Professional American cyclist, MTB World CHampion and double Olympian Alison Dunlap explains how to improve as a mountain biker...
How and why did you get into mountain biking?
I started mountain biking my freshman year at Colorado College, but purely for fun. I did my first race in 1992; it was a World Cup in Mammoth, CA. I petitioned my way onto the MTB World Championship team in 1994 in Vail, CO. I realized I loved the sport but was very heavily involved in professional road racing. But after the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, I decided to give it a go and I switched to mountain biking full time.
Best decision I ever made for my cycling career. A big reason for my switch was my boyfriend at the time was a mountain bike racer. I loved him and I loved hanging out at the races with him. And we just recently celebrated our 17th wedding anniversary. I have always had a cycling coach and have trained full time for cycling since 1991 when I graduated from college. When I switched to mountain biking full time, I had a huge amount of fitness coming from many years of road racing. It took me a while to develop the technical skills up to the same level as my fitness. Didn’t take too long because I won my first World Cup in only my fourth month of racing on the dirt in 1997.
Why is mountain biking important for you?
Mountain biking and cycling in general is a part of my soul. It is who I am and is what keeps me sane. I love riding hard. I love being outside. I love being with friends. I love the challenge. Being outside is my lifeblood. I have always had a huge love of the outdoors thanks to my parents. That will never change. Becoming a parent has been the most stressful thing I’ve ever done by far. Cycling has kept my sanity and allowed me to have time to myself, even if only for 30-45 minutes. It has been a life saver!
How do you train and become a better mountain biker?
Training to become a better mountain biker is a combination of aerobic training and technical skill development. I worked with a coach my entire career. He gave me day-to-day training programs that told me exactly what I needed to do each day. I also spent time practicing skills on technical trails and worked with other riders on improving my skills. Having a coach was extremely beneficial. Took the guesswork out of training. I didn’t have to worry about what to do on the bike. My coach, who was the expert in his field, knew everything I didn’t about training.
What are the hardest parts of mountain biking?
Everything is hard about mountain biking; the training, the technical skills, the stress of racing, etc. The hardest part is keeping your head together during a race. Biggest dangers are crashing, of course. That’s easy to control because on a mountain bike you are in control of your own destiny. Getting hit by a car while training is also a big concern. I choose roads that are safe and less busy. And I ride a lot on the trails. You have to keep your focus and your goals in mind when things go all crazy. You have to realize that everyone has bad days. And that the riders that win races are the ones that are able to handle adversity the best.
How do you prepare for events/races?
When I raced I only rode my bike. I mixed things up by riding my mountain bike, Cyclocross bike and road bike. But the best way to get better on the bike is to ride a bike. There are lots of good books out there. I think the best thing I did was get a coach. Having a coach allowed me to reach the top level of my sport. I think working with a coach is far better than reading books and watching Youtube videos. When I raced my scheduled was planned out by my trade team, the LUNA women’s pro team, so I didn’t have to do a lot of logistics management.
How do you eat and sleep?
I used to sleep about 8-9 hours a night when I was racing and training full time. Sleep was such a big part of my daily training. Now that I am retired and I have a seven year old I get very little sleep. My body has adjusted and now functions quite well on six hours of sleep. I’m also not training and racing full time so the physical demands are a lot less which means recovery isn’t as important.
Travel was a huge part of my career. I was good at travel because I had an easy going attitude about all of the chaos. I was flexible about my diet and my accommodations and that made travel easier. It still wasn’t my favorite thing but if you race on the elite level you have to travel. I never meditated or did yoga when I was racing. I loved reading and that was my way to relax. I am so thankful I got through my entire racing career before social media took over. I think today’s athletes have to spend all of their free time updating their social media sites. Ugh. I have taken vitamins for years. Iron was probably the most important. Living at altitude and being female made it hard to keep iron levels up so I always took a supplement. Other than that it was a mix of multi vitamins.
How do you handle injuries and recovery?
Injuries are always hard to deal with. Athletes are the worst injured people. I have always been good at getting treatment right away. I have spent many hours in PT clinics, orthopedic offices and at the Sports Medicine bldg. at the Olympic Training Center. I don’t really have any reoccurring injuries. I was pretty lucky during my career. I had many acute injuries from crashes but nothing has become chronic.
The best recovery tip I can give is to not rush your recovery. Be conservative and follow the doctor’s and PT orders exactly. Athletes want to get back to competing as soon as possible. But rushing through an injury can prolong it and turn it into a chronic injury which ends up being far more debilitating. Training during an injury is tricky. Depends on what it is. You need to be under a doctor’s care. Usually that means a very modified training program. It might mean training indoors to avoid crashing and making things worse. There are always creative ways to exercise.
What is your best advice people new to mountain biking?
My best advice is to get a coach if you want to start a training program. I also highly recommend doing a skills clinic. Don’t try and learn everything yourself or by watching others or following others. You’ll get frustrated and you’ll end up getting hurt. The biggest mistake people make when new to mountain biking is they look straight down at their front wheel and not down the trail. I always tell riders, “Look where you want to go!” “If you don’t want to hit it, don’t look at it!” The best thing you can do to get yourself out the door is to make “dates” with friends to go ride or hike or climb. When someone else is counting on you it is a lot easier to get outside and exercise.
Best advice for people who have been mountain biking for years?
Best advice is to take a skills clinics. People who have been mountain biking for years tend to have a lot of bad habits and they don’t want to change. Doing a skills clinic can show you all of your bad habits and techniques for making changes. I see experienced riders looking down at their front wheels all the time. They don’t look down the trail far enough. If I could change anything in our sport, it would be a more organized and cohesive effort to get trails built in our local areas.
How do you balance family life with training and competitions?
I don’t officially compete anymore. I like to ride as much as possible but I wouldn’t call it training. But to be able to ride, I have to use a mix of babysitters, grandparents and my husband. And sometimes I ride the trainer and I have my son watch a video. Family always comes first but exercise is critical to me being a good mom and wife. So I definitely make it a high priority. Without it I wouldn’t function.
When I raced full time, I didn’t have to have a full time job. I was a full time athlete. Now I spend the majority of my time working and family stuff. Exercise, although a big part of my life, has to fit in between those two things. I used to train and plan for events about 80% of the time. Competitions were about 20% of my time. I missed a lot of things because of my sport. I missed many family events, graduations, trips, time with friends, holidays, etc. That is one of the hardest parts about being an elite athlete.
What mountain bikes do you prefer?
I love a full suspension mountain bike! My favorite brand has been Felt. I have a 29” and a 26” that I still ride on hard technical trails and just love! I used to get new bikes every year. Now I have my bikes for 4-6 years before replacing them. I always keep up with my chain, brake pads, and cable and housing. If you replace those things on a regular basis, your bike will last for years.
What has been your best sport purchase below $100?
Best sport purchase under $100 was a headlamp. I have used it for many hikes and bike rides that ended up being longer than planned. It has been a life saver! I have a Diamond Back headlamp. Don’t know brand and model.
What other favorite gear do you have?
I used to be a sponsored athlete and this would be where I would list all those items as my “favorites”. Now I just use stuff I’ve saved from my racing days or stuff that is given to me.
What will the future bring?
The future is exciting for me. I am changing careers. I have run my own coaching and mountain bike clinic business since 2003. I am going to phase that out and in the fall of 2018 I will be starting a Physical Therapy Assistant degree. It will be two years of full time school. I’m looking forward to not owning my own business and getting to do something different.