There was a time when activities involving women, mud, and hooting crowds were less likely to be athletics than "adult entertainment." But that was before Alison Dunlap chose to push as hard in cyclocross as she has in the far more prominent realm of mountain-biking. "I thought, ŒDamn, this isn't so easy after all,'".she says about her first race, which took place in Colorado and ended in a sideways collision with a hay bale. "I just lay there laughing."
One of America's top mountain-bike racers, Dunlap, 30, burst into cyclocross by winning the women's national championship in 1997 and 1998, becoming the sport's most successful female racer in the last decade. It's an admittedly obscure.distinction in an undeniably oddball sport. And given that cyclocross is dominated by European men, her stature will have special significance when she competes on January 20 at the first Women's World Cyclocross Championships in Saint Michelgestel, Holland.
To picture cyclocross, think the WWF meets Breaking Away—a steeplechase conducted on hybrid road bikes outfitted with knobby tires, cantilever brakes, and drop handlebars. The sport, which was invented around the turn of the century by French soldiers who used bikes to keep up with mounted officers during wintertime hunts, is conducted during road and mountain-bike racing's off-season, October to February, on mile-long, closed-loop courses studded with hay bales and wooden fences that force riders off their rigs and into wobbly, bike-shouldering scrambles. With the ground often snow-laden, soupy, or sleet-drenched, sprints tend to culminate in Three-Stoogian falls as yelping racers glissade into safety netting, spectators, and one another. Which may help explain 'cross's appeal in Europe, where it is among the most popular of wintertime sports.
Although Dunlap capped her spectacular 1999 mountain-bike season with a national title, the cyclocross Worlds are her focus now. Which offers a potential milestone because she embodies the best hope for a U.S. medal in the elite division:.If Dunlap wins this month, she could be the first American to crack a vaunted European tradition. "But so what?" she says. "We'll start our own .tradition."