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MTB News and Notes: Wheeling and dealing in the off-season

Call them the first fallen dominos in what will surely include many more. On Monday, mountain-biking’s “silly” season officially kicked off with the announcement that Rocky Mountain-Crystal Decisions had signed longtime mountain-biking star Alison Sydor to a multi-year deal. The agreement ends Sydor’s two-year relationship with the Trek-Volkswagen team. Prior to that the three-time world cross-country champion rode for Volvo-Cannondale. Elsewhere, former world junior cross-country champion Walker Ferguson has decided to forsake fat-tire racing for at least a year, inking a deal with the

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By Jason Sumner, VeloNews associate editor

Call them the first fallen dominos in what will surely include many more. On Monday, mountain-biking’s “silly” season officially kicked off with the announcement that Rocky Mountain-Crystal Decisions had signed longtime mountain-biking star Alison Sydor to a multi-year deal. The agreement ends Sydor’s two-year relationship with the Trek-Volkswagen team. Prior to that the three-time world cross-country champion rode for Volvo-Cannondale.

Elsewhere, former world junior cross-country champion Walker Ferguson has decided to forsake fat-tire racing for at least a year, inking a deal with the domestic D3 Health Net road team for the 2004 season.

“I’ve known for a while that I wanted to give the road a shot next year,” said Ferguson, who endured a disappointing 2003 fat-tire campaign. “This year was pretty frustrating. I started the season by getting bronchitis twice and things never got much better until the end.”

Ferguson added that his former team, Subaru-Gary Fisher, had wanted to re-sign him but that he had “already made up his mind.”

“I might try to come back for the one-day [mountain-bike national championship],” he said. “But otherwise I’m really going to focus on the road.”

Presumably, the departures of both Sydor and Ferguson will open up spots on their former teams, but at this point no new deals have been worked out.

“We’re looking at possibly bringing on an American man and American woman,” said Subaru-Gary Fisher team manager Tyler Pilger, who has also lost the services of Aussie Mary Grigson, who retired after the 2003 season.

Early on the names most often associated with those openings have been Jeremiah Bishop and Canadian Marie-Helen Premont.

“Those are definitely names that are on our list of potential candidates,” admitted Pilger, who added that he was under the impression that it was most likely that Premont would instead resign with Oryx, the small Canadian manufacture that she rode for last year.

Another potential candidate to fill that spot is last year’s U.S. national cross-country champion Mary McConneloug, but most sources have her staying put with Seven Cycles.

Gary Fisher’s Pilger’s said that no matter what happens with the open spots, he fully expects Canadians Ryder Hesjedal and Chrissy Redden, and Great Britain’s Liam Killeen to be back with his team next year.

As for Trek-Volkswagen, things are equally up in the air right now. Former world champion Roland Green is the only rider from last year that is still under contract, though West Virginian Sue Haywood said her new deal is all but done.

“It’s looks like I’m getting a raise, so that’s great,” said Haywood, the top American in the women’s cross-country race at the 2003 world’s. “In these tight times not a lot of people have huge expectations so you’ve just got to weather through it.”

As for her other teammates from 2003, Haywood said that she’d exchanged e-mails with gated-specialist Wade Bootes, who told her he had an offer from Trek on the table but had yet to “decide weather or not to take it.” Haywood also said she was under the impression that Japanese downhiller Mio Suemasa would not be back with the team next year.

A phone call by VeloNews to Travis Brown had not been returned at the time of this report, but Trek’s product manager John Riley said he expected the former U.S. Olympian to be back with the team next year.

“Not everything is done, but we feel things are going to be very similar to what they were last year,” Riley told VeloNews.

Some of the restructuring with the team can be attributed to the diminished funding from Volkswagen, whose deal with Trek expired at the end of the 2003 season.

“They have renewed with us,” said Riley. “But it’s definitely at a much lower level.”

Riley wouldn’t blame Sydor’s departure on Volkswagen’s smaller role, though.

“We were ready to renew with her, but only on a year-to-year basis,” he explained. “Rocky offered a multi-year package that had opportunities beyond racing. Those were things that I just couldn’t offer her. We were sad to lose her, but it’s a great opportunity for her.”

In a press release put out by the Rocky Mountain team, Sydor said she was “really happy to be riding Rocky Mountain bicycles again. I have a lot of history with this company. Plus, what’s better than riding beautiful boutique bikes made right here in Canada, in fact right in my home town.”

Sydor won her first World Cup race on a Rocky Mountain Thunderbolt in 1991.

Another change with the Trek-VW team is the departure of team manager Eric Wallace. Wallace came on board last year after running the show for Volvo-Cannondale in 2002.

“They didn’t give me a whole lot of explanation,” said Wallace, who was clearly unhappy with how things ended. “They just said they were not renewing my contract. It was very cold.”

Riley said Wallace’s departure was a move to “shuffle the deck a little. Eric was a big asset but we wanted to bring more of those kinds of responsibilities in-house. We are trying to tighten up the connection between Trek and the team. The athletes were calling for a more hands-on relationship from Trek.”

Haywood said she was sad to see Wallace go.

“He was really dedicated to his job, devoted to the cause,” she said. “The way I interpreted it, it was more of a personality conflict than anything else.”