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Mara Abbott

Me and my brother after stage 8 of the 2014 Giro Rosa

Cycling, the travelling family

By:
Mara Abbott
Published:
September 19, 2014, 12:58 BST,
Updated:
September 19, 2014, 13:16 BST

A tribute to CJ Farquharson

Family is not only our direct biological relations. The people we surround ourselves with become our chosen collective to uplift us in any situation. Traveling as a cyclist, I have realized that it becomes natural to cultivate a community of those who gather at bike races. On a foreign and imposing start line, familiar faces and personas can give surprising amounts of comfort and joy.

Probably the entire women's peloton would agree that CJ Farquharson is on of those faces. She gained my trust and gratitude early on with a few sentences and gestures, and it never failed to calm my emotions when I saw her moto in front of the race or give me extra joy to see her camera lens below a podium. CJ retired this summer, and I only hope she knows how much she has meant to us. I offer this entry as a tribute in gratitude to her bravery, kindness and dedication. If you haven't ever before, look at her beautiful and tireless work on Cyclingnews and at www.womenscycling.net.

The family we create

I have had a bit of time off from racing in August. This has left me at home with time to revel in the company of my family (my parents and my bro) and also my family (the Rocky Mountains and the friends I find there).

The cliché is that friends are the families we choose for ourselves. Reality is that throughout life we create our own kin through marriage or deep friendship. The nomadic cyclist (and that includes our support staff!) is forced to even leave his or her hand-picked family behind in a different country or across the wrong side of an ocean. We then find ourselves in places of pressure and uncertainty, in which it is only natural to crave intimacy and support. I suspect that I am not the only one to create a collective "family" that greets me at each race.

“The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other's life. Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof.” -Richard Bach

Teammates assuredly make the cut, but they do shift with each year. The collective comes to include those kindred spirits found among former teammates, past mechanics, photographers, the official who started your first race or the owner of a hotel you find yourself in year after year.

This is how I found CJ Farquharson, our angel of the women's peloton, whose smiling face and constantly enticing "look hither" gestures was one of my favorite things to see from the top of the podium. Did CJ and I know one another's life story intimately? No, but from the comments that we shared over the years I learned without a doubt that she was a) a good person, b) truly cared for me beyond cycling accolades, and c) she would be there the next day on the start line. A loving constant. What we all need.

My biological family

We are not all born into the supportive family that we will later cultivate, but in my case, I am so grateful to think I sort of won the family lottery. Although there is not a competitive athlete among the bunch, they still form the perfect base from which to follow this dream. My dad would show up to my swim meets as a kid and watch me race. I swam the mile, so this in itself was an act of unprecedented love. I would emerge from the water to hear my father crying, "That was so great!", oblivious to the dissatisfaction clearly written across my face. "Daddy, I added ten seconds," I would say. Unfazed, "Oh, but you looked so great doing it!". My mom has always assured me of her constant support of my cycling career, but "only if you're truly happy doing it. I'll love you whatever you choose. Just be a good person and take care of yourself." For myself, this unconditional love and support without pressure is just what I need to thrive. To me, they are perfect.

Anatomy of a competitor

Interestingly, though I am the first Abbott to pursue competitive athletics as a career, if you look at the key traits of each member of my family, they have each taught me one of the elements of a champion. They are my archetypes, my parables. It would appear they have collectively shaped me, each unknowingly embodying a necessary skill as they live out their personal passion. In being their unique selves, they give me the space to be mine.

My dad is the adventurous spirit, unafraid, even perhaps unaware of the possibility of failure. As a retirement project, he taught himself to snow climb and glissade back down the mountains. His chief struggle with this new hobby is that both of his able-bodied adult children are too terrified to accompany him. He brings me the love of outdoors and movement--and perhaps contributes positively to my genetic coding as he is the most muscle-bound 60+ in known human history. I remember Easter afternoon my senior year of high school when he took me bike riding up Flagstaff, our back-door mountain, for the first time. We stopped twice to rest. My mom's fear of traffic had prevented me from solo forays, but with my dad, I was safe. Adventuring. Invincible.

