Lauriane Genest just wanted to go fast.
In track cycling, and sprint cycling specifically, the 21-year-old from Levis, Que., has seemingly found her calling.
“I think it was just the first time I rode the track in Bromont, Que., and I just loved it instantly,” Genest said ahead of the season’s final World Cup stop in Milton, Ont.
Genest only participated in her first international race in 2018 but already owns the Canadian record in the flying 200-metre sprint.
Genest ranks fourth individually this season in the keirin, helping boost Canada’s team ranking to fifth internationally.
The keirin is an eight-lap race where a pace-setter leads the pack and slowly increases in speed before leaving the track with two-and-a-half laps remaining.
Genest grew up a figure skater and never particularly enjoyed cycling in her hilly hometown. But she knew she liked speed.
“Even when I was figure skating we would just do small races where the first one to cross the skating rink [would win] and yeah, I just love going fast,” Genest said.
Sprint cycling, with seven racers on a track flying along at 65 km/h, lends itself to some spectacular crashes.
“Strength, power and don’t be scared,” Genest said are the keys. “If you’re scared you’re not going to be going anywhere. So yeah, be brave actually.”
Genest’s 2,417.5 points on this season’s World Cup tour in keirin are nearly 800 more than 23rd-place teammate Kelsey Mitchell.
Mitchell won gold in the event at the Pan Am Games in the first major international tournament of her career.
The 26-year-old from Sherwood Park, Alta., is also relatively new to the sport, having made her debut at 23 after being discovered through the RBC Training Ground.
“Never been to a velodrome before, never ridden a track bike, hadn’t owned a bike in years and Cycling Canada reached out and pursued me and I signed with them and never looked back since,” Mitchell said.
In the beginning, Mitchell could barely make it through warmups as she maxed out at 60 rotations per minute, about half the speed of fellow racers. The former soccer player wasn’t used to that pace.
“You gotta be OK with hurting. You gotta learn to push yourself and suffer. Thirty seconds all out is a very hard thing to do and you will feel sick after,” Mitchell said. “At the World Cups, I’d never felt that feeling before. I was nauseous and I’d have to go up and race.”
Following her Pan Am success, Mitchell is on track for her Olympic debut in Tokyo.
Teammate Hugo Barrette competed at the Rio Games in 2016, but he’s less assured of a spot in 2020. The 28-year-old needs a good performance both in Milton and at the world championships in Berlin at the end of February to solidify his Olympic status.
Worlds are the most important event for qualification.
“I’m coming of age at this Olympics more than the other so it’s time to shine, it’s time to rock the boat,” Barrette said.
In 2017, Barrette suffered a crash during training for a World Cup in Cali, Colombia, smashing through a guardrail and banging his head on a concrete slab, blood spilling from the wound.
Barrette made a swift recovery, however, and was cleared for competition just three weeks later.
The Iles de la Madeleine, Que., native has spent the past six months training in Trinidad and Tobago with that country’s national team, which he says challenges him more than the Canadian team can.
“In a sport of speed like this you need someone to push you so they had a lot of good riders,” Barrette said.
Barrette discovered cycling at 16 while rehabbing a tendon injury that forced the former hockey player out of his skates. He hasn’t looked back since.
“A good track sprinter needs to be faster, dominant. You need to be fast. In a sport of speed, you got it or you don’t,” said Barrette. “And then just be fearless because let’s be honest, it’s pretty dangerous as well.”
All quota spots for Tokyo will be determined following worlds on March 2. Canada is guaranteed two women’s sprint spots at worlds, with optimism that a third could be secured in Milton. That means Genest and Mitchell should be able to jumpstart their Olympic journeys in Berlin.
For Barrette, qualifying is more complicated. He must clear a hurdle at the World Cup to reach the world championships, where another bar needs to be passed to book his ticket to Tokyo.
At the Olympics, just half of the track cycling events are sprint. The other half is endurance, and it’s perhaps where Canada is strongest.
Led by Allison Beveridge and Georgia Simmerling, the fifth-ranked Canadian women won bronze in team pursuit, a 4,000-metre race contested by two teams bracket-style, in Rio to follow up the same standing from London 2012.
With Cycling Canada stating its focus on “development” over results for the hometown World Cup stop, Beveridge and Simmerling stayed in New Zealand for training.