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Canada wins silver in mountain bike race

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Athens — 'Canada's newest Olympic star is a house painter who prepared for the heat of Athens by riding her bike in a sauna.

That's right, in a sauna. Two, three times a week. Just Marie-Hélène Prémont and an exercise bike. And if you think that was extreme, you should have seen her training routine before the sauna. It was eight days in Phoenix, cycling outdoors, with temperatures as high as 42.

She picked Phoenix because the Sahara was booked (the desert, not the hotel).

But all that sweating paid off yesterday in the relative cool of an Athens afternoon (35 degrees) on a hillside where, two weeks ago, a fire took out hundreds of trees and rearranged the Olympic mountain bike course.

For 31.3 kilometres, Prémont relentlessly chased Gunn-Rita Dahle of Norway over hill and dale, through ditches, around trees and over rocks until, finally, Dahle pulled away for good and crossed the finish line in first place. Fifty-nine seconds later, Prémont wheeled in, pumping her right arm in the air and grinning like a kid on Christmas morning.

Winning the silver medal, Canada's fifth of the Games, was no small feat for the 26-year-old from Château-Richer, Que. By everyone's account, including Prémont's, the gold medal was most assuredly going to Dahle, the winner of 28 of 32 events since May of last year.

In other words, the Olympic race was for second place — and Prémont was not the least bit upset having to take the second step on the podium.

"I gave everything in the last climbing," Prémont said. "I knew Gunn-Rita was the girl to watch today. I'm really happy with her [winning the] gold medal, and I'm happy with mine."

Prémont should be happier than an Olympic souvenir salesman. She gave up her full-time job last fall to concentrate on winning a medal at her first Olympics. The job was working with her mother painting houses.

Even her entry into the sport was a little luck combined with a lot of determination.

In 1990, Prémont worked as a volunteer at a World Cup mountain bike competition at Mont-Sainte-Anne, Que. She watched it and thought, "Hey, I can do that." So she did. From there, she worked her way up to the Canada Cup circuit. Then she competed at the Canadian championships. Then it was on to the World Cup and world championships.

Along the way, her results kept improving. She was fourth at the 2002 Commonwealth Games and fifth at the 2003 world championships.

For 2004, Canadian Cyclist magazine named Prémont the country's female cyclist of the year — and that was before her Olympic breakthrough.

"She's the future of Canadian cycling," team leader Sean O'Donnell said. "She was 59 seconds away from a gold medal. She can win any race and compete with the best in the world. She showed that today and she's shown that in the past."

Seeing Prémont hugging O'Donnell in the finish area yesterday, it was clear to many that a changing of the guard had occurred.

For years, Alison Sydor was Canada's top mountain biker. She was the one who took the silver medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and when it came to the world championships, she was one who collected the medals and the congratulations.

But the 37-year-old fell victim to the Athens heat and faded from third place to fourth.

When she reached the finish area, she collapsed in exhaustion, then tried to talk her way out of the disappointment. It was an uphill battle.

"Every athlete knows fourth at the Olympics is probably the hardest spot," Sydor said.

"At the same time, never to be out of the top five in any world championship or Olympic Games in my whole career is not a bad record, too."

It isn't, and Sydor may roll on for another year or two, but there's a new cycling ace on the Canadian women's team.

Prémont didn't just thrive in the heat of the race on a sticky day; her coach said she peddled with poise and intelligence. She pushed the best mountain biker on the planet and managed to stay comfortably ahead of the bronze medalist, Sabine Spitz of Germany.

Asked how Prémont got so good so quickly, coach Michel Leblanc said it came down to two things: personality and preparation.

"She's a well-balanced person," he said. "That's her secret. She has a boyfriend, a family and her studies. She has more than just sport in her life."

As for riding an exercise bike in a sauna, by the time she got to Greece, Prémont was so prepared she could have raced in a fur coat and still done well. About the only thing that rattled her yesterday was trying to describe how good she felt.

"I can't," she said. "There's no word for it."

But there was a medal and it shone brightly under the hot sun.

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