Golden visions out of the blue

ATLANTA: Caroline Alexander (mountain biker)
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The Independent Online
In the days when Caroline Alexander swam for the Cumbria schools team, she never imagined she would one day be contemplating the sporting deep end of Olympic competition. "I always thought it was for people like Carl Lewis," she said.

The 27-year-old mountain biker from Barrow may have laughed at the prospect, but she is a stronger gold medal contender for the imminent Centennial Games than the living Olympic legend from Birmingham - Birmingham, Alabama, that is. It is a fair bet that only cycle sport aficionados outside Barrow-in-Furness have heard of Alexander, the great British hope for Atlanta. That, she reckons, is because of the misconception about her sport,which makes its debut on the Olympic programme in Georgia.

"The public and press tend to think it's big kids riding BMX bikes," she said, "but mountain biking is actually one of the toughest sports. Only cross- country skiing and marathon running can compare with it. You're close to your limit for two hours-plus: the hammer goes down from the gun and you're at maximum heart rate all the way."

The women's race in Atlanta, on 30 July, comprises three laps of an eight- mile cross-country course that Alexander and her 49 rivals must tackle in a time trial. Imagine Martin Fiz and Dionicio Ceron racing for marathon gold in isolation against the clock, and you have some idea of the constant pushing to the physical limits.

Chris Boardman experienced much the same when he broke the world hour record, and it appears no coincidence that the coach and mentor behind his many successes, Peter Keen, also guides Alexander. Boardman's 4,000- metre pursuit gold in Barcelona four years ago was Britain's first individual Olympic triumph in cycling since 1908. Alexander, European mountain bike champion last year and ranked third in the world in 1996, stands to make history as Britain's first woman pedal-pushing Olympic champion.

Yet she did not even cycle recreationally until the age of 20. "I went to a kibbutz and started out there," she said. "I was a swimmer when I was at school but I had to give that up when I started work. I couldn't do the early-morning training sessions any more. When I came back from Israel I entered a triathlon and was fastest on the bike stage but only second-best at swimming. Then I entered a mountain bike race and won."

Within a year Alexander was established among the top three mountain bikers in Britain. She gave up her job as a draughts- woman in the Barrow shipyards and became a full-time cyclist, a career switch which has taken her to North America for the past five weeks as star rider in the BMW team on the World Cup circuit. "I've been in the right sport at the right time," she said, speaking from Vail, Colorado. "Mountain biking's a young sport. It was only two years ago that it was voted on to the Olympic programme. Going to the Olympics wasn't something I aspired to before that."

Alexander is not going to Atlanta only as a mountain biker. She has also been picked to ride in the road race team on 21 July, nine days before her specialist event, all of which has caused a stir back home in Barrow. Being the birthplace of Emlyn Hughes may not be the town's proudest claim to sporting fame for much longer. "It's a big thing for the town," Alexander said. "The local paper speaks to me regularly. I think because a lot of bad things have happened, especially the decline of the shipyards, people are proud that one of their own is going to the Olympics."

Not that Alexander sees herself as just a Barrovian ambassador in Atlanta. She is likely to face strong opposition from Alison Sydor, Canada's mountain bike world champion, and Juli Furtado, the great American hope who will have the home advantage. But Alexander is ready and focused on winning gold in Atlanta. "The Olympics means different things to different people and for me it's the best opportunity I'm going to get to show that I'm the best at what I do."