Boulder cyclist Mara Abbott to tackle Women’s USA Pro Challenge
Mara Abbott arrived to our interview on her bike. It’s no surprise the cyclist would choose two wheels as her method of transport. She hasn’t owned a car in years. Her professional racing schedule keeps her traveling across the country and the Atlantic, and besides, cycling is a lot easier on the environment.
Mara, 29, is short and slender, with long blond hair that flows past her shoulders. She runs her hand through it, shaking it free from its helmet flatness, revealing a flash of silver earrings, shaped like little birds.
She leans back in her chair, relaxed, without that nervous energy one sometimes sees in athletes. Her smile is consistent throughout our conversation, despite the fact that she’s been doing interviews a lot lately, in light of this summer’s upcoming “local” race. Just the day before, she’d been interviewed by Randy Warner on Colorado Public Radio.
Before we start, she warns that she might have to answer her phone if it rings. The call will tell her whether or not she’ll be racing tomorrow in Tahoe, California. This type of last-minute racing isn’t necessarily common, but she accepts it with a casual shrug of the shoulders.
Boulder, born and bred
Boulder runs through Mara’s blood. She was born there, lives there when racing allows and will always consider the town home, with a capital “H.”
“There’s nowhere else I want to go,” she said with a grin.
That hasn’t kept her from seeing plenty of places, however. She moved to Washington state for college, then spent a few years living in Spain after graduation, and travels throughout the U.S. and Europe for racing.
Still, when it comes down to it, Boulder is the place — for recharging, for seeing family, for training and for activities outside of cycling, such as participating on city advisory boards and writing columns for the local paper.
“I’ve grown up here my entire life and I love it, and you want to be able to actually do things for the places you love,” she said, of throwing herself into all things Boulder whenever she can.
It’s that same determination and drive that Mara’s had all her life. During middle school she started synchronized swimming. After a year, she moved to regular race competitions, and found in them something she liked, something that spoke to a part of her deep down.
“Once she got going, it was all hers,” said her father, Dave Abbott, of his daughter’s devotion to her sport. Mara was the one who got herself up every morning for early swim practice. Mara made herself attend afterschool practice, Mara made time to complete her homework. When her father suggested she take a week or two off in the summer, she wasn’t interested.
Her main swim event was the mile, the longest distance possible.
“She went to distance events because that was where effort and hard work and training paid off more than the sprints,” Dave Abbott said.
The swimming lasted throughout middle school and high school. Mara decided to attend Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, where she happened to fall in with the bicycling crowd. Her friends encouraged her to join, and pretty soon, Mara was biking along with the best of them — and winning.
“The bike team was really fun, and it turned out I was way better at cycling than swimming,” Mara said.
The decision to become pro didn’t happen all at once, but was more of a progression, she said. With more and more successes under her belt, she felt drawn to the sport and how it could test her limits.
“I’d say we were surprised,” Dave Abbott said, of learning Mara’s plans to become a professional cyclist. “We weren’t particularly encouraging, because I always said school should come first and cycling should be second.”
Mara’s determination didn’t stop at sports, however, and her collegiate schoolwork remained just as strong.
“She was able to both do well in school and to pursue cycling, so what could I say? Except — go girl!” said her father with a laugh.
Biking in the big time
Entering the professional biking world meant that Mara had to travel for competition, often abroad.
“That’s where the top level of cycling racing is, in Europe,” she said. “We have amazing races here, but there’s a much greater depth of riders over there. So if you want to be competing at the top level, you sort of have to go over there.”
And compete at the top level she did. In 2010, Mara became the first American to win the Giro Donne (now branded the Giro Rosa) in Italy, considered the top women’s race in the world, after placing second in it the year before. Then she did it again in 2013.
“I think that the discipline, the conditioning, all that stuff that she got from swimming, completely transferred over to cycling,” said Dave Abbott, of Mara’s success. “She started out doing it for the love of the sport, and not for the external gratification of winning stuff and people telling her how great she was and all that. It was internal.”
