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Mara Abbott: Dark horse, or outright favorite, to win worlds?

A win in Florence for the American would make her 2013 season one of the most amazing comebacks in modern cycling

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FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — She’s never stood on the podium at a world championship. She’s not her country’s current national road or time trial champion. And two of her Team USA teammates finished third and fourth in the world time trial championship on Tuesday, proving they, too, are worthy contenders.

Yet American Mara Abbott arrived in Florence on Tuesday as one name that stands tall on a short list of potential road race winners.

Abbott, who walked away from racing during the 2012 season, has returned with a vengeance this year, winning the mountainous, eight-stage Giro d’Italia Femminile, the most demanding stage race on the pro women’s calendar.

She returns to Florence hoping to pull off a once-in-a-lifetime “Italian double” — overall victory at the women’s Giro and a world road championship in the same season.

Abbott’s path to the start line in Florence hasn’t been easy. A national road champion at the age of 21, Abbott, who turns 28 in November, has had struggles with eating disorders, and has found herself disenchanted with the life of a professional bike racer.

She won the women’s Giro in 2010, but a perfect storm of issues — a switch in teams in 2011, to Diadora-Pasta Zara, a lack of motivation, and struggles with anorexia — led her to quit racing following that year’s Giro Donne, where she finished a disappointing 10th overall. She spent 2012 in Boulder, doing yoga and figuring out what was next.

As it turned out, bike racing was still in her blood. Chasing the dream of a gold medal in Rio di Janeiro in 2016, she returned this year with Exergy Twenty16, winning the overall at both the Giro and the Tour of the Gila. Her bid for a third national road title was cut short when a puncture and botched wheel change killed her solo attack with 15 kilometers remaining.

Earlier this month, catastrophic floods in Abbott’s native Boulder, Colorado, washed away her hallowed mountainous training roads, forcing her to restructure her training plan at the last minute. It was upsetting, and disruptive, but Abbott said it might have ended up helping her worlds preparation.

“My coach [Dean Golich] gave me some workouts to do on the trainer,” Abbott said. “And everyone knows I can climb, so taking two weeks to work on things other than climbing may have been a blessing in disguise.”

Trapped at home by the floods, the owner of the yoga studio Abbott frequented for five years was unable to open shop, and was ultimately forced to close its doors. In the span of a weekend, Abbott had lost two vital outlets that brought her spiritual and physical calm.

“I really had to spend the last few weeks focusing, and keeping those things that sustain me in mind,” Abbott said. “I am wanting to go to worlds with the intention of honoring all of those things that brought me to where I am — those things that are currently hurting.”

Even on Monday, Abbott’s flight from Denver to Frankfurt was delayed by five hours; she spent two hours standing in line, with her race bike in tow, and was left scrambling to make it Florence before nightfall on Tuesday evening in order to get in a critical post-flight spin of the legs.

On a connecting flight from Frankfurt to Florence, Abbott learned that her U.S. teammates Carmen Small and Evelyn Stevens had finished third and fourth in the world TT championship. Because Abbott hasn’t yet seen the 16km road race circuit, which features two climbs in the neighboring town of Fiesole, she was hesitant to comment on her own status as a pre-race favorite.

The first climb, San Domenico, is 4.3km long, with an average gradient of 5.2 percent and a maximum of nine percent; the second, Via Salviati, is just 600 meters in length, averaging 10 percent and maxing out at 16 percent. In between the two is a technical 5km descent, and after the final climb up Via Salviati is a 5km downhill run in to the finish in Florence. The elite women will start in Montecatini Terme, ride 57km to Fiesole, and do the 16km circuit five times, for a total of 140km, or 87 miles.

“I haven’t seen the course yet,” she said. “I’ve heard a lot about it. I’ve heard it’s a little bit technical, and it sounds like it will be a really hard race. I think the results of the time trial show that we have a strong team. We’ve pulled an amazing group of girls together, and I’m excited to see what we can accomplish.”

Saturday’s road race will mark Abbott’s third time racing at worlds; the first was in 2007, in Stuttgart, Germany; the last was in 2009, in Mendrisio, Switzerland. Neither worlds appearance yielded a significant result for Abbott.

And as is the case seemingly every year at worlds, all eyes will be on Dutch rider Marianne Vos, a two-time world road champion who has also finished second an astonishing five times. Though Abbott has proven she can outperform Vos on long, sustained climbs — such as at the Giro Donne — the shorter climbs in Fiesole are a different story.

The last summit on the worlds course comes 5km from the finish. Will it be enough to distance Vos? Abbott couldn’t say how she might avoid going to the line with the faster finisher, who is, like Peter Sagan, also a capable climber.

“I think it plays to the fact that our team has depth,” Abbott said. “You want to be able to have options. If it’s a hard race, you want to be the team that has the most cards to play at the end.”

Most importantly, though, Abbott said that through all the obstacles and hurdles, she’s been able to keep perspective.

“My head is in a much more level place,” she said. “I’m much less reactive. I’m tuned into where I am and what’s important. In the big picture, I know that I have a great coach, a great support system, a great place to train, and I’ve been doing this a while now. I know how to train. And maybe I’m just more aware of what’s good this year. I’m more stable, more focused, and more confident in what I can and cannot achieve.”

What Abbott can — or cannot — achieve on Saturday could well determine whether 2013 proves to be the best season in her turbulent career, as well as one of the most amazing comeback stories in modern cycling.