.
Will we see another Luna podium sweep at the London Olympics? It isn’t out of the question. Pendrel said the trio has “the drive, the determination and the strength” to take gold, silver and bronze.
“Even though we all want to win, we at least want to get one of us up there,” Pendrel said of the team’s Olympic goals.
Emily spent her infancy in the back of a women’s team van while the team built wheels around her. She spent part of her pre-teen years in Europe following the major European mountain, road and gravity races and touring cycling product factories. College was the first time she lived in a home without a frame building shop in her garage or basement. Her favorite style of riding is getting lost in singletrack trail networks and taking her time finding her way back.