I know you wanted to hear some of my reflections of the XCO program and our recent World Championships in Cairns, Australia. Here are some of my thoughts on the day after the cross country competition concluded.
That was a very strong World Championships for Canada. In every category we had at least one athlete who was strong and competitive. More importantly, so many athletes made massive leaps in performance. Some of our strongest rides came from people who were in their first year of their racing category. This Worlds showed that we’re developing sustainable depth and can feel extremely optimistic about the future of our program.
Holden’s bronze medal in junior men was awesome. He is a first year junior and very new to international racing. He’s only raced the Europeans once before as part of our spring junior National Team project in Europe with Coach Ian Hughes. That experience and confidence really paid off. Holden is already a great student of the sport and he’s very coachable. He really tries to use the advice he’s given. He pays attention to the process. That’s key in a young rider…they have to do the work; you have to get started early; and you have to be able to learn high performance habits on and off the bike as quickly as possible. Holden has that. Holden and his coach, Mike Charuk, should be very proud.
Emily Batty was extremely tough out there. She was at the sharp end of the race all day and really dug deep. She finished 7th. As you know, the course was very demanding and wild to say the least. Being able to consistently be at the front on this track is no easy task. Emily certainly demonstrated that she can be in it for the win. Over the next few years, she’ll be working hard with her coach [Adam Morka] to perfect her performance. Emily also suffered a crash in training prior to Worlds that limited her preparation time on the course. All in all, I think it was a very good ride. I know the result isn’t what Emily hoped for, but I think it’s a good indication that she’s on track at the beginning of the Olympic quadrennial.
Catharine Pendrel had one of the best starts of her career. That start loop is 1.2km of flat gravel and trail and it’s extremely fast, rough and a bit dangerous at speed. She came out of that in contact with the leader [Jolanda Neff]. It looked like it was going to be a great day. Unfortunately Catharine faded a bit in lap 3 and was eventually back in traffic. At Worlds, if you’re off at all, there are 10 other riders right there gunning for you – especially when you’re a 2x World Champ. If you know Catharine…you know that she expects a lot from herself. She’s an incredible athlete and champion. Tough days like this make her even more hungry to work hard and aim for the top of the podium. She’s a class act and never stopped fighting. I know she’ll regroup and come back stronger.
Haley Smith had a breakthrough ride that shows she’s on track for more strong international performances. She finished 16th and had a few laps time/splits that were top 12. Last year she was 43rd at Worlds. Haley is in her second year of racing Elite and has improved dramatically. That performance was earned with a solid 4 years of training (and lots of sport experience before that) and a commitment level that really accelerated this past year. She’s worked extremely hard every day to perfect her technical skills and ramp up her training capacity. I think her commitment to the daily process of being a high performance athlete lead her to this. She’s one of the most driven and committed athletes I’ve ever worked with. I expect she’ll perform at a very high level in the future.
Marc Andre Fortier was another rider who really impressed everyone with his progression. In U23 he finished 12th at Worlds. Last year he was 36th. He’s a coached by his Dad and he’s also an active member of Cycling Canada’s NextGen program. He’s been climbing the ladder steadily in his time as U23 and he still has one more year in the Category. Riders who perform at his level in World Cup or World Championship competition typically go on to be very good elite riders. We’re starting to see the future of our sport emerge on the men’s side with U23 riders like Marc Andre, Peter Diersa (who won Elite Nationals), Sean Fincham, Raphael Au Clair and Quinton Disera (who finished 17th in his first year as a U23).
In a 4 year Olympic cycle, we target our development riders more in year 1 and 2. They’re the future of the program and we’re looking for rapid progressions from these folks – we saw that clearly here in Cairns. Year 1 is also a time when we intentionally put less pressure on our established champions like Pendrel and Batty. In the past, most Canadian sport programs were aiming to be winning consistently every year throughout the quadrennial – that’s not realistic at this level. That typically meant strong international performances in year 1 when most nations are still in recovery mode from the Olympic year or investing heavily in training; and strong performances in year 4, when everyone else is training extremely hard and putting all of their eggs into one basket – the Olympics. In the MTB program we definitely aim to periodize the athlete’s training and competition plan over the entire 4 year cycle. We have to be targeted in our approach and we can’t expect our best riders to be on all the time. Over the 4 years, there is a wave of loading and then progression/performance that we’re looking for in our top athletes. In contrast, we expect our development athletes to progress rapidly year to year throughout the Olympic cycle – eventually reaching a level, usually around top 5, where their physical, mental, and emotional approach to world class performance needs to be planned and periodized to achieve success at the top of the podium.
