What's Cool In Road Cycling

Interview: Alison Sydor

OK, I know what you are about say readers, this is a road site! But when it comes to Champions of the sport of cycling, Alison Sydor must be included. As a former Tour de France stage winner, Road World Championship and Olympic Medallist Alison kicks butt on and off road. I had an opportunity to sit down with the 9 time World Champion medallist to discuss her career, and her thoughts about the road scene.

The Alison Sydor Interview by Rob MacNeil

Rob: What are your plans for road racing in 2003?

Alison: For 2003 I have a contract again with the Trek/VW Mountain Bike racing Team. As far as my racing schedule goes there is some relative calm right now and I am doing some good testing of my new 2003 race bike. But it gets pretty busy on the mountain bike side once mid-May rolls around. Before then I will be getting the racing feeling back starting my season at the The Nova Dessert Classic on the dirt, then road racing with the Canadian National MTB team at The Redlands Classic. Then it’s the Sea Otter Classic on the dirt and at the end of April I will be back on the road bike at the Tour of the Gila. I still have to meet up with the Trek management to finalize my schedule after July. If there is support and I can fit some more road events into my schedule I certainly will do so. I still enjoy the road racing very much and it’s always great training to fit in some road stage races when I can.

Like so many other elite riders in Canada I would love the opportunity to race at the Worlds in Hamilton this year. The selection race (Nationals) is the same weekend as a World Cup race so that is a major problem to gain entry into the pool of riders for the
team. The Canadian Women’s team for World’s has an excellent group of road riders to select from. However if the National Team selectors thought I could play a strong role on the World’s team I would be very motivated for the opportunity to do so.

One of the biggest reasons I started mountain bike racing was that the Worlds’s were in Canada (Bromont) in 1992. To me World’s in your country is about as exciting as it gets. I figured that Bromont would be my only opportunity ever in my career to race a world
championships at home. I got another chance to do this in Mt Ste. Anne in ’97. I guess I have kept racing for so many years that the Road Worlds finally are coming to Canada too! Whether or not I am racing in Hamilton I will definitely be there as a spectator. It is extremely special to have the Road World’s in Canada this year.

Rob: Not sure if you were aware but when it comes to professional racing, you are the grand champion of the world championships for North America. 3 Pro titles plus 4 silvers and 2 bronzes (one on the road). No other North American rider has ever come close to that including three time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond. -Any thoughts about that?

Alison: Thanks for pointing that fact out – that’s a pretty cool stat for sure. I also have been a part of the Team Relay team for Canada which has won a gold and bronze medal. One of the riders I admire the most, Thomas Frischknect, picked up his 12th worlds medal
in Kaprun this year. I have 11 medals and now I have the push for Lugano to get on equal terms with him again! Anyway, as far as medals in the past they are a great souvenir but it’s too dangerous for an athlete ever to dwell on the past for long. A sports career is totally about living ‘in the moment’. I only focus on each season and race one at a time and not in relation to one another or to accumulate some certain number of achievements. But when I am at home and I see my worlds medals all together it certainly does give me a
sense of satisfaction and it always brings a smile to my face.

Ever since I started racing and reading bike magazines I can remember being most intrigued by the ‘rainbow jersey’ and the idea of wearing the jersey for a whole year – it’s something special only to the sport of cycling. Worlds has always been my favorite race of the season and I have had a very consistent results at the worlds so that probably has only solidified my positive outlook and strong motivation for this race. My first mtn bike world’s was in 1991 and I was 5th, since then I have always finished in the top 4 places from 1992-2002.

Rob: What was harder, the Tour de France or the worst (Conditions, weather, etc…) mountain bike race you ever rode in?

Alison: Certainly the World Cup race in Canmore in 1999 was one of the most extreme race conditions I have ever ridden in. Most of the field suffered from hypothermia that day. To make matters worse for me my brakes failed after the half way point in the race. I was leading the world cup at the time and the points spread was tight between the top 3. I thought that with this mechanical I was going to lose it all. So in terms of mental and physical stress I think that was one of the toughest days in my career. I was lucky it was such a brutal day because it was just a race of attrition and toughness and my mechanical situation did not hurt me as much as it could have. I survived and finished
3rd in that race and won the world cup overall that season by just 4 points.

I have raced the women’s Tour 6 times and the Giro once. Without a doubt the grind of racing day after day for 2+ weeks takes a bigger toll on the body than a single day mountain bike race can. But the other factor when it comes to women’s racing is the team support issue. I never raced on a ‘professional’ team for any major Tour. The worst probably was when I raced in ’96 with one other Canadian on a composite team. We traveled to the stages and did the transfers on the broom wagon bus. Most of the time we arrived at the hotels late and missed meals, so we pretty much lived on powerbars and meal replacement drinks. Accomodations in the womens races were not all that great when I was racing either. That year I did win 2 stages and I was in the ‘green’ jersey on the last
day. The final stage finished on Alpe D’huez and I totally cracked on the climb. I was completely cooked mentally and physically and only the thought of the post race banquet kept me going to the top. Then my teammate and I had to hitch a ride to the airport at 5am in the back of the Dutch National team mechanics truck. These were just the conditions that we had to deal with at the time if we wanted to do these races. Even after that experience I still went back to the Tour Feminin 3 more times. When I think back to my roadie days inevitably dealing with the travel, logistics and limited support
is what sticks in my memory even more than the toughness of the races. A positive attitude was absolutely essential to survive and I do recall repeating my favorite mantra quite often during these epic experiences – “what does not kill me makes me stronger”. And it did – make me stronger that is, not kill me.

