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Woman with a Winning Habit
Franz Lidz
November 25, 1996
World mountain-biking champ Alison Sydor craves coffee and decisive victories
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November 25, 1996

Woman With A Winning Habit

World mountain-biking champ Alison Sydor craves coffee and decisive victories

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By 1990 Sydor was one of the world's top women road warriors. To stay fit in the off-season, she took up the fledgling sport of mountain biking. Her coaches on the Canadian national road team were aghast. They worried she might hurt herself in a spill. In fact, says Sydor, the likelihood of crashing is far greater on the road than on a trail. "In road racing you're in a tight pack. In mountain biking you're by yourself," she says. "A lot of mountain bikers like to be scared, or else they're bored. Not me. I like to be in complete control. Besides, it hurts when you crash."

She rode "like a little old lady" and never crashed during her first World Cup event, in 1991, the same year road-racing teammates got her hooked on coffee. "I always liked the smell of coffee but never the taste," says Sydor, who is now so immersed in caf� culture that she travels with her own ground coffee and French press. "But it was Quebec, it was winter, and it was cold. And so I took a sip. That's how I discovered the dark side."

Sydor discovered her black-and-blue side during a practice run in the slalom, going headfirst over the handlebars and landing in a pile of wood chips. "After I got all the wood out of my mouth," she says, "I thought, This is not for me." Neither was the downhill, during which she hit her head and scraped her glasses. But cross-country was just right. She finished fourth. Three months later she entered another World Cup race, in Switzerland. That time she won.

The end of the road came for Sydor in 1994, two years after she finished a disappointing 12th at the Olympics in Barcelona. At the time she and the Canadian national team were racing in the Tour de France F�minin. After ascending an impossibly steep Alpine peak, Sydor angered organizers by popping a wheelie across the finish line. "I'd been suffering and watching other road racers drop over dead in front of me," she recalls, "and I thought it would be a fun way to celebrate making the climb." The French didn't. "They thought I wasn't serious enough," Sydor says. "But I was, in a mountain-bike kind of way."

Officials were even more outraged when Sydor withdrew after Day 10. They called for her suspension and threatened to not invite the Canadians back the next year.

"I was only there to train and help my teammates," Sydor says. "Dropping out was no big deal. But getting called a quitter really hurt. That helped me give my heart to mountain biking." Three weeks later she won the World Cup cross-country final, and two weeks after that she won the world cross-country crown. "I used to joke that maybe you had to be a little crazy to win and that I was too normal," she says. "After I won that world title, I called an old teammate and said, 'Hey, I guess I have something wrong with me.' " Sydor's secret ailment: "A lot of people have opportunity but no ambition. I think it's more important to have ambition."

Not merely ambitious, she is also shrewd and clearheaded. "I get ready for road races by assessing tactical possibilities," Sydor says. She still competes in about 25 road races a year. "In mountain biking, your opponents don't matter," she says. "I plot the course and what lines to take beforehand, so the race is usually pretty dull." The duller the race, the better she does. Sydor's stamina allows her to set the pace and toy with the rest of the field before making a mad dash for the finish. She bolted so far ahead at the 1995 Canadian championships that she won despite getting a flat on the final descent. Skidding to a stop, she yanked the tire off the rim, handed it to a spectator and coasted to victory.

In the off-season Sydor plays pickup hockey at a rink near her North Vancouver bungalow. "As a Canadian," she says, "I feel it's my patriotic duty." The gang she plays shinny with includes a couple of NHL veterans. Scrawny doesn't fairly describe her 5'7", 130-pound appearance in that bulky company, but it comes to mind. "Alison's got a tenacious forward momentum and no fear," says rinkmate John Gabura. "She checks well, she takes guys out, and she's always circling back into the play. I tell my wife I go out and chase a woman at lunch."

One of the best-known males to pursue Sydor was Tony the Tiger. Last summer he was pictured tracking her on Canadian boxes of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes. "I must have dusted Tony because I don't remember ever getting beaten by a tiger," Sydor says. "With all that sugar in him, he must have started out fast and died." She grins, her pale eyes merry. "Tony didn't have coffee to sustain him, I guess."

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