- Sean Cayton
On the weekend following the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, nearly every sporting event in the world was cancelled. Football and baseball games were rescheduled. Golf tournaments were postponed and auto races sidelined.
For hundreds of the top mountain bike racers gathering in Vail for the 2001 world championships, however, walking away from their annual marquee event would be giving in to terror.
Among the favorites was Colorado Springs' Alison Dunlap. A two-time Olympian, Dunlap stood a good chance of becoming the first U.S. world champion since 1991. Buoyed by good form and thousands of flag-waving American fans, Dunlap crossed the line as world champion, spontaneously grabbing an American flag and kissing the ground.
Her classy celebration perfectly summed up the intense emotions for tens of thousands of fans watching the race."I crossed the finish line and it seemed so appropriate. I kissed the ground. It was a gesture of humbleness. It was very spiritual, very intense."
The road begins at home
Dunlap's road to the highest peak of mountain bike racing started in Colorado Springs, where she moved in 1987 to attend Colorado College. After failing tryouts for the school's soccer team, Dunlap stumbled upon a poster for the cycling club. After a few rides with fellow students, she was hooked
"I just loved it and I got better the more I got involved," said Dunlap, who graduated with a degree in biology and capped her Colorado College career by winning the national collegiate women's road racing title in 1991.
She was picked up by the U.S. national team and was racing full-time by 1993. By 1996, she was one of the top American road racers, winning the most important events in Europe and the United States, including a stage in the women's Tour de France. She earned a selection to the Olympic team for the Atlanta Games, but internal politics and burnout on the road scene soured her experience.
She was pondering retirement when a mountain bike team came calling.
Fat tire success
By the mid-'90s, mountain biking had eclipsed road racing as the most popular sport in cycling and by 1996, mountain biking was a full-fledged Olympic sport.
Many roadies switched over to the fat-tire racing circuit and Dunlap's success on the road scene attracted the attention of GT, one of the top pro outfits. Dunlap didn't take much time to strike gold. She won the fourth World Cup mountain bike race she entered.
Scoring victories on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, Dunlap set her sights on going back to the Olympics, this time in Sydney in 2000 on a mountain bike.
"I knew I was good enough to get a medal," Dunlap says. "I knew if I had a good day, that I could be up there on the podium."
It didn't turn out that way. Dunlap was sitting strongly in second position midway through the race when she clipped a tree on a tricky technical descent and crashed hard. Her dreams of gold were dashed again.
"I learned a lot from the Olympics, which really fueled my fire for this year," said Dunlap. "I knew I could win in Vail. That was the only thing I wanted."
Somewhere over the rainbow
Following her disappointment at the 2000 Olympics, the Vail world championships meant everything to Dunlap. While the Olympics are important financially, for pro cyclists the world title holds something special in the long tradition of bike racing. Winners get to wear the world champion rainbow jersey at every race the following season.
But all that seemed moot following Sept. 11.
"A big part of me didn't want to race. It seemed so pointless. It didn't seem appropriate," she said. "With the buildup to the race, it was such an emotional week. I just cried."
Dunlap commuted between her home in Colorado Springs and Vail to distance herself from the pressure. But come race day, she was walking on eggshells. She even cried putting on her race number at the start line that morning. Two hours later she was world champion.
"That moment is why you race your bike," she said. "It makes the last 14 years of suffering worth every second."
For Dunlap, an acknowledged clean rider in a sport known for its cheaters who take performance-enhancing drugs that often go undetected by testing methods, winning clean is the only way.
"You don't have to cheat. You don't have to do drugs," she said. "Maybe sometimes the good guys do win."
Off to other worlds
This weekend, Dunlap will be chasing another world title, this time in cyclocross, a sort of steeplechase on two wheels. Cyclocross is the rage among American cycling circles and Dunlap, the winner of five straight national cyclocross titles, is among the favorites to win Feb. 1-2 in Zolder, Belgium.
After cyclocross season winds down, Dunlap returns to the mountain bike circuit with a new team and a fresh start. A two-year contract gets her into 2003, and she considering sticking around for another Olympics. She'd be 35.
But for the time being, Dunlap looks forward to the simple things.
"I can't wait for that first race where I get to wear the rainbow jersey."
That alone will make it all worth it.