NORTH Shore mountain biking legend Alison Sydor wasn't always a legend.
When she and training partner Lesley Tomlinson, both aspiring road cyclists, first took to the Shore's rugged trails more than 20 years ago, they didn't have any grand plan in mind.
"We started mountain biking together basically just to get out of the rain," Sydor says. They weren't all that good at mountain biking either. "At the beginning, we didn't really ride our mountain bikes on the North Shore, we pushed our mountain bikes across the North Shore."
They did get better, riding the wave of a new sport to world championship and Olympic heights. This week Sydor reached heights never before attained in her sport when it was announced she'd be inducted in Canada's Sports Hall of Fame in a 2013 class that includes NHL superstar Joe Sakic and curling legend Russ Howard.
"It's pretty special news, it's a very special honour," says Sydor, adding that becoming the first mountain biker inducted into the Hall is a historical note that comes with participating in a sport that has only been around for a few decades.
"In my cycling career I probably ended up being the first of a lot of things . . . back when I started, mountain bikes weren't even invented," she says with a laugh.
Sydor was born in Edmonton, grew up in Calgary and then moved to the West
Coast to attend the University of Victoria where she started cycling competitively. A move to North Vancouver led her into the famous mountains and introduced her to some of the great pioneers in the sport, including early pros like Bruce Spicer, Chris Otter and Don Buscombe.
"These were the guys at the very beginning who were the first Canadian pros in mountain biking, they're the ones who basically showed us the trails, the techniques, everything," says Sydor, adding that she credits those riders and these mountains with making her the champion that she became. "I feel really fortunate that at the time, generally the majority of the top Canadian men in mountain biking lived on the North Shore. They're the ones that basically taught Lesley and I our bike handling techniques. I think everybody still will say that if you can ride mountain bikes on the North Shore, nothing will shock you anywhere else in the world."
Sydor reached the top of the world in 1994 when she won the first of her three UCI World Championship titles in Vail, Colo.
"For a cyclist that's the pinnacle of the sport," says Sydor. "Every athlete in the world is there, there's no quotas for numbers like there are in the Olympics. It's something kind of cool in the sport of mountain biking that the world champion gets to wear a special jersey for the whole next year, the rainbow jersey. Winning that in '94 in Vail was just a huge moment for me and probably one of the best results of my career."
She won again in 1995, making her the favourite at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games in the first-ever Olympic mountain biking race. Sydor admits she wasn't at her best at the games - tough training conditions and noisy neighbours in the Athlete's Village conspired against the Canadian team - but she still raced to a silver medal showing behind Italy's Paola Pezzo. Sydor was pumped to get the medal but also a little disappointed in missing gold and simply burnt out from the hot Atlanta sun.
"It certainly wasn't my best race of the year, it wasn't the best race of my life, but at the same time I got an Olympic medal," she says. "At the time you're heat-stroked, you're exhausted."
The enormity of the result, however, didn't hit her until she and Tomlinson, who finished 13th in the race, returned to North Vancouver.
"When we came back from the Olympics we just had so many young people contacting us about they had seen mountain biking on TV for the first time and it really excited them," she says. "That's what the Olympics can do for your sport. Other events may be kind of more prestigious in your sport's world, the Olympics take you and your sport to a huge audience.
"A lot of the sport started to really pick up in development in Canada after that Olympic race was on TV. And of course when you have someone from your country winning a medal, that just makes sure that the exposure of your sport is that much greater. In that sense it's probably my proudest result. Maybe not the best race day of my life but probably the result that had the biggest impact."
Sydor officially retired from competition in 2010, ending a career that included: four Olympic appearances, including 1992 as a road cyclist; three world championships; 11 total world championship medals, including a bronze in road cycling in 1991; 17 mountain bike World Cup victories; three medals total, including two golds, at Pan-American Games; two Commonwealth Games medals; two Velma Sprinstead Trophy victories as Canada's female athlete of the year; induction into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame and the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame.
"It's great for Alison but it's great for the sport to be recognized in that way - I think it's awesome," says Tomlinson, Sydor's longtime running mate. "It's well deserved. . . . (Mountain biking) has not always made the front page of the newspapers or the news when it should. Many of her accomplishments were, I think, much more significant than what the Canucks were doing that particular weekend but many times her accomplishments got shuffled a little bit or got the back page because someone was getting traded somewhere or whatever it was. If you were to look at an athlete in any sport having the amount of success that she did, she's not matched by many."
Sydor, who now calls West Vancouver home, joined with Tomlinson and other bike backers to help bring Sprockids to the North Shore, a school-based mountain bike program started by Doug Detweiller on the Sunshine Coast. She's still involved in the sport of cycling, having just returned from a California training camp with the Trek Red Truck team. In early May she'll host her annual women's only camp in the Okanagan.
"I always have felt real responsibility to being a good leader in my sport and a good example for the next generation coming up," says Sydor. "It's just fun to teach all of the new cyclists regardless of their age. I've had a really good opportunity to be involved in the sport for so many years and see so many different developments in it but there's always been something exciting."
Another something exciting for the sport will happen Oct. 17 in Toronto. That's the day Alison Sydor will officially be inducted in Canada's Sports Hall of Fame, laying down tracks for other fat tire folks to follow.
"(The Hall of Fame) is not something that when you're a competitive athlete you're really striving towards or thinking about," she says. "But once you retire and have time to reflect on your career and wonder what sort of impact your career made to sport in your country, something like this is just a huge compliment and confirms that you did have a positive impact."