Velo Awards: Mara Abbott, North American Woman of the Year

On the strength of her Comeback of the Year, Mara Abbott rides away from 2013 as Velo's Women's Stage Racer and Climber of the Year

The true wonder of Mara Abbott’s season is that it very nearly didn’t happen at all.

Abbott battled back from early retirement due to an eating disorder and general unhappiness with the sport, but she didn’t just return to racing. She asserted herself as a climber of reference in the women’s peloton, picking up right where she left off, at the highest level: winning the Giro Rosa, the women’s Giro d’Italia.

For Abbott, who at times seems to be at odds with her position in what she calls the “bike world,” the season was one of confirmation and enjoyment.

“I don’t think I went into the season having a plan, because I don’t think I knew how I was going to feel coming back. And so, in the large picture, the whole season was following event after event and taking things as they led me places. Which isn’t too bad of a way to go through life,” she told Velo. “I really enjoyed the season. It was exciting to be able to come back and have the sport accept me back, and to accept myself in that role again. So it was really exciting to be able to make a comeback — and actually make a comeback.”

In addition to the Giro win, where she won two stages and the mountain classification in addition to the overall, she won the overall at the Tour of the Gila and the San Dimas Stage Race. It’s not hard to believe she earned such results, as Abbott is one of the best climbers in the world. But it’s a feat, considering that in 2011 she wanted so badly to escape cycling that she began to limit her eating and quite literally fade away, as opposed to simply quitting.

“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” she said.

“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 benefi t to people, and what on earth am I doing?”

After a break, she thought of coming back, and it proved somewhat easy. Abbott approached Nicola Cranmer, who runs the Exergy 2016 team, and said 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. This year, she raced for the team outright, and to great success.

“I’m most proud of just the way I was able to handle the sport mentally. Coming into it, there was a lot less drama, and everything was simpler. And I was able to release that pressure, and was just able to ride and really not take on the extra stress and the extra drama that people often tend to take on as cyclists — especially cyclists who have high expectations on them. I was most proud of the way I was able to approach the sport mentally, and what that showed me for the future,” she said.

Asked if there was a single moment that defined her season, she said no, that the entire calendar was a “process.”

“I don’t know if there was a moment. Like I said, it was a process. You go to the first race, and it’s, like, ‘All right, well, how does this feel?’ It wasn’t that there was an epiphany. I just started biking again and the pieces fit together and it made sense. But I don’t think I ever had a moment where I decided I was back, or not back. It was just a process, and it all worked out,” she said.

Indeed, it did.

Editor’s Note: In addition to the North American Woman of the Year, Abbott’s 2013 season netted her Velo’s Women’s Stage Racer and Climber of the Year, and Comeback of the Year awards. Read about all of our award winners in the December 2013 issue of Velo, out now.