My mom is discipline, goal-oriented and astute. She taught me to be focused and perceptive, tuned to changes and subtleties around me but able to remain focused on where I was going. She never learned to be an athlete growing up, and the bravery she has shown growing into that role as an adult is one of my constant sources of inspiration. I remember, under a year after getting her first bike that was not solely designated for commuting, she (after a bit of cajoling) fearlessly rode--in spite of traffic, altitude gain and the fact she was riding a hybrid while I was on my road bike--up to Jamestown with me. We have a picture to prove it. She is an inspiration in focus, intelligence, and never allowing past limitations to define my future.

My big brother is the competitive, our professional debater, always irritatingly better than me at everything. He is also the optimist, with an indefatiguable certainty that absolutely everything he does is "AWESOME" or a great adventure or the next best idea EVER. He is my partner in crime on the path to greatness. In 2006, as I was a college kid in Walla Walla, WA, just beginning to bike race, he was working as an investment banker for JP Morgan in New York City. On the surface, our paths were highly divergent. Nonetheless, as we chatted over a gourmet pizza one night while I was visiting him, he revealed that while investment banking might not be his passion, he had discovered a talent for it, a competitive edge, and that "there is something special about doing something to be the best in the world at it, whatever it is". That quote remains one of the most inspirational things that has ever been said to me. He got a bike while in New York, but never really rode it. Back in Boulder for a weekend, I tried to take him on a jaunt up NCAR, a one mile long local climb. He had to stop halfway up. Since then, he has returned to Boulder, gotten into mountain biking and last summer took me on a mountain bike trip to Steamboat with a few friends. I almost died. He bested me again. We jokingly called him "Nate the Great" growing up, but my big bro reminds me to never settle.

Spirit of adventure. Astute focus. A desire for greatness. They are exactly what I, and any aspiring athlete, need.

The gift of community

We all rely on intimacy and support that goes beyond matching kits. For those of us who travel--cyclists or otherwise, we must be creative and adapt, finding the solace in our own cast of characters or spaces. It isn't an easy lifestyle, but to quote Richard Bach again, "There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands. You seek problems because you need their gifts". From the exercise of cultivating a community that allows us to succeed, we emerge more aware of our needs, adaptable to change and with a broad spectrum of family to support us. In the end, the challenge and journey is our reward.

Mara Abbott (US National Team) sprays the bubbly after retaining her lead in the Giro Rosa

Lessons of love and commitment

By:
Mara Abbott
Published:
August 05, 2014, 20:22 BST,
Updated:
August 05, 2014, 20:27 BST

Mara Abbott reflects on her Giro Rosa heartbreak

I recently competed in the Giro Rosa with my UnitedHealthcare team in hopes of defending my 2013 title. I finished fourth. Here is my story of the also-ran, complete with advice from swim coaches, yoga instructors, and little kids playing hide and seek, and with the conclusion that it's really quite a privilege to be the owner of a slightly broken heart.

Lessons of love and commitment

In the summer of 2004, my high school swim coach Grant, first taught me about what it means to truly devote yourself to a goal. Done properly, you run out of excuses because you genuinely attended to all possible details and did everything within your power to reach your mark. Clearly, this approach gives you the best odds for success--yet the peril of such a commitment is that should you not achieve your goal, you are forced to admit that at least for that one moment, you just weren't good enough. That particular summer, I devoted myself to getting my first Sectional cut in the mile freestyle. August closed with a lot of tears (just ask my poor parents) and no cut. I also finished that summer with no regrets. As much as it killed me to watch the other kids buy their plane tickets to Seattle, it freed me to know that I had truly done my best and it lifted me to realize that I had something in my life for which attainment was worth the risk of failure.

In 2010, I took a yoga workshop led by Shannon Paige and Meaghan de Roos in which we talked about root causes. Your root cause is the person, the thing, the moral construct that you would instinctively give anything for, perhaps without a coherent rationale. Sometimes you can only answer a "why?" about your root with and emphatic and unequivocal, "because". Shan and Meaghan helped us tease out our individual passions with the question, "what are the things in life that break your heart?" Like Scarlett O'Hara's Tara, those are the things "worth livin' for, worth fightin' for, worth dyin' for". We just have to figure out what they are.

In 2013 I gingerly began my comeback to cycling, and a lot of people asked if I would be doing the Giro that year. I initially refused to commit to it, saying I wanted to take the return to competition on a race by race basis. The funny thing was that even though I wouldn't say it, I somehow couldn't imagine the Giro happening and my NOT being there. It was inevitable. My victorious return that July filled me with more awe and joy than I had even thought possible.

