From the Mag

VN Archives: Alison Dunlap battles to secure the World Cup overall

On the heels of Kate Courtney's World Cup overall victory, we look back at the last time an American held the title.

The last half century has produced countless amazing moments in pro cycling, and VeloNews has been there for almost all of them. This year we celebrate our 49th birthday, and with nearly a half century worth of archives, we want to present some of the more memorable VeloNews covers, feature stories, and interviews from our past. Our hope is these curated snippets will help motivate you to pursue your passion for the sport you love. Today we feature a race report from the 2002 UCI Mountain Bike World Cup final written by longtime VeloNews contributor Jason Sumner. 


LAST CHANCE

It probably wasn’t their intent, but when the UCI put together the 2002 racing schedule they gave everybody a second chance. Instead of the usual slow build to the crescen­do of the world championships, the powers that be stuck the World Cup finals on the weekend after world’s, meaning anyone who left Austria with the sour taste of defeat would get a shot at redemption.

If you were still alive in the chase for the one of the six overall titles — 24 riders were — then the fifth race in this shortest-ever World Cup season in Les Gets, France, September 7-8, meant everything. But if you were just riding out the string, it was easy to let motivation slip, a fact borne out by the DNF rate in the men’s and women’s cross-country races. Despite a perfect blue-sky day and a course with very little technical riding, the failed-to-finish list included nearly 20 percent of the two fields.

DREAM CATCHER

One rider with no motivation problem was Alison Dunlap. The American had had what she called one of the “the hardest weeks” of her life during her stay in Austria for world’s, first cutting her leg during a training ride, then failing to finish.

But the Luna rider was a prime example of getting a second chance. Following a steady campaign that saw her finish on the podium at all of the previous World Cups, Dunlap arrived in France with a 75-point lead. If she could hold on it would be another sparkling accomplishment in her storied career, and she would become the first American since Juli Furtado in 1995 to bring home a World Cup cross-country crown. To do this, Dunlap would need to clear a pair of very big hurdles: an on-­form Sabine Spitz, who was her closest pursuer, and her still ailing left wrist, which Dunlap had broken in mid-August.

“It’s definitely still sore,” Dunlap said two days before the race in France. “The jarring is pretty painful.”

Fortunately for Dunlap, she had the Les Gets course on her side. It was extreme­ly tame, with just two single-track descents and lots of grassy sections that traversed the ski resort’s beginner terrain. But while the course would aid Dunlap, nothing would make Spitz go away. The German was having the run of her life, earning her first career World Cup victory at stop No. 4 in Grouse Mountain, British Columbia, then taking her second straight world-championships bronze medal the previous week. If Spitz could win at the finals, Dunlap would need to finish second. If Spitz was second or third, Dunlap needed to be at least fifth.

To make matters tougher, a night of torrential rains turned the tame Les Gets course into what Dunlap called “a muddy mess of steep hike-a-bikes, unrideable descents and slippery off-camber traverses.”

Once racing got under way, though, it became apparent that Dunlap had a pair of unlikely allies in Spain’s Marga Fullana and Polish sensation Anna Szafraniec. Neither was in contention for the overall, but when they broke away for good halfway through the 26km race, it meant Spitz could do no better than third, which allowed Dunlap to focus on fifth.

But even that wouldn’t come easily. Dunlap had fallen out of the top five early in the race, then found herself in constant battle, once she’d regained the key position. Her biggest combat­ant was Swiss rider Petra Renzi, who never let the American more than 30 seconds out of her sight.

“The whole time I’m thinking if I get a flat tire or even crash, it’s over,” Dunlap said. “It was so stressful. It was one of the hardest races of my life.”

Back at the front, Fullana was having an easy time. A week after dropping out of the world’s race, the Spanish phenomenon was dropping the competition. By the end of the third of four laps, Fullana’s margin was 1:34, and she would add another 10 seconds on her way to career World Cup win No. 12. Afterward, the Orbea rider was her usual defiant self, defending her decision to race selected events and not contest the World Cup title.

“I will be fresh for the Olympics,” she said. “I will not race long seasons before then.”

Szafraniec (Lotto-PZU) was next through-the finish, followed by Spitz (Merida), then Canadian Alison Sydor (Trek-Volkswagen). There was only one spot left on the podium, and it had to be Dunlap’s if she wanted the hold on to the overall. Finally, a minute after Sydor had come through, the American appeared. She’d won her protracted battle with Renzi, and with it the series crown.

“She was so tenacious,” said Dunlap, who ended up beating her Swiss challenger by just nine seconds. “I tried and tried, but I couldn’t get rid of her. Now to finally win this title is awesome. But I’m so glad to be done.”