Big Al's a Big Wheel

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Let's just pretend that America's Alison Dunlap wasn't cut from the 1987 Colorado College women's soccer team. Where might soccer have led her? "Right about now I'd be finishing up a Ph.D. in biology and making about 10 grand a year" as a graduate researcher, Dunlap says with a half-laugh.

Of course, she was the last player cut. But in a sequel that should give heart to anyone ever chosen last for a schoolyard hoop game, Dunlap finds herself one of the favorites to win the gold medal in cross-country mountain biking in Sydney.

Currently atop the World Cup mountain-biking standings, the low-key Dunlap Big Al to her teammates just may be the poster girl who can help mountain biking shed its scruffy image and come in off the fringes of sport.

The road to the Olympics began for the 30-year-old Denver native a couple of weeks after her soccer career ended. Although her cycling experience was limited to "a couple of Girl Scout bike tours," Dunlap signed up for Colorado's cycling team because, she says, "it seemed like a good way to meet guys." They weren't about to cut her; she was the only woman who raced regularly. After being left for dead in every road race that she entered as a freshman, Dunlap improved steadily, ultimately winning the women's national collegiate road race as a senior. "I did the guys' workouts, and I got a lot of good guidance from some serious riders," she says of her wheelmates.

Dunlap shelved grad school for an itinerant life on the international racing circuit. She earned a spot on the 1996 Olympic road team but had a disappointing 37th-place finish in Atlanta. "I had a bad taste in my mouth after the Olympics," Dunlap says. "I didn't want to retire from cycling, but I didn't want to race on the road any more." Several spills cost her a separated shoulder, a handful of teeth, a severe concussion and a couple of months on the sidelines. During her time off, Dunlap started to entertain the notion of making the jump to mountain biking. "I was dating a pro mountain biker, and I went to a bunch of his races and thought, 'How hard can this be?'" she says.

Not hard at all if you possess Dunlap's athleticism and depthless determination. Road cycling, in which riders spin their sleek machines over long ribbons of asphalt, is physically demanding but doesn't ask much in technique say, steering of its disciples. Mountain biking, on the other hand, requires riders to pedal chunky bikes with knobby tires over courses that roam up ski slopes, across rock ledges and down trails studded with obstacles ranging from creeks to boulders to trees. "It's pretty hard to control your body when you're that exhausted and descending through a rock garden," she says.

Dunlap needed a couple of years to master the dirt, but her efforts in 1999 and thus far this season five top-four finishes in five World Cup events have been nothing less than spectacular. She hopes to carry that momentum to Sydney. "I'm going there to win," she says. "There are about five of us who could pull it off." Look for Dunlap to butt heads with nemesis

Alison Sydor of Canada, Australian Mary Grigson and Spaniard Marga Fullana. The 9-km course in suburban Fairfield isn't particularly technical, but its unrelenting ups and downs should favor an old road racer like Dunlap.

And after the Olympics? "I'll race next year for sure," she says. "The world championships are in Vail, so I'm motivated for that. But I don't want to be 40 when I have my first baby." Last October Dunlap married fellow mountain biker Greg Frozley, and the pair are busily feathering a nest in Colorado Springs. Then there's always graduate school and that cool 10 grand.