Dedication gained the heights Mara sought, but it also came with a darker side. She has since spoken about that time, when anorexia sapped her strength and her will, severely hampering her performance, until she bowed out of cycling in 2012. For about a year she remained removed from professional racing. Eventually, she recovered and decided to return to the cycling profession in 2013.
“My frightening gauntness when I look back over photos from that time is so clear that it still freaks me out,” Mara wrote in a column for Ella Cycling Tips online in February 2015. Further on, she wrote, “Relationship with our physical bodies is a privilege of the committed athlete. The kinship is accumulated through a lifetime of investigation — a daily study of limits, capacity and personal strength.”
Exploring and pushing limits continues to draw Mara to athletics. It’s her favorite part of being a professional cyclist, she said.
“Really what it comes down to is … this idea of doing something to be your very best, or to be the best in the world and being at that elite edge of competition and trying to see what you can do,” she said. “I think that’s something that’s really compelling, whether you’re a cyclist or anything else. … It’s the idea of competing and of self-improvement and of investigating what your limits are.”
Racing on the home front
This week, Mara will have the chance to race in her very own backyard. In its fifth year, the USA Pro Challenge has announced that it will include a three-stage women’s race.
Often referred to as America’s Tour de France, the Pro Challenge draws high-ranking riders from all over the world to test themselves against Colorado’s steep climbs and lung-burning altitude.
At the time of the interview, race officials hadn’t announced the women’s course, which meant Mara and her fellow competitors didn’t know what their race would look like yet. Could it be deemed a worthy challenge for the world’s top female cyclists?
“Right now it’s at a place where it’s really exciting but it’s also really scary, because your hopes are up but you don’t really know what you’re going to get,” Mara said.
While the men have seven stages filled with speed and climbing challenges, it was unclear whether the women would be allowed to face the same — and that’s exactly what Mara, her teammates and competitors want.
“I’d love for us to have similar courses to what the men have, so actually have the full road stages and have some climbing and all of those things,” she said.
When the routes were announced in June, female riders found they indeed were riding the same final stages as the men, beginning with the Breckenridge time trial on Aug. 21. The prize money is also the same — a first for a major international stage race.
For Mara’s family, watching her race in her home state will be a treat. It’s often difficult to follow her races abroad, her father said, because they’re just not reported in the same way that men’s races and even other sports are.
“Sometimes you go to a race and it’s, ‘They’re off!’ And two hours later, ‘And here they come!’” Dave Abbot said. He actually followed the Giro Rosa — the prestigious Italian race that his daughter won twice — on Twitter, as that was the best way to get updates.
With Mara racing throughout Colorado in August, the family will be cheering her on from the sidelines.
“I’m definitely excited,” he said. “I’m a sports fan anyhow, and of course, rooting for your own daughter is better than rooting for the Rockies or the Broncos. So I get pretty involved in it. But I’m also, you know, a little anxious, because part of bike racing is that people do crash and hurt themselves. … It’s a mixture of excitement and pleasure and worry, and happy when it’s over and she’s still intact.”
The best of bikes
Despite whatever happens next in Mara’s racing career, one thing is certain — she is a biker for life. While competing professionally has allowed her to push her limits, just being on a bike allows her to enjoy her life, particularly in bike-friendly Boulder.
“It is a true experience of community bonding,” she wrote of Bike to Work Day in one of her columns for the Daily Camera, Boulder’s local newspaper. “It’s the greatest day of the year.”
Mara’s personality — and quirky sense of humor — shine through her writing, as she sounds out themes of community, family, environmental sustainability, health and, of course, biking.
“Community by bike is an entryway to community,” she wrote in her first Ella Cycling Tips column. “It provides the adventure of discovering paths, back roads and new shortcuts. You encounter passersby face-to-face — rather than separated by metal or glass.”
She finished with a final statement that continues to ring true for her and many others.
“Truly,” she wrote, “we are lucky to be girls on bikes.”
This article first appeared in Explore Summit Summer 2015 magazine. Pick up your copy on newsstands around Summit County.
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