And then it came to this summer. 2014. June.

The 2014 Giro Rosa

I absolutely adore June. June in Colorado. The days lengthen as they edge in on the solstice, and you can begin training earlier and earlier on sunrise rides. The hills are electric green. It's even warm up in the high country. Snow peas and cherries appear in the farmers' market. Flowers bloom overnight. And June holds the final weeks of training for the Giro.

I have only won the Giro twice, but it’s my belief that you could win it a million times and the experience would never approach normalcy. I can still shock myself by recollecting podiums, attacks and fragmented moments of victory, and reminding myself that they were reality. These previous successes have given me permission to train with the realistic goal of winning once again. I get to spend rides visualizing another win, feeling the strength in my legs and knowing that those are the legs, my legs, that could make it happen. I climb hills and imagine racing up them so soon. These final weeks of preparation burst with a paradoxically real and tangible potential of achieving the unimaginable. To be able to train understanding that something so great that truly MIGHT BE is an unprecedented privilege.

Overlay that on the early summer mountain landscape....June. It's magic.

I departed for Italy this year filled with that anticipation. I returned with new experiences, yes, wiser, yes, stronger, assuredly... but with no pink jersey.

The breakup

It's sort of like being in love with the guy or girl of your dreams, shouting your devotion to the entire world... and then getting dumped. Publicly. As a defending champion, most everyone knows that you aren't really shooting for second place. As an individual, my aforementioned mentors have taught me to devote myself without excuse to the things that capture my heart. I'm committed. So then when you return without the feather in your cap, everyone gives you the "you doin' alright?" smile, or maybe pretends it's not a big deal. But they know it, and I know it. On this one, I'm the metaphorical girl that got dumped.

Before the race, my current coach, Dean, reminded me how lucky I am, how lucky many of us are in this sport, to stand on the start line and feel nervous. How blessed we are to have something that matters to us that much. You might win, you might lose, but you are at no risk for complacency. You have found something that can break your heart. I get to work for that passion every day. Dean's always right. I'm lucky.

When the dust had settled on the final stage of the Giro this year, I discovered what was truly best part of the team bus UnitedHealthcare had given us to use in Italy. The bus was spacious enough that I could lie down on the seat in the way back, beyond the bathroom, beyond the storage, and put a towel over my head. I convinced myself, like a little kid hiding in a fort, that because I couldn't see anyone, they couldn't see me either, and therefore, I was sure I could spend forty minutes entirely invisible. It was awesome.

When the transfer ended however, it was time for me to take off the towel, walk off of the bus, and smile. I was with the team that brought me to Italy and seven amazing teammates, plus countless staff, who supported me and one another through every moment of those ten days. I remind myself of the relationship analogy. I may have had my heart broken, but like every helpless romantic, I haven't given up on love.

I'll be back at the Giro next July.
 

Marra Abbott (UnitedHealthcare) takes home the race winners bowl

Mara Abbott blog: My tribute to mountaintop finishes around the world

By:
Mara Abbott
Published:
June 13, 2014, 23:19 BST,
Updated:
June 13, 2014, 23:20 BST

"A mountaintop finish takes its own sweet time"

Each year, May begins with the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico. This race is one of my favorites for its wild remote terrain, for the fabulously eclectic community of Silver City and for the challenging racing. Personally, it is also important to note that it has the Mogollon- a climb from the middle-of-nowhere desert to a ghost town that is really our only true US mountaintop finish. In honor of the Tour of the Gila, the Mogollon, and its sister mountaintop finishes across the world, this post is about exactly why I love to climb mountains on my bike. The fact that I love to go uphill is probably not a secret--perhaps, though, it is time for me to explain why.


The Slow Motion Sprint

Climbing is the Slow Motion Sprint. It contains all of the intensity and strength of a speeding bunch finish, but is on time-extended replay, pedals submerged in molasses. It is the paradox of the picturesque moment that you wish would last forever, but simultaneously can't wait to have over. The idea of this "Sprint" exists in every climb, in a larger sense within a stage race, and can even be expanded universally to illustrate our lives.

Close your eyes and picture your most coveted daydream race win. Envision every detail. How long would you want that moment of victory to take? How long would you want to feel the exact second of achieving the unimaginable? You all may get on the edge of your seats to watch a sprint finish, and I'm with you on the glamor, but for us climbers, the victory salute gets to take that much longer. (As a safety side note, it is also best executed with one hand still firmly on the bars--particularly at Gila, where there is a cattle guard about five meters after the finish line.)

