Embracing Her World: Mara Abbott
I wrote this article originally for ROAD Magazine in 2013 but it was altered and released at a later date with none of my original content and without my knowledge. I’m not particularly a fan of Mara Abbott, but I can relate to her story, which is why I wrote this.
Chris Boardman was known for his scientific approach to cycling and the former World Champion and world hour record holder mastered the ability to maximize his results based on quantifiable efforts. Following a day of cycling in the French Alps and upon hearing the spirited conversation around him dissecting the experience, Boardman deadpanned “if you’re enjoying this, you’re doing something wrong.” Known for his dry wit, he was hardly trying to be funny, and would probably agree with himself, even nine years later. “This” of course, is cycling, and understanding Boardman’s analytical mind, the definition of wrong versus right is clear, if not a bit of a downer. A rider who had immense success in a sport that he didn’t particularly enjoy, yet meticulously dissected, Boardman simply discovered where his threshold of pain lay. The paradox of pain equals pleasure lies at the very foundation of cycling, and is a threshold any rider who wants to find success in the sport needs to cross. But how that cyclist handles the other side of the threshold can go a long way in determining if Boardman’s words ring true. One cyclist who would most likely debate Boardman’s hyperbole is two time national champion and current Wiggle Honda rider Mara Abbott. After quitting the sport in 2011, Abbott returned in 2013 with the same beautiful smile but a fresh approach and a newly minted advantage that is her secret weapon-herself.
Wanting to save the world is both an inherently ambitious and severely flawed goal, but no one would blame Mara Abbott for thinking she was capable upon graduating from Whitman College in 2008. There are plenty of environmental benefits associated with cycling, and Abbott set out with the ideology that her athletic goals would mesh with her greater desire to tread lightly on the planet. Discovering it brought Abbott confusion, resentment and indecision at a time when she had developed into one of the top cyclists in the world. While experiencing success that included the 2010 Giro Donne title, Abbott seemed to be following Boardman’s words, and in doing everything right on the bike, found she wasn’t enjoying herself. The situation however, was far more complicated than right versus wrong and pain equals pleasure. Her meteoric rise within the professional ranks that began in 2007 was built on an athletic foundation that manifested itself in her first World Cup race in Montreal, where she says she “played her rapidly expiring anonymity card” and concluded with a National Championship jersey. If she wasn’t necessarily saving the world, she was at the very least succeeding as an athlete. “My early success was more than anything a product of being an athlete. I had a wonderful coach in Boulder who taught me how to be a professional and I took my role as an athlete seriously, so the success came naturally and I had the mindset to play that role and accept that success.” The internal conflict wasn’t percolating inside Abbott yet, and the success of her first season as a professional is recalled with a reflective tone and matter of fact humility. “Success in Montreal didn’t bring the happiness; it was more a result from a process that brings joy. If you like riding your bike, success is imminent. I was enjoying riding my bike and the process that went into being a professional cyclist, so my happiness produced a level of success.” This success was good enough to secure her a two year contract with the top women’s team in the world for 2008, HTC-Columbia.
In the larger scope of existence, it is certainly an objective to find joy and happiness in one’s pursuits. Success comes more naturally to some, but all who embrace opportunity have a degree of commitment that fuels the desire for achievements. Accomplishing these achievements is assumed to bring contentment along with the success and adoration from the arena of practice. This is often not, if ever rarely, the case, and this is exacerbated in cycling, a sport that is filled with a multitude of variables. How one handles disappointment, failure- at either a real or perceived level- aids in developing the character of an athlete in their pursuit of success. In 2008, Abbott’s secret was out, and she was now racing as one of the most feared climbers in the peloton, and was succeeding, winning the Queen of the Mountains and second overall at the Giro Donne while embracing the professional atmosphere of the team. “HTC-Columbia was awesome and the team took such great care of their athletes. They had excellent resources and it was impressive how well everything was managed.” But success has its razor sharp edge, and brings with it the burden of expectations and misperceptions. “Racing with unrealistic expectations is easy. It’s difficult to perceive how hard something is until you have to try to accomplish it again. Winning my first national championship was easy because I had nothing to gauge how hard it was against. It was winning the second one that was harder because now I questioned if I had the effort in me to meet the challenge.” After two seasons, Abbott and HTC-Columbia parted ways, and the connections to her hometown of Boulder, CO made her decision to stay at home easy. “They were preparing to be set up full time in Europe, and I didn’t want to leave my home in Boulder. Being home and a part of my community was very important.” With the splendor of her beloved Rocky Mountains at her feet and entering her fourth year as a professional, Abbott had climbed her way to the top and was primed to take over the cycling world as part of the Peanut Butter & Co. TWENTY12 team.
