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By Fred Dreier
Reigning Olympic champion Gunn-Rita Dahle-Flesjå, the most dominant woman on a mountain-bike from 2002-2006, has started on the long road back to her sport’s pinnacle after missing much of 2007 to a serious stomach infection. The Norwegian and her husband/trainer Kenneth spent much of January in Boulder, Colorado, visiting friends, meeting with doctors at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine attempting the first serious training sessions since June 2007.
Dahle-Flesjå exited the 2007 World Cup after the June 9 round in Offenburg, Germany, complaining of stomach issues and a general lack of energy. The 34-year-old retreated to her hometown of Stavanger for a little R-and-R, and hoped to return for the September 3-9 world championships in Fort William, Scotland. But the bug turned out to be more serious than Dahle-Flesjå hoped, and attempts to return to training were ditched after her condition worsened. When all was said and done, the Norwegian spent more than six months recovering away from the bike.
Do Dahle-Flesjå and her husband think she can defend her Olympic gold? VeloNews sat down with the couple over burritos to discuss plans for the coming year.
VeloNews: So what are your goals for the first part of 2008?
Gunn-Rita Dahle-Flesjå: Well for March and April and even May will look at the races as training, really. I am not really focused on the overall — we haven’t even created goals yet when it comes to results because I really don’t know where I’m standing or what I can expect right now. At the end of that then perhaps I can put down some goals for the season.
Kenneth Flesjå: It’s funny; a lot of people think Gunn-Rita was just taking a break. But she was sick for many months, and in November and December she still couldn’t train near enough as she used to. It felt like she was at zero in November — a two-hour bike ride was hard. Before, it was the sky is the limit with how much she could train. We’ve had hardly any four-hour bike rides yet.
So if she wants to be in good shape for the Olympics then she will have to train through the races in the spring, and that means her recovery will be on the limit when she starts racing again. And the calendar this year is just crazy with the worlds in June and so many World Cup races. She will start [the April 20 World Cup opener] in about a 60th starting position.
GRDF: I will be one of the last ones of the bunch!
VN: Is this whole thing demoralizing for you?
GRDF: No, it is actually quite the opposite. It is motivating to me because it is a totally new way to work and a totally new way to think. Maybe I needed this because I have been on the same pattern for so many seasons. I am sure I can be on the top again, but I do not know how long it will take. It can be confusing. We talk about how to handle it mentally, to feel okay to have girls pass me in a race, instead of how it used to be.
KF: I think this year we are trying to be realistic. We know how much she needs to train to win the world championships, and right now she’s not there. This has brought some positive things — for several years all of the pressure has been on Gunn-Rita to win. Now the pressure is on the other girls.
VN: What was the lowest moment of the last year?
GRDF: August was really tough because I had to admit that the whole season was gone. July was hard because I had to let go of the World Cup races, so we went to Italy to start training. I trained for one week and then was back down. I would wake up, eat breakfast and then I wanted to go back to bed.
KF: All of her power was gone — her body would not take up fuel. She lost a ton of weight. And it was not a good time to be [in Norway]. Everyone was asking what was wrong. Back in Norway it is expected that she takes a medal [in Beijing]. We have told people that we are trying to be realistic with what is going on.
VN: Well, I still count you as a contender for a medal in Beijing. However I think the Chinese riders have to be thought of as the favorites. The three riders [Ren Chengyuan, Yin Liu and Jingjing Wang] have risen very quickly through the sport. Were you at all suspicious of their rapid rise?
GRDF: Ha! No the best thing to do is to look at the [Chinese girls] as being clean and believing they do not cheat. I mean, if we look back at how they got to the top it was quick, but they have been riding the [World Cup] for four years now. We were talking about how good they were two years ago. I could see how fast they were going uphill in the races. Now that they have learned to ride downhill they are up there.
For sure everyone suspects every now because of the mayhem in road cycling, and that is a sad thing about the sport.
KF: We had some German journalists interview them in the autumn and the story they were told was that there were originally 30 girls selected and these three were selected. They have been coached and have trained full time since they were 16, and they come from a province that is all athletes.
VN: How do you deal with those who suspect or accuse you of cheating?
GRDF: What can I say, I have always been very open with how I train, where I go and the races that I do. On my homepage you can read more or less everything about me. But when you win there will always be suspicion. “What is she eating for breakfast?” they say. It is sad that these days everyone suspects professional cyclists because of what is going on with the road. We get dragged down in the shit as long as you ride a bike. In Germany, if you say you are a cyclist it is like swearing in Church!
KF: I think most people don’t remember that Gunn-Rita finished third in her first-ever World Cup in Plymouth back in 1995, and she was on a bike for only half a year before that. She has been up there for a long time. And if you look at the way she trained back then! I think people should be glad she didn’t train better.
I think the best thing we can do is be outspoken against [drugs]. Mountain biking is a hard sport — it is two hours where you have to go very hard. But if you prepare yourself and keep in good shape, your body can handle a very hard race for two hours. You can build up your body and then peak. It is not like in the road where you have to fly in the mountains for three weeks.