Alison Dunlap retired from professional mountain biking in 2005, remembered as one of America's brightest talents after delivering her country a world title in that discipline of the sport. Now she is back to take on the US national cyclo-cross scene and gunning for top spot at the national championships held in Bend, Oregon in December.
"I knew I didn't want to make the commitment to race elite mountain bike again," Dunlap told Cyclingnews. "It was a good option for 'cross because it's a shorter season, the training commitment is less with only 40-minute races. Plus, cross is just fun, with good crowds and fun venues. I thought it would be a great way to come back."
After more than a decade of mountain biking, Dunlap announced her plans to retire at the top of her game, a few years prior having won the UCI cross country world championships in 2001 followed by two World Cup victories and two summer Olympic debuts.
Asked why she decided to pack it in, Dunlap replied, "I was just tired of the travel, the structure and the regimented training. There's a lot of stress trying to ride all the courses at the world cup level, that was scary," she explained. "As you get older you get less tolerant of dangerous descents. I got tired of that stress and was ready to not be a bike racer."
Four years later Dunlap has recently celebrated her 40th birthday and decided to return to professional cycling, down the less bumpy path of cyclo-cross. She is no stranger to the sport, having won the US national championship on six occasions. She jumped into the North American Cyclo-cross Trophy (NACT) series at the Star Crossed and Rad Racing events held in Seattle, Washington, last weekend, and it was no surprise to see her back on the podium.
"My fitness was right where I expected it to be for the beginning of the season, I'm happy with that," said Dunlap. "My bike handling skills are going to get better - I'm still a little rusty with handling the 'cross bike in a race.
"The only frustrating part of the weekend was that my brain knew and wanted to be up front and winning the race but my legs weren't quiet there yet. I have to be patient and realise there are a lot of races to come and my body is making a lot of adaptations," she explained.
Dunlap decided to come out of retirement after spectating at Cross Vegas last year. It was a race she was looking forward to participating in this year alongside her Luna Chix teammates Georgia Gould and Katerina Nash, who placed second and third respectively.
"It was such a fun event," she said. "I was watching my teammates out there and I thought it would be really fun to try and get back to that level. I love challenges it's still my passion. Taking four years off, you kind of forget how hard it is, and how miserable you were sometimes but you do remember how fun it was and the excitement of winning and your teammates."
Dunlap did not start Cross Vegas this year due to a head cold and chest congestion that set in a few days before travel. "It's frustrating getting sick this week and it's not ideal," she said. "That's what happens when you're a bike racer and training hard. At some point in the season everyone is going to get sick. Mine came early and hopefully it's the last time."
Dunlap's targets include both the NACT and the US Grand Prix of Cyclo-cross (USGP); however, her main goal aims to land her back in the stars and stripes jersey by season's end. "It's exciting to be back... I'm nervous," she admitted. "I just want to have a good race and I don't want to be pack fill. I want to be up there and fighting for the podium."
Although Dunlap was a key player on the world cyclo-cross circuit before her retirement, she has no plans of going back over to the European scene. "I don't have interest in going to worlds," she said. "I don't want to go to worlds and start in the back row because I've already done worlds a bunch. I'm not willing to commit to doing all the world cups to get a good start position. My ultimate goal is to win nationals," she said.
Her return at to racing has brought an overwhelming amount of welcoming from with in the cycling industry, former competitors and fans. "Everyone's been super excited," she said. "I get lots of comments from riders that I used to race with, lots of welcome backs and it's been so positive, it's been great. It's fun seeing all those people."
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