Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
By Ben Delaney
One of North America’s all-time greatest cyclists popped up unexpectedly on this year’s U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross start list. Canadian Alison Sydor, a three-time mountain bike world champion and road world bronze medalist, decided earlier this fall to throw a leg over a ’cross bike for the first time in her career.
Initially, as with everyone, the woman who has won 17 mountain bike World Cups was a little clumsy. But after a few weeks of local racing in British Columbia, Sydor took second at the Canadian national cyclocross championships behind Wendy Simms and ahead of Lyne Bessette.
VeloNews caught up with Sydor at the Kentucky Derby Museum during USGP opening ceremonies to talk about trying something new at age 41, going for a fifth Olympic berth, and Katie Compton.
VeloNews: What brought you into ’cross?Alison Sydor: I finished my mountain bike season early this year. I had to do Trans Alp Challenge for [sponsor] Rocky Mountain. That meant missing the national championships for cross country in Canada, and as a result, although I asked for an exception, not getting selected for the worlds team. So my season ended early. I went through all of August pretty disappointed.
I didn’t do anything for about 5-6 weeks. I was getting out of shape and I didn’t like it. Our local cyclocross season was starting in early September. I also saw Cross Vegas on the calendar. I thought, “Oh, I’ll try and get in a little bit of shape.” It’s like anybody; it doesn’t matter if you’re professional athlete or recreational athlete, everybody does better when you have a goal. So for me it was a situation of wanting to have a little goal of getting back riding a back and having fun.
VN: When did you start racing ’cross?AS: I started doing some local racing in B.C. I found the local scene in Vancouver really fun. There’s a series on Vancouver Island that Wendy Simms and her partner run, and unsanctioned, grassroots, Wednesday races in Victoria. I just found the people in the sport really fun and supportive. I really had no idea of what I was doing. There were a few young guys that taught me how to dismount and carry the bike, all that practical stuff. A few weeks ago I was in the island series with Wendy. I jumped off before the barriers, tripped over my feet, landed on my handlebars and broke them. I’ve come a long way from that to last week [at nationals]. It was pretty exciting for me to be able to keep up with Wendy and Lyne. I couldn’t get past Wendy for the win, but it was a thrill to be riding with them. I learned a lot that race.
VN: What’s the attraction?AS: I love bike racing. And this is bike racing. I’ve done mountain bike racing, road racing, even a little bit of track racing. This is one thing I never did. It’s kind of a surprise that it took me so long. Usually I go for so long with the mountain bike season, until the end of October, that the idea of another season of traveling and dealing with more bikes becomes less attractive. But seeing how the sport has grown here is a big thrill. That’s the attraction for me: riding in any cycling sport where there is a lot of good atmosphere. It seems that the sport is developing that following here. Obviously there’s a good level of competition here. That’s motivating as an athlete. But it’s more the new challenge and the excitement of doing cycle sport in North America where people are actually paying some attention and are enthusiastic about it.
VN: What mountain bike skills translate, and what is new for you?AS: I don’t think there’s any trouble with the technical skills. Even as a road racer I always jumped on and off trails on my road bike. And with 20 years of bike racing, you do pick up a few skills here and there. So the bike handling is definitely not an issue. The skills specific to the sport – dismounting, mounting, carrying the bike – hey, it’s not difficult to learn, but it’s difficult to perfect. Seeing how much more efficient and smooth the experienced riders are, I’m sure I have a little bit to improve there. But the sport is mostly cycling. More than 90 percent of the loop you’re pedaling. It’s similar to short track racing, with the intensity.
VN: Why the USGP?AS: For me to have fun in the cycling sport means competing at this sort of level. I did some local races, but apart from Wendy there’s not anybody to ride with unless I ride with the men. So if I want to find some women to push me and have a little bit of fun, that means coming to this level.
Like anybody, it’s fun to do something new. Even after racing for 20 years. Doing a new sport, I still have that excitement. Every week I’m getting better. I’m improving. I don’t even know how many times I’ve taken my bike apart. Getting a new part, making it a little bit fancier. Learning all about the specifics of the cyclocross bike. I’ve got all that enthusiasm of someone who’s just picking it up at the beginning.
VN: What’s your take on Katie Compton?AS: It’s fantastic for the sport in the U.S. Anytime you have riders getting international results, that’s very important for the credibility for the sport. Being a worlds medalist and coming back and racing here, obviously people know the level is high. Outside the cycling media, the mainstream media is exciting by an athlete who is dominating a sport or getting top international results. So that’s really important for the growth of the sport to have a local or national rider who’s actually doing something internationally. So that’s fantastic that she’s going to doing World Cups but still come back and race here. You have to have athletes that the public wants to follow. The sport has developed that with Ryan and Barry and Tim, and with the women, too. So there are names that people recognize. It creates a little excitement. There are going to be new riders coming in trying to keep up with the established veterans. That just gives all the compelling elements for the media to follow.
VN: Let’s talk about Beijing. How many spots does Canada have for the women’s mountain bike team?AS: That is still officially to be determined December 30, but the Canadian are solidly in there like the Americans for the maximum number of spots, which this time around is two. In Athens the top three countries got three, the next group got two, the next group got one. The UCI changed that rule for some reason unknown to me, and now the maximum any country can get is two. The men still get three, two and one, depending on their country ranking. We have two spots available, and we have four women in the pool [Sydor, Marie-Helene Premont, Catherine Pendrel and Kiara Bisaro]. For me it was definitely doesn’t help me too much to have missed the worlds this year, but at the same time, the way that our selection process works. The last two years were important for qualifying the country, and next year is the year when the individual selection is made based on the results of the first five World Cups. So it’s still completely open. Right now I just had to get myself back feeling like an athlete again, and just having fun. I’m not training like a maniac. I’m just back in basic shape and having fun with this. And that’s the level I want to keep it at. After Portland [the final USGP weekend, December 1-2], I’ll start to plan for next year.
I know what the effort is. This would be my fifth Olympics. So I know what the effort is. I know what the commitment is. I have to decide that at this point in my life if I want to make that commitment. There is no given. We have four very strong women in Canada fighting for two spots. I feel a little older in my attitude towards selections and politics, but not in my body as an athlete. So I know whatever I could do four or five years ago I still believe is possible know when I’m fully committed. But I’ll decide later. I’m just enjoying ’cross right now.