Hot wheels & High hopes

Cycling is not a high-profile sport in Canada, but the 1996 Canadian Olympic team boasts some possible medal contenders. The women’s team is particularly strong and includes mountain biker Alison Sydor, road biker Clara Hughes and track rider Tanya Dubnicoff.

Overlooked at home, Canadian cyclists ride for respect in Atlanta

They are household names in Europe, famous in the United States, and some rank among Canada’s most successful professional athletes. They are also becoming more visible-sponsors with products ranging from shampoo to doughnuts splash their faces on national television. But the fact is, Canada’s best cyclists remain largely unknown in their own country. And although more and more Canadians ride recreationally these days, cycling as a competitive sport is about as exciting as lawn bowling for most of the nation’s sports enthusiasts.

That, however, might all change in Atlanta. Over the past few years, Canada has put together a cycling team capable of pedalling to Olympic victory. Among the men, track rider Curt Harnett is a realistic medal hope, and relative old-timer Steve Bauer, 37-Canada’s most accomplished road racer ever-could once again summon a great performance. But the real cream of the Canadian crop is in the women’s team: mountain biker Alison Sydor, road racer Clara Hughes and track rider Tanya Dubnicoff will all be among the favorites in Atlanta. “The women’s cycling team,” says Harnett, “has put the fear of God into opponents.”

Sydor, a 29-year-old North Vancouver native, is a big part of the reason. A former world-champion bronze-medallist road racer who took up mountain biking in 1991, Sydor is the two-time defending world cross-country champion-and she has already won three World Cup races in Europe this year. Hughes’s competitors, meanwhile, must wish she never switched sports from speed skating to cycling when she was 18. Five years later, the Hamilton resident is one of the favorites to win the 40.5-km individual pursuit in Atlanta, following her silver medal in that event at the world championship last fall. (At the Olympics, Hughes will do double-duty, cycling also in the 102-km road race, which takes place on July 21, a full 13 days before her specialty.)

Asked to explain why Canada has developed such a strong team, Hughes is at a momentary loss. “For myself, I was lucky that I came into an incredible program,” she says. “I know with some of the other girls, it’s just their hardy, strong character and a strong will that defies all the odds of cycling not being a Canadian sport.” One veteran who defied the odds is Dubnicoff. The Winnipeg native was the 1993 women’s world sprint champion, even though there are only four velodromes in all of Canada, and is capable of making the podium in Atlanta.

Harnett, a 31-year-old native of Thunder Bay, Ont., raced to a silver medal in the 1-km event in Los Angeles 12 years ago, and he captured bronze in the match sprints in Barcelona in 1992. He hopes to complete his collection in Atlanta with a gold medal. Last fall in Bogota, Harnett and his 71-cm thighs set a world record of 9.865 seconds in the 200-m time trial, and he has two World Cup victories this year. “At the risk of sounding cocky, I think I’ve got to be one of the favorites to make it into the finals,” says Harnett.

Amazing Spirit

One surprise at the road trials, held in St-Sauveur, Que., last month, was how Bauer powered away from his younger competition. Now, the Fenwick, Ont.-based rider-a silver medallist at the 1984 Olympics, and one of the world’s top cyclists in the mid-1980s-is a not-so-long shot to win. He races professionally in Europe and the United States with the Saturn team, but Bauer hopes to repeat his Games success. “Last time at the Olympics, I suppose it was a bit of a surprise I rode so well,” he says. “This year, I know I can put in a great performance.”

The strength of the Canadian team is remarkable given the lack of domestic support. The best cyclists compete in Europe and the United States-Sydor, for instance, rides with the Volvo Cannondale pro team. Pierre Hutsebaut, director of racing programs at the Canadian Cycling Association, says that cyclists who turn pro receive quality coaching and compete against the best in the world. “Alison Sydor is not riding in Canada any more,” Hutsebaut adds, “but she is in every magazine and on the Kellogg’s box when you have breakfast. She’s developing racing for sure.” But Harnett says more should be done at home. “People need to realize that we are not the product of some well-oiled machine pumping out champion after champion,” he says. “What you’re seeing is a privateer conquering the proverbial Goliath.” Still, in Atlanta, the Canadian privateers should ride strongly, possibly all the way to gold. And then-maybe-people will remember their names.

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