Coffee bars have sprung up like mochaccino-flavored mushrooms in
downtown Vancouver; there's a Starbucks about every 132 feet.
Alison Sydor is one of the town's leading coffee barflies. "I
try to keep my habit to two cups a day," she says from her stool
in a back-alley caffeine emporium. "The Canadian food guide says
two cups are O.K. for you. On the other hand, my cups are huge.
Thank goodness there are no coffee police."
Sydor lets this percolate while she gazes at a sign that lists
exotic beans ground at the bar, as if they were commodities on
the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange. While deciding between
Ethiopian Ghimbi and Sumatran Manaheung, she says, "At home, I
start each day with a quadruple espresso. It's like figure
skating. When you can land the quad, everyone knows you're
No one questions the seriousness of Sydor, a 30-year-old
biochemist who happens to be the world's preeminent bi-cyclist.
She leads a double life, competing on the women's international
road-racing and mountain-biking circuits. On skinny tires she is
Canada's four-time road champ, a splendid sprinter who in 1991
became the country's first woman to win a medal at the World
Road Race Championships. On fat tires Sydor has won three
consecutive women's world cross-country titles and, in July, a
silver medal at the inaugural Olympic mountain-bike race.
Lots of cyclists switch from road to mountain, but no other
keeps her wheels spinning on both circuits so successfully.
"There isn't a rider on either tour more committed or tenacious
than Alison," says Lesley Tomlinson, Sydor's longtime training
partner. "Her first 16 priorities are cycling."
For a caffeine fiend, Sydor moves with unexpected lightness,
dipping her head like a shy bird. She's lissome and fine-boned,
with chalk-pale skin that's lightly freckled around her nose.
But there's something remote and unawakened in her eyes; she
doesn't seem to have a reservoir of craziness like that of Missy
Giove, her mountain-bike clubmate and sometime road roommate.
Giove is the reigning queen of World Cup downhill racing, the
surfer segment of mountain biking. The deliriously gone-gone New
Yorker often sports a magenta buzz cut over half her head. She
competes with a dead piranha dangling from a leather strand
around her neck, and she carries the cremated remains of her
dead dog as a keepsake. Sydor and Giove twine together, rose and
briar. "The whole thing with Alison's heritage is really cool,"
What whole thing?
"Just being Canadian."
Edmonton-born, Sydor grew up in Calgary. "Ever since I was
small," she says, "I've been very focused." According to family
lore Alison was two when she mounted her first bike, a
two-wheeler that the four-year-old boy next door couldn't keep
upright. Alison peeled off, leaving the boy's disappointed dad
in her wake. "I didn't know it was going to be a sign of things
to come," she says.
Sydor didn't pedal competitively until her sophomore year at the
University of Victoria. Between classes in biology and
chemistry, she took up the short-course triathlon. In the spring
of 1987 a couple of guys from a cycling club spied Sydor
training on her bike. Impressed, they encouraged her to enter a
criterium in downtown Victoria. She stuck with the men for the
first two circuits of the 40-lap race before getting lapped and
pulled from the course by race officials. By the end of her
first season she had won the women's provincial championship,
snagged three gold medals at the Western Canada Games and placed
second at the national team time-trial and road-race
championships. The following year she finished first at the
Canadian Olympic trials. (She made the squad as an alternate,
but didn't compete.)
By 1990 Sydor was one of the world's top women road warriors. To
stay fit in the off-season, she took up the fledgling sport of
mountain biking. Her coaches on the Canadian national road team
were aghast. They worried she might hurt herself in a spill. In
fact, says Sydor, the likelihood of crashing is far greater on
the road than on a trail. "In road racing you're in a tight
pack. In mountain biking you're by yourself," she says. "A lot
of mountain bikers like to be scared, or else they're bored. Not
me. I like to be in complete control. Besides, it hurts when you
She rode "like a little old lady" and never crashed during her
first World Cup event, in 1991, the same year road-racing
teammates got her hooked on coffee. "I always liked the smell of
coffee but never the taste," says Sydor, who is now so immersed
in cafe culture that she travels with her own ground coffee and
French press. "But it was Quebec, it was winter, and it was
cold. And so I took a sip. That's how I discovered the dark side."
Sydor discovered her black-and-blue side during a practice run
in the slalom, going headfirst over the handlebars and landing
in a pile of wood chips. "After I got all the wood out of my
mouth," she says, "I thought, This is not for me." Neither was
the downhill, during which she hit her head and scraped her
glasses. But cross-country was just right. She finished fourth.
Three months later she entered another World Cup race, in
Switzerland. That time she won.
The end of the road came for Sydor in 1994, two years after she
finished a disappointing 12th at the Olympics in Barcelona. At
the time she and the Canadian national team were racing in the
Tour de France Feminin. After ascending an impossibly steep
Alpine peak, Sydor angered organizers by popping a wheelie
across the finish line. "I'd been suffering and watching other
road racers drop over dead in front of me," she recalls, "and I
thought it would be a fun way to celebrate making the climb."
The French didn't. "They thought I wasn't serious enough," Sydor
says. "But I was, in a mountain-bike kind of way."
Officials were even more outraged when Sydor withdrew after Day
10. They called for her suspension and threatened to not invite
the Canadians back the next year.
"I was only there to train and help my teammates," Sydor says.
"Dropping out was no big deal. But getting called a quitter
really hurt. That helped me give my heart to mountain biking."
Three weeks later she won the World Cup cross-country final, and
two weeks after that she won the world cross-country crown. "I
used to joke that maybe you had to be a little crazy to win and
that I was too normal," she says. "After I won that world title,
I called an old teammate and said, 'Hey, I guess I have
something wrong with me.'" Sydor's secret ailment: "A lot of
people have opportunity but no ambition. I think it's more
important to have ambition."
Not merely ambitious, she is also shrewd and clearheaded. "I get
ready for road races by assessing tactical possibilities," Sydor
says. She still competes in about 25 road races a year. "In
mountain biking, your opponents don't matter," she says. "I plot
the course and what lines to take beforehand, so the race is
usually pretty dull." The duller the race, the better she does.
Sydor's stamina allows her to set the pace and toy with the rest
of the field before making a mad dash for the finish. She bolted
so far ahead at the 1995 Canadian championships that she won
despite getting a flat on the final descent. Skidding to a stop,
she yanked the tire off the rim, handed it to a spectator and
coasted to victory.
In the off-season Sydor plays pickup hockey at a rink near her
North Vancouver bungalow. "As a Canadian," she says, "I feel
it's my patriotic duty." The gang she plays shinny with includes
a couple of NHL veterans. Scrawny doesn't fairly describe her
5'7", 130-pound appearance in that bulky company, but it comes
to mind. "Alison's got a tenacious forward momentum and no
fear," says rinkmate John Gabura. "She checks well, she takes
guys out, and she's always circling back into the play. I tell
my wife I go out and chase a woman at lunch."
One of the best-known males to pursue Sydor was Tony the Tiger.
Last summer he was pictured tracking her on Canadian boxes of
Kellogg's Frosted Flakes. "I must have dusted Tony because I
don't remember ever getting beaten by a tiger," Sydor says.
"With all that sugar in him, he must have started out fast and
died." She grins, her pale eyes merry. "Tony didn't have coffee
to sustain him, I guess."