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Sydor leaves nothing in the tank

Canadian Press

Athens — The words came slowly and with a struggle.

Each breath was laboured. The pauses were long.

A blistering sun and a tough, technically demanding course had drained the energy from Alison Sydor like a kid using a straw to slurp the last drink out of soft drink can.

But the weariness was more than physical. Sydor watched Friday as the next generation of Canadian mountain biking climbed on the podium when Marie-Helen Premont was presented with the Olympic Games silver medal.

Sydor had fought valiantly. There was no shame in a fourth place finish for the 37-year-old from North Vancouver, B.C., but there was some disappointment.

"To be competing and in contention for a medal is an exciting experience," said Sydor. "To just miss out by a bit is disappointing, but to come to the Olympics and be in contention to have a shot is still something special."

Sydor was unable to hold off the charge of 32-year-old German Sabine Spitz, who took the bronze.

Norway's Gunn-Rita Dahle, 31, won the gold while Premont, 26, was second.

Asked if this was her last Olympics, Sydor shrugged.

"Who knows," she said. "It was an inspiration to see a good performance like that."

Maybe also a message.

Normally the technically demanding 30-kilometre Parnitha Olympic Mountain Bike course would have fit Sydor's style. But the 30 C heat crushed her like a 25-kilogram rock strapped to her back.

"Even though for me the technical ride is one of my strengths, with the heat, if I went hard it I was losing any advantage I had," said Sydor. "I started to feel the heat fairly early.

"I had to slow down my pace a bit more than I would have liked."

When Spitz passed her, Sydor stayed patient, hoping the German would falter. But when it came time for a last charge, Sydor had nothing left in the tank.

"You never know when somebody goes by you if they're giving a little bit too much effort," said Sydor. "I was hoping maybe she put too much of an effort into the attack.

"At the end I was going 100 per cent. The last climb, when I got to the top, there was nothing more I could have done."

Sydor has been a pioneer in mountain biking. The three-time world champion has won 12 world championship medals and collected 17 World Cup wins.

She won a silver at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, when mountain biking made its Olympic debut, and was fifth four years ago in Sydney.

"Every athlete knows fourth at the Olympics is probably the hardest sport," said Sydor. "At the same time, never to be out of the top five in any world championships or Olympic Games in my whole career is not a bad record."

If Sydor was Canada's mountain biking queen, the crown now belongs to Premont.

"Marie-Helen is the future of Canadian cycling on the mountain bike scene," said Sean O'Donnell, high performance director of the Canadian Cycling Association. "She's an up-and-coming rising star.

"She's going to be on the scene for a number of years."

Premont said Sydor has been an inspiration.

"We have a good relationship," she said. "For sure Alison has a lot of experience.

"I look at her like a model."

Sydor plans to race again next year and is excited about having Premont as motivation.

"It's motivation for me to have another Canadian athlete pushing me," she said. "Hopefully I can also be pushing her and we can keep Canadians on the international podium for at least next year."

If Friday was her last Olympic race, Sydor knows she gave everything she had.

"I don't have any regrets for my effort today," she said. "At the end I crossed the line with nothing left."

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