A mountaintop finish takes its own sweet time. The kilometer markers are sometimes more marks of derision rather than encouragement. In fact, the first two times I raced the Mogollon, the 1km to go marker was slightly misallocated closer to a mile out, simply magnifying the phenomenon. In that moment, you want nothing more than to just accelerate, get on with it, get to the finish line. It would seem enticingly simple to just GO FASTER up the hill, but I haven't actually figured out a way to do that yet. On second thought though, if I do find that magic formula I will probably have to keep that to myself.

This yearning for an end or completion exists beyond time on the bike--just like these final never-ending kilometers of a summit finish, much of our lives exists in the pulse of pressing anxiously forward with all of our strength while simultaneously wanting the moment to last forever. When I ask how long you would like to savor a victory, you might similarly question how long you want a last goodbye hug to continue, or the final pages of a beloved novel, the last rays of a florescent sunset, or the final bite of the chocolate cake.

We enjoy the win fully while taking a deep breath, then we exhale, note the lesson learned, and move on to the next adventure - Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning

The critical lesson is how to savor joy without clinging to it. When you climb, the task is made easier, because the laws of physics and gravity naturally extend each moment for you. You have no choice but to see the mountains around you in heartbreaking clarity, to feel the torque and change on momentum from each switchback. Descending, ever the favored child, may indeed give you a thrill of adrenaline; but it is when you go up the hill that you get to notice the smell of the spring lilacs and race honeybees that threateningly keep your pace, chasing you right out of your intended training zone. I have actually used that excuse with my coach before--and what's worse, I have meant it.

The 2007 Tour of Gila was the first major stage race that I ever won. It was my first observation of the fact that in many ways the experience of leading a stage race is similar to that of getting through the individual climbs it contains. Coach Dean sagely advised me to savor the moments of wearing a leaders' jersey, despite the massive temptation to wish yourself at the finish with the pressure removed. If you ask Rachel Heal (now my director on UnitedHealthcare, but at the time my teammate on Webcor Builders) for her story of the 2007 edition of the final stage, the "Gila Monster", she would say I asked roughly every thirty or forty seconds if she was sure the break up the road was still safe. I would counter that it was a maximum of maybe ten or twenty times over the course of the stage. Maybe thirty? Regardless, as much as I wanted to rush to the end that day, it was the only first leader's jersey I would ever have. Should I really speed through that experience? That is the Slow Motion Sprint on the level of an entire stage race--we move with utter passion, intensity and focus, always racing but helplessly forced to be patient and maintain precision to the end.

You can't push the river - Rumi

For a 13th-century mystic poet, Rumi has done a stunningly concise job of explaining endurance athletics. Just like his river, you just can't rush time, the process, or the rather excruciating path of challenge and reward that the Sports Gods have decided to put you on THIS time. When you are injured, you have to wait. Sure, you can engage the positive and take the time to rejuvenate yourself, to rest, to pursue other interests and relationships, but you can't heal faster. You move with a focused Slow Motion Sprint toward the metaphorical mountaintop of recovering full strength. When training for a race or an event, you have to take each workout one day at a time. I've never had it work out to stack the workouts tip to tail and finish a month of training within a week. If you ever do, my restless side is dying to know how. We are all captive to the pulse of patience in the effort and recovery and waiting. Bike racers also travel. A lot. And the only true way to get through a flight delay on the way to the biggest race of the year, or perhaps even more so, on the way home from the same race, is to to give in, to sit in Rumi's proverbial river and wait until it carries you to your destination. We can rarely change or accelerate an experience, so it's best to be aware and enjoy wherever we are. This is the patience that the mountains teach me.

I love climbing to be surrounded by peaks and forests. I love it for the fresh air and the silence and anticipation in moving always upward. Yet climbing is far more than its immediate rewards, for it allows me to practice presence. It teaches me patience and full awareness in the moment. It reminds me not to push, but to simply be alive. The Slow Motion Sprint simply cultivates a habit of the passion, integrity and focus that we want to bring to the things we love the most. So find a 28-tooth chainring (the better to take your time), find a mountain, and may it do the same for you.

 

Mara Abbott (Exergy) kept her position on the road to keep the leader's jersey.