Regardless of what perceptions may tell us, in cycling, you’re either a climber or you’re not. If you’re genetically gifted and you’re a great climber, then the perception is success and the joy that comes with the experiences comes easier and more often. There are few places more passionate about cycling than Italy, and the Giro d’Italia is a race that holds the country sporting hostage for three weeks every May. The women’s version is held every July, and is consumed with equal amounts of passion from the tifosi. Abbott displayed no fear in conquering the challenges that came with her established position as the U.S.’s top rider as her overall win at Tour of the Gila and her second national title confirmed. As part of the USA Cycling team, Abbott became the first American woman to win the Giro Donne, and cemented her legacy as a climber by winning the two mountain stages, including the finale on the legendary Passo dello Stelvio. She was at this point, literally and figuratively, as high as she would get. There is a photo of her on the podium-closed eyes, raised arms and radiant smile- that defines the joy of success at this moment. “In 2010, the joy I experienced winning the Giro Donne was in a different way. I was more aware of my strengths and I had a deeper understanding of what I possessed as ability. I was able to exhibit control and find flow in situations that helped me step back and slow down, detach and be analytical. It was an exercise is mastering myself, and it worked, and there was happiness in succeeding in that.” In a whirlwind span of four seasons and at the age of only 25, the ambitious Abbott had authoritatively stamped her image on the sport of women’s cycling and created an opportunity for herself that only two years earlier she was not willing to do- race full time in Europe. “I felt the natural progression in the sport was to race in Europe. The opportunity was there to sign for a big team. I also felt I had experienced success with the USA Cycling program, and that it was right to move on in order to give the same opportunity I was afforded to a young cyclist. It was time to grow up and the next logical step was to race in Europe.” If it is true that growing up is hard to do, then it’s the growing pains Abbott was about to experience that brought it all down to earth. How comforting her world she embraced would be to her only time, in small increments, would tell.
If hindsight is 20/20 then foresight must be like x-ray vision. While reflecting back on something always makes one seem wiser, the question always remains that if you knew what was coming, what would you change. It is never until you’ve been through it that it all makes sense, and it is how one handles the opportunities that help precipitate change that contribute to one’s awareness and a deeper understanding of one’s self. For a cyclist, the changing of the seasons typically brings time to reflect on accomplishments and establish goals for the upcoming year. For Abbott, heading out of 2010, this wasn’t the case. “I had won the Giro but I wasn’t experiencing the joy of the result as I had expected. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, even with the level of success I was experiencing.” Abbott’s indecision was creating discomfort and a level of internal turmoil that slowly became combustible. “Everyone thought something of me, and I was thinking something different of myself. I was struggling with my role in the sport and there was a huge disconnect between the world I was living in and the life I wanted. I felt I was living the lie.“ The lie was growing, and Abbott was unsatisfied with her contributions, not as a cyclist, but as a citizen and an environmentalist. Addressing the negative impact cycling was having on her was presenting an overwhelming challenge that was about to disrupt her career and redirect her life. “I was conflicted with my choice to be a cyclist. I’ll admit, I’ve always felt I wanted to save the world. Cycling at this point was merely what I was doing temporarily, until I went back to school. I was unhappy with how destructive cycling was to the environment and that I was a part of that destruction. I was successful, but I had not accomplished the things I wanted to do out of college, which was to have an impact on environmental policy. I asked myself what I was doing.” The questions that generated her struggle she kept inside, and misperceptions continued to mount about whom she was, what she was and how fortunate she was. In the pursuit of a purpose, its rare if ever that being told you’re something by someone else ever has a happy ending. This was only the beginning.