Rob: Who were your racing idols growing up?

Alison: Watching Steve Bauer in the LA Games was my first initiation into the sport of bike racing. I recall being fascinated watching that road race – the first one I had ever seen. So Steve was a big hero of course. I remember him coming to a mtn bike ride at a Womens National Team winter camp and all of us chatty girls became totally tongue tied for about 3 hours as we were just totally in awe of Steve. It was a pretty funny
situation actually, especially since steve is about the most humble and least intimidating great champion you could possibly imagine.

As I reached the international level I saw the top talent in womens cycling and some of my national team teammate were real important role models for me – in those days the Canadian team was one of the very best in the world. On the womens road side Petra Rossner was someone who I admired as she was (still is) a such a big winner and a great sprinter – I hoped there was a chance I could develop that way too. Van Moorsel is an amazing rider and also has been such an ambassador for the womens sport. On the road and
on the track I don’t think there is another rider who had accomplished as many different things. Her desire and ability to win is amazing – in a top stage race she could win the it’s, bunch sprints and the overall GC. I also saw her give up results for her teammates that had sacrificed for her and that impressed me too.

Locally when I started racing I was able to train with pros like Ron Hayman, Bruce Spicer, Alex Stieda and Brian Walton. Those guys were all great athletes, great
ambassadors for the sport and super role models. It’s hard for me to express how much it meant to me to be able to train with and learn from them when I was starting out.

Rob: Excluding your current sponsor, favourite bike ever?

Alison: I am assuming you are talking road bike here? In early 90’s the National team was sponsored by Look and I got a Dura ace equipped KG96 from the team to race on for the season. I bought some of the ‘new’ STI shifters right before heading to the World Championships. It was a good buy as I won the bunch sprint Stuttgart and the bronze medal that year. Certainly I had some small advantage with those shifters. I still have this bike in my ‘home museum’. I’m pretty partial to Carbon fiber bikes. Technology is number one for me, but look is also very important. The best bikes are real art too. I also love pro Team replica bikes. Being sponsored by Trek right now it’s a toss up for me on the road bike choice. I could get a ‘Postal’ team road bike which is cool, but the option of an OCLV110 ‘Project One’ bike is just way too sweet to pass up. So that is what I have chosen to ride the past 2 season. I know it’s not the question you asked but I do love my current road bike!

Rob: Any regrets?

Alison: As a woman road rider it was hard not to yearn for all the opportunities that the men’s pro peloton has. Big races, sponsorship, prestige of events. I think after the Olympics in Barcelona in ’92 when the young guys were dreaming of the Tour and signing pro contracts that hit me hard. My choice was 4 more years as an amateur and another Olympics perhaps. That was when I switched to the mountain bike and one of the big
reasons was that I saw more equality in the sport for women’s opportunities as compared to those of the men. I think it is great to see races like the Primavera Rosa, Fleche, Amstel, and the entire Women’s World Cup now. One big regret when I was a roadie was that
there were no big spring classic races for the Women. They are the races that really captured my imagination when I first got into racing and started reading the bike
magazines.

I once raced at an amateur event which also had a womens race in Belgium one spring called the Hel van Het Mergeland. I still remember vividly being so excited to finally race some of the roads I had dreamed of. I won that race in a 2 up sprint up a ‘real’ cobbled climb.

Rob:. Best moment on your bike?

Alison: I have lots of really great memories from my career. Winning my first world’s on the mtn bike in Vail in 1994 will always be number one though. It was a result and day that changed me forever as a person. From then on I was more confident and self assured
as a person as I had proved to myself that I could achieve things that I had dreamed of. It was a very emotional experience for me. Wearing the rainbow jersey for the year is the best thing I have experienced in sport.

Rob:. Who do you think is going to win the Tour de France this year?

Alison: Same name as everyone else says – Lance Armstrong. I think it would be interesting if Botero got it all together to give Lance a go though. He’s a bit of a
different personality in the sport that’s for sure, I enjoy the interviews I have read of him. From a sporting perspective it was likely a good move to go to Telekom too. He should have all the best of everything there. But realistically I don’t think there is anyone right now or ever to beat Lance at the Tour. Lance is a once in a generation athlete with the top percentile talent in every area – mentally, physically, emotionally. His illness matured him as a man and his fight earned him a perspective on life that seems to give him a definite edge against all the others. I believe the other contenders must wait for their chance until Lance is finished his affair with Le Tour. Like every fan I admire Lance’s work tremendously, but crave the excitement of a closer less predictable race. Though I will still very much enjoy the race for the other 2 podium positions this year.

Rob:. Drugs, in your opinion are drugs as rampant in the MTB scene as in the road scene?

