Alison Dunlap decides retirement ain’t what it’s cracked up to be.
Alison Dunlap, the last American cross-country rider to bring home a world championship, bid farewell to pro racing in 2005. After more than a decade racing on the road, ’cross and mountain bike, the Colorado Springs resident said she was burned out, largely due to the constant travel and punishing workouts, and that she was ready to step into the next phase of her life — coaching and mentoring aspiring female cyclists.
Sometimes those retirement plans change and after more than three years out of the sport, Dunlap will return to professional racing this fall, and will take on the full North American cyclocross season. Dunlap is an experienced ‘cross racer, and owns six national championships and one World Cup victory. Now 39, Dunlap said the return to racing is not a step backwards for her, but one in a completely different direction.
VeloNews associate editor Fred Dreier caught up with Dunlap to talk about her plans for 2009.
VeloNews: What will your racing season look like?
Alison Dunlap: I’m going to do the full cyclocross circuit, the USGP and NACT races, as well a ’Cross Vegas and nationals. The only other race I’ll do is the (July 5-8) Breck Epic with (husband) Greg (Frozley) because we’ve ridden mountain bikes up in Breckenridge for years. It’s super fun up there, and we have a lot of friends racing. It’s not something that I’m going to race super hardcore, just for fun.
VN: So how did you come to the decision to come back?
AD: It slowly evolved over the last few years. When I saw ‘Cross Vegas two years ago, it got me thinking that maybe I do miss racing a little bit. Then I’d go on a hard ride and be like, nah, I don’t. But a lot of my friends race ‘cross in the fall, and I thought it might be fun to just race casually in the fall. But then Luna said they’d like to have me race ’cross, and I had already been thinking about it. It made sense.
VN: What sort of expectations to you have for your return?
AD: I don’t really know. I mean, I’m not there to just be one of the many riders in the middle of the pack. I’m not going to be racing to be pack fill. I want to win races. But I haven’t raced ’cross in a while. I’ve been out of the sport for a while, but I’ve been riding a lot and riding hard. It’s not as though I’ve been off the bike. I know that I’m going to have to train like crazy to get back to that level, but that’s my goal. I want to win races.
VN: When I spoke to you three years ago, you said that retiring was part of you taking a step forward. Is this a step backward for you?
AD: No, this is another step forward for me. This is not a Lance comeback by any means. I think that any athlete who has raced at the top level for 20 years knows that there is something inside that has made you a good bike racer. I love a challenge. I love to ride hard. I love the excitement of racing. The reason I retired was because I was tired of the training and the travel. ‘Cross is different. It’s nice because the training is shorter, but intense, and it’s not the same commitment to train for cross-country mountain biking. These are 45-minute events, not a two-hour race.
VN: Is there any chance you’ll return to cross-country mountain bike racing?
AD: No, that’s not going to happen. I ride mountain bikes all of the time, but I definitely don’t have any interest in racing cross country. I’m going to be 40 this summer, and I can tell that as I’ve gotten older my tolerance level for scary descents isn’t what it used to be. To come back and race wouldn’t be as much fun. I’d come to a descent that six years ago I’d fly down and now I’d walk it. You get tired of being hurt. Do I really want to break my collarbone now?
VN: Do you have any interest in racing cyclocross at the international level this year?
AD: No. I don’t want to go to Europe. I’ve done that. I know how hard that is. I think to do well in Europe you have to have raced all summer. I mean, look at (German) Hanka (Kupfernagel). She raced on the road all summer and went to the Olympics. For me to go to Europe just for the experience? I’ve done that. To race in the U.S. will be plenty hard enough.
VN: What can you say about the field of North American women’s cyclocross racers now compared to when you were racing?
AD: It’s hard to say. I haven’t raced with many of these women. I know that the level has gone up and the speed has gotten faster. Katie (Compton) has pushed the level higher. Having Laura Van Gilder come over from the road side was good to see, because it’s so rare that you get top (female) road racers to come over to ‘cross. For some reason the women don’t do that as much as the men. I honestly don’t know. I’ve trained with Katie a bunch, and I know how strong she is. That’s what I’m looking at. She’s one of the best in the world, and to be able to stay with her I’m going to have to train my butt off.
VN: What has been the response of your friends and family to your decision to come back?
AD: Everyone has been pretty excited. I didn’t know if people were going to be like ‘Oh no, why?’ Greg was the most hesitant. His biggest concern was that I’m already busy enough as it is. Will I have time to race again? That’s a serious commitment, and that is still a legitimate concern for me. I’m busy running the camps and clinics, and I tend to be an over-booker as it is. But I did it before. I was super busy when I raced bikes before. You just find a way to make it work. It’s my choice to put bike racing back on my plate. But it’s been almost four years. You forget the bad stuff. Maybe I’ll get back to my first race and be like ‘Oh God what am I doing?’ But probably not.”