As Abbott broke camp with the Italian Diadora-Pasta Zara-Manhattan team, the perception was one of a highly motivated climbing specialist hell bent on defending her Giro title in front of her now adopted home crowd. The reality smelled of something different, if only to Abbott. “Heading into 2011, I was not that optimistic. I wasn’t super motivated. As the racing and obligations grew, I was the face of the team, and it’s not what I wanted.” Abbott seemingly willed herself to a second place overall at the Tour of the Gila, and in preparation for the Nationals, a training crash resulted in a concussion that put her out of competition. “I was set for a big block of racing after nationals leading up to the Giro and I didn’t want to do it. Everyone was saying how lucky I was, and how great I was. And I didn’t want to be that, I just wanted to disappear. A broken leg would’ve spelled it out better than a concussion.” It was time for Abbott to speak up, and if it wasn’t going to be with words, it would be in the manner that she spoke the loudest with, and that was through her performance. The silence she was living with was becoming too much of a burden. “It was a falling out with the sport of cycling and the coping mechanisms to get myself noticed were in my eating. If no one could see I was unhappy, I was going to make them see, physically.” Abbott’s struggle with what has been labeled an eating disorder has been well documented. But unlike many cyclists who obsess over the proportion of calories consumed calculated against the amount of calories burned, and the idea that the lighter a rider is the faster they will go uphill, Abbott’s dilemma was different. “It wasn’t an active decision at the time to use my eating to weaken myself. In looking back, I can see how instead of trying to accelerate my career, I wanted to derail it. If I didn’t know how to say I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing, then I would show everyone. The message to myself was if I didn’t eat, I wouldn’t have the strength to be very good. If I became mediocre, I could just slip away, and that is what I wanted.” For an athlete, and more importantly a person, as ambitious and conflicted as Mara was, to accept mediocrity meant there was certainly an enormous problem that only she was going to be able to solve. This would summon a greater amount of self reliance and perseverance than any bike race could ever present, and like it or not, she was about to confront-and eventually change- everything she was struggling with.
Self-doubt, fear of disappointing people, feeling conflicted with one’s profession are all poisonous elements that counter the healthy, athletic perception that cycling carries. These toxins swirled around Abbott as she struggled to understand not only her chosen career, but the path her life was on. Not having control of her future, not knowing what would happen next, and not embracing who she was all contributed to Abbott being unwilling to accept that her chosen profession of cycling, at the moment, was indeed, reflective of her personality. The eating disorder was a manifestation of this and necessitated change in a brutal manner. “The first time the issue of anything related to an eating disorder was raised in 2009 at HTC Columbia. Like everyone, I had my nervous habits and coping mechanisms, but the team felt I was showing symptoms that could potentially lead to a problem.” Following a disappointing Giro in which she finished 10th overall, Abbott decided she’d had enough. “I quit. I wasn’t clear on what I wanted to do away from the sport, all I knew was I wanted out and it was a rock bottom exit. I tried to pick myself up by taking up trail running, but I injured my foot. It was the first time I was dealing with an injury preventing me from doing what I wanted, and I realized I wasn’t invincible.” There was a larger message to be heard, and in order to listen, Mara was forced to slow down and think about her life from a more effective position- stillness.
If there is anything redeeming about hitting rock bottom, it’s that the only way out is up, and the only person to get you out of it is yourself. Like being at the top, the time there is only temporary and offers the opportunity to implement change for those willing to embrace the solitude. In reflecting back, Abbott did just that, and emerged from the darkest period of her life with a new found sense of purpose, at least for the moment. “The one question I asked myself often is how do I make it about the things that matter deeply to me? I stopped being angry and started to appreciate who I am.” That appreciation helped Mara change her pattern of obsessive thinking from an expansive time frame that stretched into the future and included things she couldn’t control into more condensed, narrowly focused time frames where she could actively participate and control, included how to embrace the fact that she is an exceptional cyclist. “I recognized that it was ok to race my bike, its fun to compete and I enjoyed it.
