Mara Abbott: Roots are important

The importance of racing at home

Roots are important. Athletes do not compete just for themselves or for glory - at the very least I would have trouble believing that type of autonomously predicated career could be terribly long-lived in its success. Competition, I think, is a tribute to the people we love, the causes that matter to us, and the places we are proud to represent. Ironically, that same devotion is what makes it so challenging on the road to live apart from them. Sometimes, we all need a small touch of homeland to remember what we are fighting for.

When he read the Wiggle-Honda roster for 2015, my big brother swore that Elisa Longo Borghini must have been a former teammate because he knew her name. As it so happens, we traced the recollection to the fact that he dropped in from a Swiss mountain biking vacation to catch the San Domenico stage of the 2014 Giro - that one that finishes on Elisa's home climb. As her competitor, I too remember the constant cheering refrain of her name. When I was formally introduced to her "fan club" this year in Cittiglio, I discovered that I had failed to notice the t-shirts and songs they had also prepared.

Wiggle pegged our March visit to Cholet as a race for Audrey Cordon, our charming French native. Not only was it a perfect course for her physically, but it was also a meaningful opportunity for her to succeed in her own country. We met some of her family before the race, saw her speechless joy at the successful home victory, and heard rumours of the surprise party that her dad proudly organised and had waiting for his daughter that night.

My favourite part of watching my teammates win the Ronde van Drenthe was seeing victorious birthday girl Jolien hug her parents afterwards. Yes, technically I recognise the slight Dutch-Belgian disconnect in this example, but from my angle the countries are right next to each other - and both are fairly windy and rainy. Right? Right??

If nothing else, winning where they speak your native language at least gives you better odds of a coherent post-race media quote.

Elite sport is not exactly the most relatable lifestyle for the general population. My best friends support what I do because they care about me - but many have no concept of what exactly happens on my frequent disappearances from town. The chance to share, in a tangible way, our obscure lives with loved ones is an unbelievable privilege. Before each race, I always console myself: "my mom will love me no matter what happens!" When my parents traveled to watch the Florence World Championships, I could hardly believe that "no matter what", Momma would physically be there to hug me on the finish line.

Cyclists in general probably manage to retain a greater sense of connection to the land than most in our modern society of air conditioning and four-season grocery stores, simply as a function of time spent outdoors on our roads and trails. I have confessed it before - my favourite climbs are like friends. A sense of place creates pride in our relationship with the land. In the same way that it is an honour to show off our sport to our friends, it is an honour to show off our home to the rest of the peloton - only I have never been able to do that.

Yet.

After the Trofeo Binda World Cup, I flew straight from Milano to the bizarre white tents of Denver International Airport, where I was picked up in an orange Jeep Wrangler and whisked into the mountains. The next morning I found myself on the 6am news in the ski town of Breckenridge, orange sun rising over my snowy Rocky Mountains in the background. Homeland. The occasion for my visit was the formal announcement of a women's race at the US Pro Challenge this August. If you missed the news, this is huge and unprecedented - we are not talking a some cursory exhibition. They promised three full stages, and (as we learned for the first time on live television) equal prize money to men and women.

I cried in the press conference.

After all, I'’m the girl whose "travel outfit" is my Colorado tank top under my Colorado hoodie with a phone, iPod, coffee mug, water bottle and backpack that all bear patches or stickers with variations on my home state's flag. That, and my "Boulder Rocks!" headband. I cannot express how long I have dreamed of competing on an international stage in my beloved state.

Yet excitement at a dream come true was not the only cause for my emotion - I choked up looking at those with whom I shared the microphone. I have known Sean Petty for years through USA Cycling, and he now stood next to me as the women's race director. Witholding hope that this day would ever come, I gracelessly had not even known he had assumed the position. Shawn Hunter, CEO of the men's race, respectfully talked eye-to-eye with me about my vision of the race. Representatives from the host towns of Breckenridge, Golden and Fort Collins all spoke about what it means to their communities to have a women's race - I couldn't possibly explain to them what it means to me to have that validation of my profession.

Next came two astonishing women of the cycling world. Shannon Galpin is the author of a book, Mountain to Mountain, and works to empower women in Afghanistan by helping them to ride and even race bicycles in a culture where that is virtually taboo, granting them never before experienced opportunity and autonomy. Whitney Shultz, in the 2012 edition of the US Pro Challenge, organised a criterium for women in Fort Collins the same day as the men's finish. As a racer, she didn't wait for someone else to hand her a dream - she created it for herself a hundred other women.

I had arrived in Breckenridge exhausted - half of my brain lagged behind in Cittiglio and the other half was rushing ahead for a hug from my dad in Boulder. Yet I was wrenched into the present - flat out humbled by gratitude. The promise of this race is the greatest gift I could ask for as a cyclist - and its organisers thought enough of me to let me share the stage with individuals who do enough for the sport to make my pedaling fast in circles look downright silly.

***

In any truly challenging or scary pursuit, I believe that our commitment is an affirmation of honour for the things and people we love deeply. Roots (physical or emotional) are why, for an athlete, the "home crowd" means more than just the right colours filling stadium seats. For myself, the chance to introduce my home world to the world of bike racing, and to show the world of bike racing the wonderful place I was born is a moment I have anticipated my entire career. I truly cannot believe the US Pro Challenge is going to make that happen in 2015.

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