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By Jason Sumner, VeloNews associate editor
Try this on for size: Barring what would amount to a small miracle, 2001 world cross-country champion Alison Dunlap will probably not be at the start line for the 2004 Olympic cross-country race. “Say what?” you ask. Well, the chain of events is a bit convoluted, so put on your thinking caps and follow along.
The story starts back in June when Dunlap took a nasty digger during the NORBA cross-country race at Snowshoe, West Virginia. That crash resulted in a badly separated shoulder and put an end to her 2003 mountain-bike racing campaign. The obvious consequences were to Dunlap, but her absence from the bulk of the race season also cost the United States a fair number of points when it came time to tally the standings of the UCI’s ranking of participating countries. Those ranking are compiled by adding up the points from each nation’s top three riders, but with Dunlap and her ability to score big at the World Cup level out of the mix, the U.S. slid down the rankings.
This slide was compounded by the fact that with no prize money on offer for the 2003 NORBA series, what had once been a slate of E1 races was dropped to E2, cutting by half the number of UCI points available. More than anyone this hurt U.S. riders, who driven by sponsorship commitments, have to focus most of their racing efforts on the NORBA series, not higher-value races in Europe.
In the end, when the last set of UCI standings was released on December 31, 2003, the U.S. women were seventh, meaning they would receive two start spots (not the maximum of three awarded to countries in the top three) for the Olympics. Or so everyone — including yours truly — thought.
The catch is a special provision in the rulesgoverning start spots for the Olympic cross-country race published on the UCI’s Web site and dated June 10, 2003. It says that at the end of 2003, if a country has a rider ranked in the top 30 (top 50 for men) of the UCI’s individual cross-country rankings, but did not earn any start spots based on the nation rankings (for the women only countries ranked from 1 to 14 were awarded a place in Athens), then that non-qualifying country would be awarded a single start spot because of its high-ranked rider. The problem for the U.S. and Dunlap is that, in accordance with the UCI’s special provision, these high-ranked rider start spots are taken away from the countries that had originally earned two start spots by ending up ranked between fourth and ninth.
Confusing? Definitely. But the bottom line is pretty simple. Based on the last set of UCI rankings, there were four female riders from non-qualifying nations who were among the top 30 of the final individual rankings. That means four of the nations who originally had two start spots are now down to one. And, you guessed it: One of those nations that will take a hit is the United States. For the record, Dane Mette Anderson, No. 18 in the world, is the rider who will grab America’s second spot. The three other countries falling victim to the special provision are Norway, France and the Netherlands. The other countries that will gain spots are Brazil, Slovakia and Sweden.
On the men’s side of the ledger, the special provision came into effect only once, with Australia losing one of its start spots. American men will have two places in Athens.
“We’re disappointed as hell that this happened,” said Matt Cramer, USA Cycling’s national mountain bike development director. “We know what effect it could have. We know Alison Dunlap could end up losing out the most.”
The reason Dunlap has so much to lose is that USA Cycling’s No. 2 qualificationcriteria for making the Olympic team is a rider’s UCI ranking on July 12, 2004 (The No. 1 qualification criteria does not come into play because no U.S. riders finished in the top 3 at the 2003 world championships). And with just one spot available, this will be the only qualification criterion that matters. Add that to the fact that by missing the bulk of the 2003 season, Dunlap saw her ranking slip from seventh last June all the way down to 88th at the end of 2003, and the former world champ’s chances to get to Athens become all the more remote.
Right now the Luna rider is 490 points behind the current highest ranked American, Trek-Volkswagen’s Sue Haywood, who ended the year at No. 19. And even if Dunlap has a phenomenal first half of the 2004 season, it’s hard to imagine her closing that large a points gap as long as Haywood can stay healthy and post solid results.
“In a way it seems like [USA Cycling’s] criteria has backfired on them,” Dunlap said. “It’s going to be very hard for me to make the team.”
This discontent is just the beginning of the hard feelings toward American cycling’s governing body. Dunlap places at least some of the blame on the federation for not being more aware of the rules, which could have led to a last ditch points-chasing effort to try to avoid falling victim to the special provision.
“I think it’s something that USA Cycling should have been aware of,” Dunlap said. “But I don’t think they wanted to spend the money that it would have cost for travel.”
Trek’s Haywood also placed a portion of the blame on the federation, though she was also quick to acknowledge the role economics plays.
“I don’t think [USAC] even knew about this until it was too late,” said Haywood. “But it’s our fault too. Even though they’re not worth much in points the trade teams would rather do the NORBAs. Maybe if we all hadn’t been so ignorant, we would have put country ahead of trade teams and the NORBAs.”
|USAC’s Cramer admits that the federation didn’t start “researching the special provision until October or November,” but ardently deflects any criticism, saying that in the end the riders were responsible for knowing the rules.”To translate every nuance of the UCI rulebook is not the best use of our time,” he said. “I don’t think the riders have a reason to be upset with us. They’re responsible for knowing where they stand. This is information that should have been read by everyone. The trade teams and the riders should have been as knowledgeable as anyone else.”||To translate every nuance of the UCI rulebook is not the best use of our time…
Mountain bike development director
Whoever — if anyone — is to blame, the bottom line is the chase for UCI points is on. Besides Haywood and Dunlap, Seven’s Mary McConneloug (currently ranked No. 27), RLX Ralph Lauren’s Willow Koerber (No. 35) and Luna’s Shonny Vanlandingham (No. 62) all have at least an outside shot at making a run at the single spot.
“It changes things for all of us,” admitted Haywood. “I think we were all counting on Alison to get one of the spots, and the rest of us were shooting for No. 2. Now it’s going to be interesting to see which teams will support their rider to go for the spot.”
Added Dunlap: “We all know that we have to chase UCI points. That means there’s even less reason to do the NORBAs because there’s no prize money — and no points.”
Let the games before the Games begin.