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Looking back on the Giro Rosa: Mara Abbott’s career-defining wins in Italy

Ten years ago, Mara Abbott became the first American to win the Giro Rosa.

The last ten editions of the Giro Rosa have been won by either an American or a Dutchwoman. The latter is easy to believe, yet the former defies usual logic.

In 2010, Mara Abbott became the first rider from the United States to wear the race’s signature maglia rosa. Earlier this year, we sat down with the retired racer to discuss what winning the Giro Rosa meant to her career.

VeloNews: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say ‘Giro Rosa’?

Mara Abbott: The Giro Rosa was everything. That was the reason that I was a cyclist. I absolutely adored doing the Giro. For us, it’s the biggest race so there’s the prestige. It’s absolutely wild, you never know what’s going to happen. You have to be thinking and on it all the time.

It demanded the most of me. As long as I live, I will miss doing the Giro. I’ll never not miss doing it.

VN: What do you think of the length? At 10 days, the Giro Rosa is the longest race on the women’s calendar.

MA: I love that. By the end, you’re pretty worn out. I never had a lot of sprint or power, and I got tired more slowly than a lot of people. Other people would get tired more quickly than I did. The more tired people got, the more to my advantage. Day one was far more dangerous to me than day 10.

It was like, ‘If you’re not completely wasted then what the hell were you doing?’

The emotional exhaustion always took me by surprise. Especially in the leader jersey. That night when we finished, the team would want to go out and celebrate, but I just wanted to go to the room by myself. I was so emotionally spent.

VN: We’ve all heard mixed reviews on the professionalism of the race organization. How did that manifest on the ground? 

MA: It could be very complicated, so having a great staff is amazing. On the national team and trade teams both were great. The race has a history of horribly long transfers, accommodations are hit or miss. Sometimes, there’d be terrible hotels where the air conditioner didn’t work, and the power goes out, and other times you were in super nice hotels. It ran the gamut. Same with the racing, you never knew what you were going to get. Because it’s in July and really hot, I’d start looking at hotel assignments, ‘Do they have AC?’ If they didn’t, I could mentally prepare. 

It is [stressful]. But if you can accept that stuff and roll with it, it gives you an advantage. If you can just focus on the 3-4 hours of racing and accept that everything else is out of your control you have a huge advantage.

VN: Same thing goes for the course markings and elevation profiles – I’ve heard that they can be sketchy at best. Did you experience that? 

MA: The last two years I did it, I had the good fortune of having Italian teammates which helped. Sometimes the profiles look flat with a tiny bump in it, and it’s a devastating wall of a climb. I would go through and map out every stage turn-by-turn on Map My Run because it was the only way to get an accurate elevation profile.

I’m assuming that it might be more user friendly now.

There were times that mile markers would be inaccurate in middle of race. I thought we were 20k to go and now, ‘Oh, we’re 20k to go again.’

To be successful as a racer, especially in those big long races you have to be OK with not knowing what’s coming yet. To have a soul-reset day after day. Yea, it was challenging, but it demanded your full presence. It was ridiculous and it made some people crazy.

VN: Most memorable stage?

MA: It’s all just so vivid. 

2010 – Chiavenna to Livigno. I got in a fight with the team director the night before. He told me that I was no good, that I wouldn’t be able to win the race, was a disappointment. So I was like, ‘I wanna go for it.’

Emma Pooley, I ended up dropping her, finishing in this miraculous town, taking pink at 23 years old. When you think about turning into a fairy princess, that was it. The entire world was magic. The next day we finished on the top of Stelvio. Those were moments when I knew that I had the race, and I knew that I could win it. Those days — I can’t describe that feeling.

VN: What did those Giro Rosa wins mean to you? How are they different from winning other WorldTour events?

MA: When I talk about the whole experience of being able to be there, it was like going to a different universe. There’s nothing I’ve accomplished that comes even close to winning Giro. Part of it is that it’s a process of 10 days. It’s like living in another world for 10-14 days. I don’t think there’s anything I’ve ever experienced in my life like that.

The years that I lost and had particularly devastating moments in those losses — the depth of that — how deep you are in it, whether you’re winning or losing, that’s what makes it so extraordinary.