In the album of an athlete’s career, some images speak louder than words can ever hope to. Faster than the latest high-speed techno-gadget, they transport us back to forgotten times and far-off places allowing a glimpse inside a person’s life as if gazing through a window.
In the case of mountain biking’s Alison Sydor, a few images reveal a bit of the person and the places that have shaped the career of perhaps Canada’s greatest cyclist.
There’s the one of Sydor, barely two years old, hopping on the neighbour boy’s two-wheeler in the driveway for the first time and riding away like she’d been riding bikes for years. It didn’t matter that the bike didn’t have training wheels, she didn’t know what they were anyhow.
Or the image years later of a maple-leaf clad Sydor riding a challenging forested Olympic course west of Sydney, Australia and ducking in the clearings and pedalling like mad to avoid the magpies swooping at the riders as they sped by.
Or maybe the most powerful. Approaching the finish of a World Cup race in Plymouth, England, the chain on Sydor’s bike slips off the gear. With the pack closing in behind her, a flu-weakened Sydor heaves the bike on her shoulder and sprints to the finish line, hauling the machine that’s supposed to be carrying her, and saves a bronze medal in a moment that can only be termed guts personified.
You can say a lot of things about a career such as Alison Sydor’s, but there’s no denying the powerful impact she’s made.
Growing up in Edmonton, Seattle, Portland, Denver, Calgary, Victoria and Vancouver (in that order), she played every sport available to her. But it wasn’t until moving to the coast to attend the University of Victoria at the age of twenty, that she discovered cycling, while attempting a few triathlons. Sydor found success on the road rapidly, winning three gold medals at the 1987 Western Canada Summer Games.
By 1992, she was representing Canada at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona and finished twelth in the road race.
Not bad at all, but a year earlier she’d discovered a new species of the cycle race that caught her interest and was rapidly growing in popularity all over the world—mountain biking.
Sydor spent much of the next fifteen years globetrotting to various exotic World Cup races and soon was considered amongst the best female riders in the world. Over her career she won seventeen World Cup races and was named World Cup Overall Champion three times. More importantly, she piled up thirteen World Championship medals and strung together three consecutive World Championship titles in 1994, 1995, and 1996.
Representing Canada at the Olympics four times, she won a silver medal in Atlanta in 1996, finished fifth in Sydney four years later, and fourth in Athens in 2004. When she began mountain biking, the sport wasn’t even contested on the Olympic slate. Riding the wave of talented male and female riders such as Sydor, the sport has sprung from fringe to mainstream.
While still competing into her forties, the accolades already started wheeling in. In 1999, she was awarded the Order of British Columbia and that same year was named one of Canada’s cyclists of the century by Canadian Cyclist magazine.
In the final years of her career prior to her 2010 retirement, Sydor competed in stage racing and marathon events in Europe and the latest offshoot of the sport—cyclo-cross, a mix between road and mountain biking with obstacles to climb over.
Regardless of what fills the remaining pages of Alison Sydor’s career album, rest assured the knobby tire-tread impressions she’s left behind on countless muddy mountainsides pale in comparison to the one she’s left on the sport in Canada.
Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.