Grateful... for Redlands

By:
Mara Abbott
Published:
May 02, 2014, 18:41 BST,
Updated:
May 02, 2014, 18:56 BST

Mara describes the power of positive thinking

Every season begins with Redlands. There are earlier races here and there, but for the North American road racer, Redlands is the official beginning. Since 2006, when I participated on a composite team during college spring break (with the exception of 2012, when bike racing and I were on a ultimately unsuccessful trial separation), Redlands is the only race that I have never missed. When I reflect on my experiences at this race, they represent a “connect-the-dots” of my entire cycling career – each marks a distinct phase or landmark along my journey. This retrospective glance at my life on the bike allows me to see how I have developed and grown over the years. It also reminds me of the people and circumstances who have allowed that evolution to occur. And for that, I am so grateful.

Grateful – for Redlands.

Bike racing is not always easy – and often it is too easy to find things to complain about. But when I think about all that I am grateful for, I realize how just powerful a tool gratitude is.

The ability to cultivate a habit of honoring the small blessings in life changes our mood and attitude and focusing on the positives rather than the negatives can transform one's outlook. Redlands reminds me that I am lucky. This race has given me eight years worth of gratitude and has helped define my career.

In 2006, I showed up to Redlands on a composite team. I was invited by Michael Engleman to participate alongside three of the Ford mountain bike team riders who were using the race for early fitness. I am grateful to Michael for his perennial devotion to finding opportunities for new riders in the sport. Grateful for my first home-stay as Redlands has the most welcoming community I have ever experienced at a race. Each year they are thrilled to give over their roads to us, and every single team is given a home-stay to stay in. It is an amazing community and I am so grateful to be accepted by them.

Redlands has a pretty technical criterium on Saturday afternoon, and as a new cyclist, this was my first big criterium. After we finished, I sat on the couch and held my teddy bear for an hour without saying anything, amazed I was alive, and yes, thankful my parents gave me that teddy bear!

Grateful for new opportunities, to the towns and communities that support the activities we love.

In 2007, I returned to Redlands on Webcor Builders – my first professional team. There had historically been a mountaintop finish stage at Redlands – Oak Glen. In 2007, they brought it back, and I won my first NRC stage. I was so new and thrilled I didn't even know to raise my arms on the podium. I am thankful for and appreciate Oak Glen and Webcor for giving me the opportunity for the victory and for podium flowers. This was the first time I truly realized I could be something in cycling... I was walking on air for probably a month after the victory, unable to believe.

I truly appreciate life when it is beyond our dreams, appreciate the support needed to compete, and appreciate Cyd Breyer, the Redlands home-stay icon who baked us fresh pastries in the mornings.

Grateful for the constant ability reinvent and rediscover ourselves. Grateful for the generosity of others in paving that path.

In 2008, I competed for High Road. I was in thankful awe of the orange orchard that backed up to our home-stay. I wore the leaders jersey for the entire race and lost it in time bonuses on the final stage by ONE SECOND. Afterward, a journalist asked how it felt to win Redlands to which I believe I maturely answered.... "you'd have to ask HER", indicating Alex Wrubleski, the ultimate winner. I had never let a team down in that way before. I was beyond devastated. I spent the entire flight home staring at the seat in front of me, and then forgot the bag with my SRM, my i-pod, my telephone, and my wallet in the overhead compartment. I am so happy that I have never felt that way after a race again, and I appreciate the flight attendant who saved my bag for me.

Grateful that defeat or a single error will never define us.

In 2009, I was still with High Road, then newly sponsored by Columbia Sportswear. We won the race with Ina Teutenberg, and I got to play defender rather than attacker on Sunset Loop, the final stage, for the first time. Grateful for Ina as a teammate, whose honesty and fearlessness taught me the value of existing with truth and without drama. I remember she took us on a pre-crit spin that took too long and we had to race back to not miss the actual race! I am REALLY grateful that we made it in time.

My family also came to watch this year, the first time they had seen me in a big race. My brother still talks about how much fun it was! He also still talks about the orange trees. (I’m still grateful for the oranges, and still thankful for a family that zealously supports me in whatever makes me happy).

Grateful – for those who support us unconditionally. For the power we gain from our families – biological or chosen, and the people who bless us with their support.

