Culture

Q&A: Alison Dunlap on becoming a legend of American cycling

America's 2001 MTB world champ, Alison Dunlap, talks past, present, and future.

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Just five days after the tragic terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Alison Dunlap won the world cross-country MTB title in Vail, Colorado. The dramatic win made Dunlap a legend of U.S. cycling.

Who were the legendary cyclists that you looked up to as a novice rider?

It was Rebecca Twigg, Inga Thompson, and Bunki Bankaitis-Davis. I remember going to the Meridian Criterium and they showed up in their 7-Eleven kits and raced the men’s race, and I was enamored with that. It was the coolest thing to see these world famous women, and there they were doing this local race. I remember following Rebecca Twigg and watching her do the Coors Classic race in my hometown. It was so inspiring.

How did your perspective on these riders change as you became a great rider yourself?

It’s true for a lot of top riders that you never think of yourself in that way. I still look up to those three as being unbelievable. I think of what I did in the sport and I have to remind myself that I’m now one of those women who people look up to. It puts a smile on my face and makes me feel really good that I can inspire other women.

Who are the riders from the current generation that you believe could become all-time greats?

Kate Courtney for sure. What she’s doing has been phenomenal, and before that we hadn’t had a superstar woman for a long time. She’s done an amazing job at being a great ambassador for women’s cycling, and what she does with social media is impressive. I’m so thankful I didn’t have that during my era. It seems exhausting as an athlete to always be updating your Facebook and Instagram pages, and reaching out to sponsors. It’s a level of the sport I never had to deal with and I respect what they’re doing.

What memories from your 2001 world title are still vivid?

I can relive that entire race minute by minute even 20 years later. I think the one memory is the very last hill. It wasn’t very long and there was only a short descent to the finish. There was a guy with an American flag urging me on. I asked him how far back is [Alison] Sydor, and he told me she’s only 10 seconds behind you. I let out the F-bomb because I so desperately wanted that race to be over. Sydor is such a fighter and I knew it wasn’t over until I crossed the line. It was probably the most stressful five minutes of my life. Then, I remember crossing the line, and somebody handed me a U.S. flag attached to a stick. It was pretty amazing.

What was the key to your longevity in the sport?

I didn’t rise to greatness overnight; it was a slow and steady progression. I knew I had talent and I knew that if I put in the work I would eventually become a great cyclist. Everything I got was because I worked my ass off, so that makes you strong in the head. And I tend to have a positive personality and an attitude that if I just work hard I will achieve my goal. I had great family support and a strong emotional foundation. And I just loved to ride my bike.

Get to know Alison

First Bike? A Nishiki 10-speed, which I promptly crashed and skinned my knee

Favorite Race? Sea Otter Classic in the U.S. and Houffalize World Cup in Europe

Favorite Ride? The Monarch Crest Trail