In Canada we’re fortunate to finally have all of the development steps in place for young riders. We have incredible support from Cycling Canada and Own the Podium. We have a development program lead by Ian Hughes that introduces young riders to the National Team and provides experience and opportunity to emerging juniors. We have a NextGen program, lead by Jeff Ain, that provides athletes with a solid daily training environment throughout the year and world class training and racing opportunities for U23’s. We also have a strong Elite training group, lead by myself, focused on refining World Class riders who can be on the podium. We also have an innovative technical coach in Mike Garrigan. We’re one of the few countries in the World that has each step of the pathway in place. We’re far ahead of most leading cycling nations in this regard. On top of these National Team initiatives, we’re supported by an incredible network of MTB coaches, clubs and Provincial programs across the country who continually identify and develop exceptional young riders. We have coaches like Jude Dufour (Alma, QC), Mike Charuk (Squamish, BC), Kevin Simms (Barrie, ON), Serge Desrosiers (Val-David, QC), Rob Holmgren (Orillia, ON), Adam Morka (Brooklin, ON), Keith Wilson (Kamloops, BC), Donald Welman (Quebec, QC), Michel LeBlanc (Quebec, QC), Andrew Watson (Barrie, ON) and Eric Orshel (Uxbridge, ON) who continually find and build athletes who become strong members of the National Team program. It takes a village!
We have one of the best high performance support team’s in the business working behind the scenes to support the riders. Tara Lazarski (IST Lead and Physiotherapist) and Adam Trotter (Head Mechanic) work very hard to insure we have truly World Leading support. Tara and Adam are supported by 3 other amazing and dedicated staff (Andy Achuff, Jeff Hunter, Katherine Short) to insure that we are helping athletes perform at their best. Jennifer Mahoney (Cycling Canada Off-Road Manager) is also a key leader in our program and supports staff and athletes at a World class level all year. In addition to these folks we have a strong group of professionals working with the athletes on things like mental performance (Sharleen Hoar and Danelle Kabush), Strength Training (Adam Kleeberger), Nutrition (Ashley Armstrong), Team Doctor (Bruce Davidson). We also work with physiologists Trent Stellingwerff, Paula McFadyen and Dr. David Smith who has been with us since 2009. The National Team program has become comprehensive and detailed as it has evolved. We’re serious about developing future potential.
From a process perspective, we’re one of the leading teams in the World. It’s only a matter of time before the results are there too. We’re doing the little things right and we’re learning faster than our competition. I think this shows in the progression of our athletes. We’re seeing athletes able to achieve World Class performances earlier and earlier in their careers. Our program is proving that we can create sustainable success with hard work and good planning. It’s World Class basics and we’re doing that better than almost every other nation we compete against. I know this approach will continue to pay dividends and will result in even more rapid progression down the road.
One area we need to develop as a nation is our attention to getting in the appropriate amount of well planned volume training in each year. We’re an endurance sport and endurance training is the foundation of everything we do. Building volume or training capacity is a process that takes a lot of time to develop. You can only progress at a rate of 5-10% per year and still hope to improve steadily. We have to get more young people training in fun programs that allow them to steadily build their training capacity over time. These programs should be technique focused and FUN focused…..the volume is built over time and in the background. It’s easy to progress them safely because the athletes are engaged in riding and having fun with their friends. We have to get athletes at the junior level who have more miles under their belts as U15 and U17 (ideally by U19 they can do ~500-600 hours of fitness activity per year – similar to other youth endurance sports and not a huge leap when you consider the guideline for active living in youth is an hour of activity per day anyways). It can be cycling or any sport that is complimentary (i.e. XC Skiing, Snowshoe, Running, Rowing, Triathlon etc) We need athletes who have spent time in good programs where they learn to be coachable, good teammates and good competitors. In the past, cycling in Canada generally waited until junior to teach any training or high performance habits. That’s not good and is usually too late unless the athlete gained these attributes in another sport. In short, we have to train smarter and earlier and it has to be fun and engaging for the riders. I want to see riders in cool programs at an early age that teach them to train and be good people. If they come into their junior years with better preparation and they enjoy the sport more, we’re going to produce champions. It’s simple really. It’s not power meters and fancy training plans. It’s riding and learning in an engaging team atmosphere with a certified coach who knows how to keep this fun.
I could go on talking for days about the program and where we’re headed. I always wish I had more time to explain the tremendous progression the athletes have made. Sometimes the results aren’t glamorous but for those who understand this process, it’s easy to see the rapid progression we’re making. I’ve very pleased with the effort I saw at Worlds. The riders were warriors! The results are on track. We’ll continue to be a powerhouse because we have inspired athletes who work very hard at being the best in the World.
Thanks for asking about my reflections on this year’s World Championships. So proud of this team! Thanks for reading.