While many cyclists were following the comeback of Lance Armstrong in 2009, another former World Champion was making her own comeback. After four years away from racing, Alison Dunlap decided to return to elite competition with a focus on cyclo-cross. She was first spotted at US Mountain Bike Nationals in July racing the short track in order to prepare for the 'cross season.
"I had a blast and it was super fun, but it was a lot harder than I thought it would be to be competitive," said the 40-year-old Dunlap, looking back on the last six months. "It shows that the women's fields have gotten faster and stronger. It was a great challenge."
Deciding to comeback wasn't easy, especially for someone with a competitive spirit like Dunlap. "My big concern was that I'd come back and not do well. I trained really, really hard because I didn't want that to happen."
"I worked harder than I ever remember training, but I probably forgot a lot of things I used to do," she said. "It was great to race again. I had positive feedback from everyone. I didn't feel like I was making a fool of myself or wasting my time."
Dunlap said it wasn't just the tougher competition that challenged her, but the amount of time she had spent away from elite racing. "I was away for four years. If I came back to race ultra endurance mountain bike races, it'd be different, but I came back to race super-intense races. While I did a lot of long, hard mountain bike rides in recent years, I hadn't been going out to do anaerobic intervals. to get that back was especially hard. I hadn't trained that system for a long time."
The best part of being back was the excitement. "Getting to see my friends and the crowds - both were great. Winning a race and getting on the podium is in my blood. I missed that excitement."
A little over a week after the US Cyclo-cross National Championships, where Dunlap placed fourth, we asked her the verdict on her comeback. "I'm about 90 percent satisfied. You always want to do better. I wanted be in the top three at nationals. I wanted to win the USGP, but there are some pretty tough riders ahead of me. Ninety percent of me is psyched with how it went."
"I wanted to come back and just do 'cross and have fun at it and I could do that if I was happy with just getting top 20. Of course, I wasn't. I wanted to be back at the top. To do well in 'cross, you have to race all summer and start in March and that's not what I want to do. I either have to suck it up and do a whole season of racing or just be ok with top 20 or local events."
When asked to compare her own return to pro racing with that of Lance Armstrong, Dunlap replied, "What he did is even more amazing - it's very impressive." Armstrong made a comeback to professional road cycling, earning a podium spot at the Tour de France after three years of retirement.
As for returning to mountain biking, the discipline where Dunlap became world champion after a successful road career, she said doing so was unlikely. "There are probably not any plans for mountain biking. I definitely don't want to come back and do any serious mountain biking. That's too hard!"
Whether Dunlap reappears on the race circuit next year is still to be determined. "Right now, I don't want to race ever again. Ask me in three months and it might be different." She said she doesn't know whether she'll keep racing. "To do this again next year... well, it was a big commitment."
Dunlap was recently named as a member of the 2010 Luna team, but that doesn't guarantee her racing. "Luna is always really supportive though they're not paying me to be a bike racer any more. If I did it, I'd be doing it for the love of the sport which is awesome, but it doesn't pay my mortgage."
Whether she races again or not, Dunlap will stay involved in cycling. She will continue running her coaching business and mountain bike camps and clinics in the summer time. "That keeps me pretty busy and makes it hard it be a full time athlete again."
Dunlap won the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships cross country race in 2001 in Vail, Colorado. She represented the US on the road at the 1996 Olympics and in mountain biking at the 2000 Olympics. She retired from pro racing in 2005.