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Finding Mara Abbott: The Giro champion returns to the top

The way back

It wasn’t meant to be a break from the sport, Abbott’s departure, but rather a total split. “I quit,” she said, with a slight laugh. But eventually, like so many retired riders before her, she began to miss the competition, and the drive. “I said, ‘I want to just do something ordinary,’ like, working in a coffee shop. And it turns out I didn’t want to do something ordinary.”

The way back was easy, once she was ready. Abbott approached Nicola Cranmer, who runs the Exergy Twenty16 team (formerly sponsored by Peanut Butter & Co.), and told her that if she ever needed a guest rider, she would be happy to ride. Soon after, Abbott ended up racing the women’s criterium in Aspen, held during last summer’s USA Pro Challenge.

“It was kind of fun, because I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it and I just showed up,” Abbott said. In the VIP tent after the race, USA Cycling vice president of athletics Jim Miller asked her if she’d come back.

“It was almost like I’d just been waiting for someone to tell me that … to ask me, ‘Are you going to come back?’

“Yes, I am,” she said. Eventually, Abbott signed on with Cranmer, who knew full well she was a risky endeavor. “Having known her struggles, I wanted to make sure that this was the right decision. She looked a lot different than she had looked when she decided to finish her cycling career, and I knew the problems that she had been through. I spoke to her parents, I spoke to her,” Cranmer said. “I think that she was very comfortable with it. We weren’t going to ask [Mara] to do anything she didn’t want to do. I think she’s one of the most talented riders America has ever seen, and her potential hasn’t been realized yet.”

Abbott seems to feel at home with Cranmer’s’ squad. “It just felt really normal,” Abbott said. “I feel like there should be some sort of light shining down from the sky, but instead, you just get up, eat your oats, and go race your bike.”

She’s won the Gila again this year and also the San Dimas Stage Race, and she flatted out of a potential winning move at the national road championship after a terrible wheel change that saw her rear derailleur broken and hopes dashed.

Abbott said she’s simply here to win this time around, and hopes to keep things simple and in order. “You go out there, and you race your bike, and you win the bike race, and that’s all there is to it.”

And what if she doesn’t? “It’s just another day, you look at it, and you say, ‘Well, why didn’t I win it?’”

As far as a shelf life for her second stint in the pro ranks, Abbott isn’t sure, though she’s heard that Rio de Janeiro — site of the 2016 Olympic Games — is a nice place.

Before the women’s criterium at last year’s USA Pro Challenge, Miller told Abbott that he’d recently been in London for the Olympics, and that the venue manager for the Rio Games told him he hoped to put on a difficult road race. “The first person I thought of when he told me that was Mara,” Miller said. “Mara’s a great girl. If you don’t try to get her to come back and race bikes, you’d be crazy. I think, for Mara, the biggest thing is it has to be fun,” he said.

“She’s a fun girl, she likes to have fun. If it’s not that environment, she has other options and she can pretty much do what she wants. I really hope that she does have fun in cycling. I think if she finds the right situation for it, she’s going to be a superstar again.”

The issue for Abbott, however, seems to be that nagging feeling of needing to contribute a bit more; though at this point Abbott, an economics major, seems to have come to terms with her role as a racer — at least for the moment.

“I still loved that thrill of the goal of being the best in the world, and I realized that I still don’t quite have a handle on what I’m contributing to society by being a biker. I think that I can get my feet back under me, and get my career going, I think I can, hopefully, use my career to leverage that.”

She mentions cyclorosser Tim Johnson’s work with the advocacy group Bikes Belong as something she looks toward as a goal — some type of contribution beyond racing, however uncomfortable it may make her to employ her notoriety.

“You’ve got people riding their bikes for health, those are good things that can come out of it; and if you work within the system, maybe you can create more sustainability with the teams,” she said. “If bike racing is the way you’re going to make your money … how am I going to use that … to make a positive impact on the world, more than just flying around on airplanes and riding a bicycle?”

Abbott is on her way back now, but where it’s leading her isn’t yet known. And maybe it doesn’t have to be. Not yet.

“Ultimately what I discovered is that maybe I don’t have to answer it,” she said. “Maybe I don’t know how I’m going to turn something good out of it. But if it makes me happy, and it’s something I enjoy doing, I’m allowed to be happy, and I’m allowed to do something I enjoy doing.”

Editor’s note: This feature story appears in the July 2013 issue Velo magazine, on newsstands at booksellers and bike shops, or on the Apple Newsstand.

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