In 2010, I raced on Peanut Butter and Company. After two years of trying to race in Europe, I realized how much I more I thrived living at home, and the team was willing to support me racing domestically and allow me to travel with the National Team for projects in Europe. I was so thankful to find a team willing to accept me as a bit of a "flawed" cyclist. Incredibly grateful to find those willing to have such faith in me. We got second that year (to Ina) with Kat Carroll.

I was so appreciative to find lightheartedness in cycling again and begin a rebirth without pressure. When I checked in for my Southwest flight going home that year, I was assigned boarding position A1. I am still grateful for A1. (Southwest Airlines boards by numbers rather than assigned seats, the A1 ticket gets the first pick of seats on the plane. -ed)

Grateful for new beginnings and for the terrifyingly large decisions we squeeze our eyes shut to make that end up being dead on.

2011 was a struggle. I raced for Diadora-Pasta Zara in Europe, but I was given a space on a composite team so I could still compete. One of my composite teammates, and my generous host was Joy McCullough. It was Joy's first big stage race and she was so delighted. I was undernourished, physically and emotionally, and on the cusp of quitting cycling a few months later. Joy's optimism helped remind me of what was fun about cycling, and helped me to mitigate my jaded and self-destructive mood to finish the race. Gratitude for optimism and generosity, for the Meyer Lemon tree in her backyard.

Grateful for those who uplift us when we are falling, for the angelic strangers who appear at the right moment to give us a boost.

In 2012, I didn't race. Cycling and I had broken up, and I was at home in Boulder, nursing a broken heart and trail running induced Achilles problems. I was grateful not to be there. Grateful to be living with one of my best friends and another former racer, Rebecca Much, who implicitly understood my sorrow. Grateful to be supported by a coach who told me I could always change my mind and return to the sport, even when I told him that was the dumbest thing I had ever heard.

Grateful to those who unconditionally love us when we hit the bottom and disappear, grateful for those who obstinately hold out hope for us when we have lost it for ourselves.

In 2013, I was back at Redlands. The breakup had been tough, but ultimately cycling and I realized we still loved one another. Grateful for the community that took me back. I was racing for Exergy, directed by the perennial Engleman, and managed by Nicola Cranmer. Grateful that Nicola took a chance with a roster spot on letting me try to return, and for the teammates who still believed in me. I won the Sunset Loop that year in a solo breakaway -- something I had wanted to do since the first time I saw it. Grateful to be allowed to ride hard and take a risk. Grateful to remember what it felt like to cross a finish line simply astonished by myself.

Grateful for second chances, for settling unfinished business, and for those who hold inexplicable amounts of faith.

This year, 2014, I returned to a race that had even added a fifth stage. Thank you to all who have supported this race we love and allowed that growth. I'm riding for UnitedHealthcare, a team that is professional in every sense of the word from management, to staff, to riders. So lucky to be supported by an elite team off the bike as well. I found myself surrounded by teammates who were passionate, strong and motivated to succeed. And I was staying with the homestay coordinator for all the riders at Redlands, which means I have really reached the pinnacle in experiencing the hospitality of the town.

Grateful for the present moment, for acknowledging all the blessings that surround us.

Thank you to Redlands... to my team and those who have supported me in my past... to learning, to adventure... to Cyclingnews for offering this platform, and to you for reading it.

Thank you.
 

How I cheated and was the first UHC woman to distribute all of her autograph cards

Trusting in El Salvador

By:
Mara Abbott
Published:
March 26, 2014, 21:41 GMT,
Updated:
April 29, 2014, 18:13 BST

Abbott on winning more than just a bike race

As a professional athlete, I realize that I have been given a tremendous gift. I not only get the chance to compete at the highest level in my sport and to do so with an amazing team, I get to travel the world while doing so. This grants me opportunities to learn and grow personally, and hopefully positively influence and impact the bystanders, witnesses or fans.

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to compete in this year’s Vuelta El Salvador. I am so proud that the team was able to return home with the victory, but perhaps equally thrilled by the experience that came alongside it.

The queen stage at the Vuelta El Salvador finished in a climb. Not just any climb, but a 14km climb up a volcano with an average gradient of 10% and maximum (multiple) pitches of 21%. Oh boy.

The night before the queen stage, “The Boss” (my coach, Dean Golich) gave me a piece of advice. Dean reminded me that "it is more important to be a good person than a good bike racer". Given the importance of the next day, this might seem a bit of a non-sequitur, but I hardly wonder about Dean's advice anymore. As usual, “The Boss” was right.