Alison: Really I can’t comment on that because I don’t know the road scene in that way. One hears stories and innuendo, but that really does not mean too much to me. But when the stakes are high it would be only a naive individual who would assume that nobody
would ever cheat if there is some way to go faster. One thing I can definitely say is that it is possible to win at the top level of MTB as a drug free athlete. I don’t know
if there are MTB riders out there who cheat, but I know some winners personally who don’t and play sport by a high ethical standard. My impression is that pro road racing is driven much more by business and entertainment than mountain bike racing is. In MTB sport the athletes are billboards and do promote a high performance image for the companies that sponsor us, but we also promote a lifestyle that is portrayed as a healthy outdoors one. To take drugs as a mtn bike racer would definitely be counter productive to
promoting a message of health and a sport that can give people a sense of freedom and well being in their lives.

The story of Jerome Chiotti is really a special one in the sports world. What World Champion in any other sport ever felt guilty about taking drugs to win and then gave the medal after the fact to the second place rider – Thomas Frischknect. Who he felt he had deceived. Jerome’s action pretty much ended his career when it should have liberated him. It was sad to see the cheater and the cheated and the price they both paid in this affair. Thomas had every right to be angry and bitter about what Jerome had taken from him. But he accepted the medal and communicated a valid statement about what he had been through and how this whole situation had effected him personally. I think the administrative powers and cycling media could have certainly made a bigger deal of this story. But it seems people trying to do the right thing is not such a popular story as those about police raids, court cases, and riders who cheat, lie and deceive the public and their peers.

I certainly support all serious antidoping initiatives. I feel that sport loses and has lost so much of it’s value when the fans and especially the youth are cynical of every great performance. This is a sad situation in sport these days and a lot of work must be done to reverse this attitude amongst the athletes, the teams and the fans. There must be rules and sport must be a healthy and fair competition amongst athletes – not the ‘doctors’. Athletes compete hard, get tired and then must rest – not be artificially stimulated to keep going at all costs. There is absolutely no argument for sports and performance enhancing drug taking that I can accept. The testing is a tough subject though. I think it’s a disgrace when an athlete test positive in a clearly performance enhancing situation and gets a six month suspension. But I also have concern that some
innocents are caught in the system for unknowingly ingesting a banned substance in a food supplement. Developing the testing and the ethics code is something to be very careful with. But I think all the efforts are totally worth it in the long run.

Rob:. What are your plans when you retire?

Alison: Well I’m not done racing just yet. Certainly I’ve had a long career which has fortunately had way more ups than downs. Maybe it’s just habit now, but after a short rest and some play in the forest trails at home in the fall I can’t wait to get back into training for the next season. That feeling is as strong now as when I first started racing. This year I would say the Worlds course in Lugano suits me perfectly. So I have plenty of motivation for my favorite race of the year. Then how can I not be fully motivated for one last shot at another Olympic medal.

I can’t say after 2004 if I will stop racing completely or not. Possibly I could take my racing in a slightly different direction. Certainly off-road marathon events and stage
races interest me as much for the sporting challenge as for the new culture in the sport these events represent. I have done 2, 24hour races with the Trek/VW as a 4 person team. The competition in those races was really tough amongst the top teams and to win each rider has to do his/her lap (at just over 1 hour) at a world cup pace. I can tell you that is a very hard thing to do at 4am after already having raced 3 laps. Those events are extraordinarily demanding if you race them full-on. I’m a huge fan of watching pro racing, but I also appreciate that this sport of mountain biking is also a lot about participation and promoting people to get out and ride their own bikes.

I have mostly coached myself during my career and have some pretty strong ideas and opinions on training and preparation for the sport. I would like to pass this knowledge on to another generation. A couple of years ago myself and 4 other Vancouver based MTB
pros started a company called The Shore Group (www.theshoregroup.com). We have been involved with many different mtn bike related projects here in BC. My time involved with
Shore Group activities been somewhat limited though, as my racing life definitely gets nearly my full attention. But I will be more active with the company projects after my pro racing duties are not the center of my life as they are right now. I have taught at numerous clinics and camps in the past and always get a thrill from seeing how excited people get doing some skill on the mtn bike for the first time. So I can see some more of
that in the future. I’m a bit of a bike geek actually, and if I could find an opportunity on the product side of things I could be interested in that too. Away from the bike I
really enjoy food and cooking and sometimes I think I could be leave the bike for a hobby and pursue a career in my second greatest interest, food.

I’m really not all that worried about what I will do after racing. I am very self motivated and willing to work hard at any project I am truly interested in. Those qualities one develops so well as an athlete are valuable for any type of work. The only fear I have is that I believe I have the best job in the bike business right now, and I will never enjoy any job as much as I do being a professional athlete. But I am prepared for this if that is the case. So long as I am busy and doing something useful and still finding time to hike and bike the North Shore Mountains I will be contented.

And that’s it folks! Thanks Alison.
Alison is currently racing for Trek/VW and Smith Sport Optics, so when you see her smokin’
the field look out!

Written by:
Robert MacNeil
[email protected]

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