Mara Abbott didn’t win a medal at the 2016 Olympics, but she left Rio de Janeiro as a surprise hero. Abbott’s solo breakaway in the waning miles of the women’s road race nearly went the distance — she was caught by Anna van der Breggen, Emma Johansson, and Elisa Longo Borghini with just 150 meters remaining in the race, and finished fourth. The nail-biting finale displayed cycling’s cruelest moment, yet Abbott remained positive, telling NBC’s television cameras that she was, “honored to be a part of this.”
In the days that followed, Abbott wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal chronicling her race, and explaining why, at the age of 30, she has decided to retire from international racing.
VeloNews caught up with Abbott to talk about the Olympics, her decision to step away, and what she hopes to do next.
VeloNews: You’ve had three weeks to reflect on the Olympic road race. Do you find yourself playing the “what-if” game?
Mara Abbott: You can play the what-if game with every bike race, so yeah. Bike races are so complex. For [the Olympics] you can draw it all the way back to January to say what if so-and-so happened. But it’s not as if I had a medal taken away from me. Those medals never belonged to anybody until the girls finished. They were never mine, so I can’t be that disappointed. That’s the hard reality.
Do you view your Olympics as a success?
[Long pause] Yes and no. I did not win the race, and I wanted to win the race. People tell me I should be satisfied with that! The irony is that someone who has the drive to get to the Olympics isn’t going to be someone who is like, “Wow, that was a great and entertaining moment!” But at the same time I was really proud of the performance that I put out there. I raced my very best on that day, and that doesn’t happen very often as an athlete. There’s always an error in your training, or something that goes wrong. So to race that way and end my career that way was gratifying.
Was your performance in line with Team USA’s tactics for the race?
We had so many strong riders that each of us had a different way we could win the race. The strength and diversity of the team enabled us to respond to other teams. We had a person for every situation. I executed to the best of my abilities the job I was given, and I’m proud of the way I did that.
You wrote a sizable essay in The Wall Street Journal about your experience, as well as your decision to retire. How did that come together?
I wrote it on my own and just told myself I would publish it somewhere. I had no idea. But I really liked the story that [WSJ columnist] Jason Gay had written called “Mara Abbott’s Beautiful Ride” so I just emailed him saying, “What do you think? If this was yours what would you do with it?” He said they would publish it.
What were you trying to capture with that essay?
The thesis of the piece was, “What is the mental state after a race like this?” Well, writing about it was cheaper than therapy. And after I wrote it, I felt a lot better. Also, there was the goal to create something artistic about my experience. I’m not an artist — I’m way more on the athlete side than artist — but I had this huge experience and wanted to create something out of it to show the emotion. That was me trying to create something beautiful out of the moment.
You wrote that you’re planning to retire. How long have you been thinking about this?
Well, I didn’t say the Olympics would be my last race ever, just that it’s the end of my international elite career. I can still do a race for fun or a local race. I’m not saying I’ll never race my bike again. But the end of my international elite career is something I’ve been planning for a long time. The Olympics has been my big goal for at least two years, and I said it was time to move on to things beyond cycling. It wasn’t like there was some exact moment when I decided.
You have written several columns for The Boulder Daily Camera. Are you hoping to pursue a career in writing or journalism?
It’s an option and something I love. But journalism isn’t any easier to get into than professional women’s cycling. It’s not a salaried job either so it’s not something that I’d want to necessarily pursue as my full-time vocation. I don’t know what will happen. We’ll see what opportunities present themselves.
Do you want to write about your experiences in cycling?
I’d like to. I would never do a traditional sports memoir. I think a book about my stories from bike racing wouldn’t be terribly marketable or terribly interesting. It would only be interesting to people who are into bike racing. I’d like to write about [cycling] from a broader context, in terms of how cycling reflects other aspects of life. If you write about something that describes the lessons you learned and that is relevant to people outside of the cycling world, then that might work.
How do you see women’s cycling going forward?
It needs to become sustainable in its own right. You can’t expect someone to put on a race just because cycling is pretty to watch. It needs to become economically viable for promoters and watched by people. Cycling needs to become a legitimate and sustained advertising option for sponsors. As long as it rests on goodwill, cycling is not going to be able to grow at a sustainable pace because you’re depending on someone with money.
What are some lasting lessons you will take away from pro racing?
Honestly, there were so many from all of the frustrating situations. At some point there’s a moment when you realize bike racing is never going to be this romantic, easy thing. You think every team is going to be perfect, and no team is perfect. You win a race and think it’s going to be easy to win this race next time. And of course it never is. There’s never a magical perfect team or a magical perfect race. And every year you have to decide whether you’re going to do it another year. So you just commit to what you’re doing and try to make it worth it.