Alison Sydor, Silver Medal, 1996 Olympics

Alison Sydor is an incredible athlete. Her recent induction to the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame is no surprise and well-deserved. She is rightfully recognized as one of the best mountain bikers of all time, but I want to talk briefly about her more broadly as a public figure and athlete.

I don’t know her personally, and I’ve never worked with her or heard her speak so my impressions are those made from afar. What I always admired about Sydor–from my distant vantage point–was her pure athleticism and grit, which seemed coupled with a more quiet pursuit of excellence. If Clara Hughes is a poetic visionary and public figure capable of tying sport to social causes, watching Sydor race made the daily work required for success visible in her remarkable athletic finesse. A gifted athlete, yes, but you knew Sydor had trained hard and was psychologically prepared to win a world championship. She was always prepared to win and you could sense all the hard work in the grace of her movements as she deftly moved/slammed her bike from point A to point B.

Sydor’s astonishing record of performances on the world stage is recounted on the Canadian Cyclist blog: “Alison Sydor won an Olympic silver medal, three individual Cross-country world titles, as well as a Team Relay world title. Equally impressive, Alison finished in the top-5 at the world championships a staggering 13 consecutive times (including four silver and three bronze performances), and in the top-5 at three consecutive Olympic Games. Other victories include 17 World Cup wins, a bronze medal at the Road World Championships, a gold medal at the Pan Am Games and two wins at the Cape Epic. We selected Alison as our Cyclist of the Century (1900-1999), along with Steve Bauer.” Permit me this understatement: Sydor was always in the mix.

Earlier I suggested that Sydor’s was a quiet pursuit of excellence. I am not suggesting she is shy or soft-spoken as a person. I have never met her. Instead I’m trying to say that when I watched her race a bike, I felt like I could see her dedicated, hard work in the grace of her decision-making and movements. She was not someone I would call “a grinder”, whose hard work allowed her to pound and clunk her way to victory. Her work was embedded in her athleticism. It didn’t shout out at you.

As a coach, I often feel riders separate the way they think about their goals from the way they think about the work required to achieve them. Most of my clients work really hard, both on and off the bike. How they envision achieving their goals, however, is sometimes removed from all that work. Riders who have just started racing, for example, dream of getting into the break. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard racers talk about those who are in the break as if they were just so strong they were not working hard! Inexperienced racers often dream of being so strong they don’t have to work! This is confusing the dream of success with the dream of retirement!!

I want my clients to be task-oriented. Failing at a task does not mean you are a bad person or cyclist. It means you must be responsible for figuring out other ways to get it done. Achieving a task does not mean you are an exceptional person or cyclist. It means you are responsible for moving on to the next task at hand. For many, it is equally difficult to be responsible for their successes as it is their failures. Being task-oriented helps you own up to both. The team I directed this year had its most successful season to date. At the Team Medique end-of-year BBQ, I felt really proud of how hard everyone had worked all season. I told the riders that they had to own their success, to feel it in their end-of-season exhaustion. They also had to be responsible to it and to the work they put in because the next task was to do better: to develop the capacity to train harder, race smarter, and contribute more fully to the team on and off the bike.

If being task-oriented sounds managerial, I want to inject the task of cycling with the thrilling experience of athletic achievement. True success is the expression of dedication. Being responsible to that dedication is the foundation of confidence. That confidence allows you to feel “in the moment.” Feeling confident on the bike has everything to do with feeling a certain kind of freedom or openness to the world. We all need that openness to others. I would say that sharing that confident openness with friends or teammates is the task of cycling and one of the sport’s greatest pleasures. I learned that in part, from watching Alison Sydor race.

I strongly encourage you to read the thoughtful blog about Sydor on the Canadian Cyclist website because it is also about the women who wanted to celebrate with her as she was inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame. What an incredible generation of cyclists! I’ll end by giving Sydor the final word. It has to do with the task of cycling and the quiet pursuit of excellence. As you read, think about all her successes and her contribution to the sport:

“As far as myself as an athlete, it was about being in the moment, getting to the races in the best possible state to get the best possible result. But once you crossed the finish line, the race was over, and I can’t say I lived too much thinking about my last race results, it was always about moving on, moving forward to the next one.”

About Scott Toguri McFarlane

Scott Toguri McFarlane is a former Elite racer, and the founder of Toguri Training Services. For more than a decade, his approach to training has helped aspiring professional racers, provincial team members, and recreational cyclists of all ages and ability achieve their goals, including gold medals at National and Provincial Championships.

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