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Finding Mara Abbott: The Giro champion returns to the top

After fading away from cycling with an eating disorder, Mara Abbott gets back to racing her bike

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BOULDER, Colo. (VN) — Mara Abbott’s career trajectory would have appeared perfect to those none the wiser. She was one of those who found cycling as a training method for something else, and rocketed through the ranks to the sport’s very pinnacle. But things seldom appear as they really are, especially in professional sports.

For a time, Abbott knew who she was as an athlete. She was a swimmer, bred in Boulder, Colorado, and pressing on at Whitman College’s formidable program that churned out successful swimmers. The problem was, she wasn’t very good, or, that’s to say, up to the lofty standards the top-level competitor set for herself. In her words, she devoted hours and years, and would still get
beaten by “13-year olds.”

“I’m a person who is competitive and I want to excel,” the 27-year-old Abbott said on a shining spring afternoon in Boulder. “I had a conversation with my brother and he was an investment banker and I was talking to him, and we talked about how special it is to try and do something with the goal of being the best in the world.”

Clearly, for Abbott, that wasn’t swimming. She had picked up cycling as a means to stay fit, and in that, her body and her competitive spirit found its most perfect athletic expression: winning bike races. As a freshman in her first year on the cycling team, she won a collegiate national title.

“It was a small team. We were all really, really close. You get back from the race weekends and you would miss your teammates,” Abbott said. “That was a really special experience. It took me another good three or four years before I finally decided to stop trying to be a swimmer and allowed myself to be a cyclist full-time.”

That bit of self indulgence, by her senior year of college, 2007, saw her racing for the Webcor Builders team, winning the elite national road title, and gracing the cover of this magazine. After that, she signed with the all-star Columbia-HTC women’s team. In her second year on the Columbia squad, she finished second at the Giro Donne, won the mountains classification, and took a stage win. Her promise turned into results, her athletic identity clear — at least for the moment.

Though it was the world’s top team, the HTC team wasn’t a good fit, and Abbott moved to the Peanut Butter & Co. team for 2010. An uncompromising campaign followed. She won the pink jersey at the Giro Donne, the first American to win the fabled race, as well as a second national road championship and overall victories at the Tour of the Gila and Cascade Classic.

Still, all was not well. In talking to Abbott, it’s clear that she wrestles with her life as a bike racer, with the environmental impacts of bike racing — professional cycling is a ghastly proposition from an environmental perspective — and the need to do more as a human being. There is a conflict between doing what she excels at, and doing what she sees as a calling. She’s a remarkably complex character, at times teeming with a Zen approach to winning and losing, saying, “It’s not about winning everything and being perfect, but it is about using everything as an opportunity to further yourself towards your goals.”

But Abbott also displays a clear need to be a winner. “At its root it’s this goal of knowing how good you can be, and holding yourself accountable to that, and trying to be the best at what you’re doing,” she said.

After her tremendous success in 2010, she switched over to the Italian team, Diadora-Pasta Zara, and somewhere in the tumult she began to lose her way, to lose sight of her goals, her aspirations, and her sense of purpose.

Fading away

Abbott hoped to simply fade away. Not make a scene, not be a problem, not attract attention. Just shrink into a different version of herself, one the sport wouldn’t notice losing.

At its worst, it was never an outright assault on those around her, or the people who cared for her — just a slow fade, or what she called “the easy way out.” It was a passive self-destruction, the loudest of protests, made without a sound.

“Rather than standing up for myself and saying, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m not happy here and I’ve got to figure it out,’ I sort of said to myself, ‘Hey, maybe if I disappear, I can just get out of that without having to do all that hard thinking.’ And so, in many ways, except for the fact that it was very unhealthy and kind of emotionally challenging, it made perfect sense. It was a great idea except for the fact that it wasn’t.”

Instead of just capitulating and walking away, she sank into a self-sabotage that saw her waste away, physically, by consciously under-eating so that her veiled anorexia would slowly reduce her to a point of competitive irrelevance. Unhappy with her new team, and uncertain of her place in the sport, Abbott employed the tactic — something she likened to “body-sulking,” with characteristic, but saddening, success.

“I didn’t know how to articulate what I was feeling, but it wasn’t the place that I wanted to be in and I didn’t really know how to get out of it,” Abbott said. “I’m devoting my life to [cycling], and I know there are things that I could do that would have benefit to people, and what on earth am I doing?”

At 5-foot-5 and 115 pounds, there’s not much of Abbott to start with. She possesses the physique of someone whose body has endured years of sport-specific training and has the fine edge of a competitor. She said it was easy to become too thin to perform at the top level — pro bike racers burn so many calories, all she had to do was not eat enough, rather than stop eating completely.

“The thinner I got, the weaker I got. I knew I didn’t mean to be thinner, but frankly my goal was not to race stronger, my goal was to race poorly so the ‘bike world’ would just leave me alone, and let me leave,” she said. “You’re sitting there saying, ‘Well, I’m not sure I want to do this,’ and everyone in the cycling world is saying, ‘You know, you’ve had this storybook career, you achieved everything that you’ve wanted to, it’s just been this natural next thing to the next thing, and there are lots of people who would kill to be in that position.’ And I’m sitting here saying I don’t want it, and so how do you work that one out, and how do you rationalize that?”

Her plan, of course, worked. She slowly starved herself off the front of the peloton, and her results reflected it. She raced only a few times in 2011, and her best result came at Gila, where she finished second. A year after winning the Giro, she finished 10th.

“I didn’t feel awesome, but I didn’t feel terrible, but also I didn’t want to be doing what I was doing, and so I didn’t feel good being there. I was, like, ‘I don’t want to be here, I don’t feel good,’” Abbott said.

The trouble is, it was hard to tell she was in a self-imposed caloric deficit, because in cycling, razor-thin is fast, and acceptable, and too often encouraged.

“There are people in the cycling world who look at you and they’re like, ‘Oh, my, god, you’re so thin, you’re so thin,’ and you’re, like, ‘That’s gross, because no, I’m not, I’m not, I’m not healthy at all, I’m so unhealthy,’” Abbott said. “It’s less from your stomach or from your ego, or any of these things, and it was just like a voice. It’s about not being able to say what you want to say, and so you’re acting it out. And you’re saying, ‘I’m uncomfortable in this situation, I really just want to disappear and I don’t know how to get out of it.”

Her results were enough to effectively end her rise to cycling stardom, in just the way she had hoped, with no noise, no fanfare at all.

“I didn’t perform as well as I think the team had hoped. The [Diadora] team never called me again, so they sent me back to America and, to this day, I’ve never heard from them again,” she said. “I mean, you think you have all these people knocking down your door with contracts, but that’s … you really have to do the pursuing and I didn’t do any pursuing.”

It was only after USA Cycling contacted her that she even told anyone that she’d quit. No big announcement, no toast, no nothing for the two-time national road race champion.

“It wasn’t as if there was anybody to answer to; I didn’t go to another race, and nobody ever asked,” Abbott said.

She returned home to Boulder, and stayed there almost exclusively. She dabbled in triathlon, and picked up trail running. She never stopped riding a bike though. In fact, she rode her bike the day she got back from the Giro Donne. Abbott had, for all intents and purposes, quit the sport. As she waded through recovery from anorexia, she did it mostly on her own, and she waited out the painful echoes.

“I never found anyone,” she said. “And it was almost one of those things that, like, when you’re sick, you can take 100 herbal remedies, but sometimes you just have to wait it out. And so for me, because it was brought on situationally, I had to wait for the habits, and the thought patterns, and stuff to unwind, and it just took a while.”

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.