No easy roads for Bortolon in return to biking
Alison Bortolon returned to competition in July after missing a year due to health problems and relocating Ontario. Now that she is back in Camrose, she is out to claim downhill mountain biking podiums. Supplied
Alison Bortolon found victory just in finishing the race.
The Camrose downhill mountain biker placed fourth in her division at the Canadian Championships on July 15, but the real story was not that she was three minutes out of first place, it was that she crossed the line after several crashes and a concussion.
“I tried really hard, I gave it my all, but when you crash on a downhill course it’s tough to come back from that, every second counts,” said Bortolon, 25.
“I got my bike out of the trees and I still finished.”
Downhill mountain biking is a hyper-technical BMX event that runs riders through an obstacle-laden course, with the goal of completing it in the fastest time. The slightest miscalculation can lead to disaster.
Borotlon’s troubles started early on the Panorama Mountain Resort course in Invermere, B.C. On one of the more difficult sections of the course called “The Cliffs of Insanity” she took a bad line around a bend that was on a steep decline with a sharp drop-off to the side. She caught a rut and was thrown from her bike, off course and into a tree. She hit her head hard and suffered a concussion.
With the help of a fellow competitor who helped pull her and her bike out of the tree, she continued on, but crashed a few more times before she got to the bottom of the course. At the very least she exacted some revenge on the obstacle.
“By the end of the race, everyone was talking about the girl from Prairie Girls Racing who took out the tree, and that was me,” said Bortolon with a laugh.
Her concussion made her dizzy and gave her headaches, and she was still feeling the symptoms a week later. Bortolon did get off lucky, saying in that competition alone there was a broken back, a broken arm, a broken collar bone, and a broken ankle, among other injuries by competitors.
The competition was her first of the season after taking a year off from competing. The Thunder Bay native returned to her Ontario home for a year after graduating from the University of Alberta-Augustana with the goal of continuing to train, but those plans were put on hold as health concerns took centre stage.
Bortolon has membranous nephropathy, an autoimmune kidney disease which slowly gets worse, eventually she could require a kidney transplant.
“It affects my racing a lot, because you’re on serious medication,” said Bortolon. “Some of the medications affect me being able to breathe and me being able to exert energy. I can’t wake up and go for a bike ride, basically. I’ll have to wait and train in the evening so it doesn’t really effect my medications.”
She said the disease also causes exhaustion and low hemoglobin which makes it hard to breathe and exercise.
The disease can come in waves and it flared up back in Thunder Bay, as she suspects it was due to a shift in medication.
Upon returning to Ontario, it also did not take long for her to miss Camrose, her adopted home. She originally came to Augustana to compete on the biathlon team, but fell in love with all the area had to offer.
She has a passion working with at-risk youths and has a degree in global and development studies with a focus on social development in Canada. When a communications position opened up with the Camrose Open Door Association, she jumped at the opportunity to come back to the Rose City.
“I love the Camrose community and the people,” she said.
“I was out here from age 18 to 24 and I feel like that’s when you do a lot of growing in your life. It’s home for me now.”
She also found herself feeling better physically and she missed competing on the downhill mountain biking circuit.
While she does not compete in the professional ranks, and has a way to go to return to form, Bortolon says she has an important role to play as an example for other young, female riders. It is a message she is able to get out into the biking community as a member of the Prairie Girls Racing team. PGR consists of 23 women from across Western Canada that support each other as they develop their sport.
Growing up in Thunder Bay, she says there was a mountain biking team at her high school and a group of supportive coaches who encouraged her to take up the sport. It is a role PGR actively takes on now.
“We want to bring more women racers out,” said Bortolon. “People who are timid on the bike, we’ll take you out so you can try it out. That’s really what (PGR) is about, the promotion of women in sport.”
She views this season as an opportunity to train and get back into mountain biking and see how far back she can climb up the ladder before taking a more serious approach next year.
“I obviously want to improve and I would like to get on the podium,” said Bortolon. “This is a setback early in the season having a head injury, but I’ll get a few more races in and train over the winter and next year I’ll see some serious improvement.”
Her next race will likely be Silver Star, a B.C. Cup race in Vernon this weekend.