There is always more than the race at stake. Looking back, his lesson was the overarching theme of those two weeks of creatively interpreted race distances, rice cookers in hotel rooms, an air conditioner that sounded like a prop plane on takeoff, fresh fruit in the streets, an elevator episode during a power cut, and a set of rich new relationships that took us all completely by surprise.

Trust

We arrived in El Salvador the evening of March 4th and were picked up by a smiling Charlie - who wasn't involved in the race exactly, but rather worked for a local radio station, Radio Femenina. It turned out that various local organizations had been solicited to sponsor a team with vehicles and transport for the two weeks, and Radio Femenina had been assigned to the UnitedHealthCare women's team. On the face of it, this was a little terrifying.

We were staying at a hotel that was not really walking distance to anything, so we were now dependent on "the radio guys" for transport to the store (critical when meals were served only sporadically), transport to the stages, and protection on our training days on roads that would not win any awards for a bike-friendly town. If they didn't happen show up for a stage... we didn't really have any recourse. If they wanted to hang out and have lunch after a race was over, then we were going to as well. And given they had real jobs to tend to, if they didn't have time to take our fabulous hotel room chef Veronica to the grocery store for the 13th time, we might be ordering Domino's El Salvador for dinner…again. A lot was at stake.

Exhale. Release. Trust.

Teamwork... without control

The reliance on new and outside help was disquieting, because frequently at big races, a team demonstrates success and confidence by precisely how well they are able to conquer and control a race environment. The work our team staff put in to make sure our riders have everything they need, that the sponsors are well represented, and that disasters are averted, is just incredible. Cycling team staff members are truly amazing in their dedication and I am so grateful for all of the help I have gotten and continue to get with every race day morning.

The exact same routine with the exact same characters will take place anywhere a race sets up. The more the riders have access to a schedule and amenities identical to those at home, the better. The faster you get to a hotel after a stage, the bigger the advantage you have over your competitors. The more specific order that exists within each clean team car, the more you can feel you have won before you even start. It is a construct that we all come to trust as a path to success.

In reality though, as much we hate to admit it we really don't have control over much of anything. Dynamics change within a race, cars break down on the way to the start line and massive life events arrive to unceremoniously knock us entirely off our feet. As much as the athlete with perfect control and discipline is held up as an example, I would actually contend that it is the athlete who is adaptable and unattached to the concept of "should" who will be a long-term champion through change and adversity. I believe that as critical as it is to develop good habits, it may be still more important to hone the ability to relinquish them without even a moment's notice.

In the end, the point is this: for all of our fears and a few misadventures in the end we unanimously agreed that working with our radio guys during the Vuelta El Salvador was the highlight of the trip.

Letting Go

That which keeps you in control and safe can also limit you. So often I leave a race hardly noticing where I have been, because my team has so deftly replicated our recipe for success.

However in this case, working so closely with local residents of the host country we actually got the opportunity to know a bit of El Salvador. And I loved it. We had someone there to cheer for us and be astonished by us whether we were first or 50th. They took us to dinner for International Women's Day. I had a limitless opportunity (much to my non-Spanish-speaking teammates' likely serious irritation) to interview Carles and Roberto ad nauseum about the election that took place during our stay (though I also extended that privilege to the security guards, the anti-doping representative, the cleaning lady, and the old ladies at the fruit stand, to name an embarrassingly small fraction of my hapless interviewees).

I adore my time in Latin America, where racing and life seems to have the curious property that nothing goes exactly to plan, but everything seems to always work out in the end. I love it because it requires me to have faith and it makes me come alive. It teaches me that winning is not equivalent to controlling and that your ability to trust and let go is what enables you to be successful – on and off the bike.

We had the astonishing fortune of getting to interact with people who gave us a true face of El Salvador. I like to hope that they grew from the experience too, as they learned about cycling tactics and protocol, got to be a part of the winning team, and gave broad positive exposure to their radio station. Unfortunately, during the third stage of the race a helicopter landing at the finish crashed. One man, David Diaz, a friend and colleague of our new compatriots was killed in the accident. In this moment, we were called on to offer our generous new friends the best support we could in their loss as well. We got to be people in addition to bike racers.