I do not know yet how to make my time as a professional cyclist ideologically conscionable but it’s become my comparative advantage- I am now continually thinking about how I can leverage my strengths in this sport to make a difference. I want to be creative in forging a path in this direction.” A part of forging that path meant a return to the sport that she had fallen out of love with and had spent the better part of six months being angry at. “It was like breaking up with someone you’re in love with. At first there’s no contact because you’re still angry. After 6 or 8 months, I realized I was still in love with cycling and I didn’t want to be apart anymore.” A reborn Abbott materialized having embraced the opportunity to change the way she perceived herself, resulting in self-acceptance and embracing the world she was in. “I used to obsess about what I didn’t know or what I couldn’t control. I became ok with not knowing the other stuff and I am focused on being the best professional cyclist I can be and I am ok with that. I think racing my bike is fun.” While Chris Boardman may disagree, Abbott was prepared to resume her relationship with the sport she loved. Having lost contact with the majority of people within the sport, she figured she’d pick up where she left off and placed a call to someone she felt would respond. Nicola Cranmer took her call.
Sport is filled with comebacks, and often times the motivation is questionable and rarely does the aging, once graceful star that lit up scoreboards and headlines return to their original place of grandeur. When Mara Abbott decided to return to cycling after a year hiatus, it was not with the idea of returning to her former days of glory, but with a vision towards a more balanced lifestyle both on and off the bike. “I contacted Nicola Cranmer (General Manager at Peanut Butter & Co. TWENTY12 and current General Manager at Exergy-TWENTY16) and told her if she needed any guest riders I would be available for the Aspen criterium. I went to the race and I enjoyed being in the environment and it gave me the push I needed to get back in.” This isn’t a feel good, everything is better type of comeback story. It’s more about uncovering the elements that make up the struggle in pursuit of the larger, more rewarding goal, which to Mara is not just about winning, it’s about enjoying herself and being comfortable with her commitment to her own pursuit of excellence. Dealing with destructive emotional issues and an eating disorder is not something that “goes away”, much like trying to manage anxiety or self-doubt. It’s more likely it never disappears, but it’s in how one learns to manage it that makes the difference. “I still and always will have my nervous habits and my coping mechanisms, it’s who I am. The difference is I now know when I am being destructive and when I am coping.” She credits her Colorado Springs based coach Dean Golich with helping her understand that not everything is a big deal. “I am focused now on the process of trying to be the best in the world at what I am doing. It’s a blessing and a curse. I dedicate myself to pursuing a life of excellence.” Restructuring not only her goals but how she views her life has resulted in more rewarding moments for Abbott, both on and off the bike, which is filled with self-awareness. “I know when to push and when to stop. I know when I am on a good day and when I’ve had enough, and I accept both. This is self-knowledge I didn’t used to have.” This is a powerful tool for Abbott to add to her arsenal, not only a competitive edge for the cyclist in her, but a key component in her life moving forward.
This July Mara will return to Italy with the USA Cycling squad to race the Giro Donne. In a way, it’s coming full circle for the 2010 winner, though it’s hardly viewed with the same pressure that 2011 brought as the defending champion. “We’re going with a great team and a lot of motivation and I am really excited,” was how she described it.
“I quit bike racing because I was pretty sure that it would solve all of my problems. It didn’t, so I still had all of the same problems and I missed bike racing. I still don’t have any idea what my grand purpose in the universe is, but in the meantime, bike racing is as good a way to chase excellence as anything!” With a new found mentality and a return to the sport she loves, I was hard pressed not to ask her if she had hopes for racing the World Championships in Italy, acknowledging how it could present the opportunity to shine in front of the people she endeared herself to on the Stelvio. She said that was too far in the future to be concerned with. “I used to obsess over not knowing the other stuff, the future and my purpose and how I was going to pursue my life’s meaning. Now, I’m ok with giving my best and knowing that I am working at excelling at what I am good at, and right now that is racing my bike. In five years, it may be something different, and the difference is now I can accept that.” Whatever Mara Abbott decides to do, the world, in so many ways, is bound to be a better place, and that is worth waiting for.