Coffee bars have sprung up like mochaccino-flavored mushrooms in downtown Vancouver; there's a Starbucks about every 132 feet. Alison Sydor is one of the town's leading coffee barflies. "I try to keep my habit to two cups a day," she says from her stool in a back-alley caffeine emporium. "The Canadian food guide says two cups are O.K. for you. On the other hand, my cups are huge. Thank goodness there are no coffee police."
Sydor lets this percolate while she gazes at a sign that lists exotic beans ground at the bar, as if they were commodities on the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange. While deciding between Ethiopian Ghimbi and Sumatran Manaheung, she says, "At home, I start each day with a quadruple espresso. It's like figure skating. When you can land the quad, everyone knows you're serious."
No one questions the seriousness of Sydor, a 30-year-old biochemist who happens to be the world's preeminent bi-cyclist. She leads a double life, competing on the women's international road-racing and mountain-biking circuits. On skinny tires she is Canada's four-time road champ, a splendid sprinter who in 1991 became the country's first woman to win a medal at the World Road Race Championships. On fat tires Sydor has won three consecutive women's world cross-country titles and, in July, a silver medal at the inaugural Olympic mountain-bike race.
Lots of cyclists switch from road to mountain, but no other keeps her wheels spinning on both circuits so successfully. "There isn't a rider on either tour more committed or tenacious than Alison," says Lesley Tomlinson, Sydor's longtime training partner. "Her first 16 priorities are cycling."
For a caffeine fiend, Sydor moves with unexpected lightness, dipping her head like a shy bird. She's lissome and fine-boned, with chalk-pale skin that's lightly freckled around her nose. But there's something remote and unawakened in her eyes; she doesn't seem to have a reservoir of craziness like that of Missy Giove, her mountain-bike clubmate and sometime road roommate.
Giove is the reigning queen of World Cup downhill racing, the surfer segment of mountain biking. The deliriously gone-gone New Yorker often sports a magenta buzz cut over half her head. She competes with a dead piranha dangling from a leather strand around her neck, and she carries the cremated remains of her dead dog as a keepsake. Sydor and Giove twine together, rose and briar. "The whole thing with Alison's heritage is really cool," says Giove.
What whole thing?
"Just being Canadian."
Edmonton-born, Sydor grew up in Calgary. "Ever since I was small," she says, "I've been very focused." According to family lore Alison was two when she mounted her first bike, a two-wheeler that the four-year-old boy next door couldn't keep upright. Alison peeled off, leaving the boy's disappointed dad in her wake. "I didn't know it was going to be a sign of things to come," she says.
Sydor didn't pedal competitively until her sophomore year at the University of Victoria. Between classes in biology and chemistry, she took up the short-course triathlon. In the spring of 1987 a couple of guys from a cycling club spied Sydor training on her bike. Impressed, they encouraged her to enter a criterium in downtown Victoria. She stuck with the men for the first two circuits of the 40-lap race before getting lapped and pulled from the course by race officials. By the end of her first season she had won the women's provincial championship, snagged three gold medals at the Western Canada Games and placed second at the national team time-trial and road-race championships. The following year she finished first at the Canadian Olympic trials. (She made the squad as an alternate, but didn't compete.)