In the end, with my spectacular team behind me, we won that stage up the volcano, and ultimately took home the entire race. But as much as I love being able to bring home a victory my team worked so hard to set me up for, as much as I love climbing mountains as fast as my bike will take me--even as much as I was honored and grateful to be able to use that victory as a tribute to David in support of our new friends--that might not be what sticks with me the most.

We parked in front of a small family's tin hut at the start of one of the stages, and after our mechanic Adrian had set out and wiped clean all of our race Wiliers, we caught a glimpse of the daughter of the family wiping her own small rusty bike clean with a rag. Maybe that girl...or maybe the hug Carles gave me after he gave me my own El Salvador political party flags to take home as souvenirs our last night in the country might last in my heart longer. My true gratitude is this: due to new friends, my amazing team and the hospitality of a country, I didn't have to choose between being a bike racer and a person. At least for those two weeks, I was both.
 

Mara Abbott

Mara Abbott Blog: A visit to Argentina

By:
Mara Abbott
Published:
February 25, 2014, 19:50 GMT,
Updated:
February 25, 2014, 18:50 GMT

UnitedHealthcare rider's first blog

At a bare minimum, as bike riders, there is at least one thing we have in common. We all know how to pedal. Perhaps more importantly, we have an understanding of what it feels like to pedal. It is easy to take it for granted, but this physical self-awareness is far from universal--rather it is the earned privilege of the individual who has dedicated time to working in partnership with his or her body. We all know what the activation of a hamstring on the upstroke feels like, or how wind we face changes in force with our acceleration. I find it astonishingly comforting that this, at the very least, remains constant.

As humans, it is easy to find ourselves drawn to the safety of the familiar and habitual. This attraction to routine is even more common among athletes, and probably still more prevalent among the endurance crowd. Ironically, ultimately the most successful athletes are adaptable to change--they can even keep their cool when pre-race breakfast is different or a night of sleep is lost to travel. It is a disquieting paradox that as much our success feels critically linked to controlling variables, its seems that the times we exceed expectations are irritatingly linked to when we let go and remain resilient in the face of change. What is comforting is this: upstroke, downstroke, wind in your face. It is small, but it is something. So we keep pedaling.

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Argentina for the inaugural Tour de San Luis Feminin. It was my first time in both the country and the region and I absolutely fell in love. As an aside--my thrill in discovering San Luis, the place, was matched by my thrill in being able to participate in the debut of this race. I have never attended a competition so consistently publicized and supported by the host communities--and this in the event's first year.

I ended up deciding to change my flight plans to stay in Argentina a week longer. Ostensibly this was for good winter training, but in reality my primary motive was adventuring. As I stayed longer, the roads and paths became familiar. I began to find amid all the strangeness of a foreign country, the beautiful places that I felt a connection to. To be clear, this strangeness was no small thing, for very little was habitual or routine about my time in Argentina.

It was 40 degrees Celsius, not snowing. There were fertile farmlands and forests, not high mountains. I spoke Spanish. And I was eating dinner at midnight. It was enough to make me a little anxious for stability. Yet on one of my last days there, I rode up the shaded tree-divided road from El Volcan to El Trapiche. Despite my now semi-permanent dizzying sensation of feet-off-the-ground newness, I was able to find peace and familiarity. Basically everything around me was different, and absolutely none of it was under my control, but my legs somehow still felt like my legs. I felt just like I did whenever I pedaled. Their circles became meditative and I took a few deep breaths. I felt foundation, and I realized how lucky I am to have this embodied self-knowledge. I kept pedaling.

The ride and the travel taught me an important lesson, but realistically, changes in environment are the least of our worries. It is when the self that we are so sure of being faces challenge that things really go off kilter. Relationships end, jobs evaporate, homes and possessions are impermanent, and even the people we rely on shift and can disappear. We are forced to scramble to re-find our footing. It's healthy, I guess...it's growth... and it's not really a choice... but at the same time, uncertainty can be unspeakably uncomfortable and terrifying. Yet as cyclists, as athletes, we always have this privilege: our external worlds may spin away without our permission, but there is one thing we can do. We can get on our bikes and find a constant. Often, there isn't a lot we can do. But we can keep pedaling.

Part of this lesson came to me as I processed the passing of my friend Amy Dombroski this past fall. I would like to dedicate this, my first Cyclingnews journal entry, to her bravery, her spirit of adventure and her willingness to dive toward the new and different that always left me in awe.

Author
Mara Abbott