Mara Abbott is revelling in the chance to experience her first Olympic Games, but she is not taking her selection for the women's road race for granted after recently winning an arbitration launched against her spot on the four-woman team by compatriot Coryn Rivera. The American climbing phenom plans to make the most of the opportunity she's earned to do everything in her power to help Team USA win a gold medal in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday.
"I've worked really hard to be at the Olympics, not because I want the experience of going and getting lots of T-shirts and meeting a lot of people," Abbott firmly stated in an interview with Cyclingnews. "If you're an athlete who is at the level of being at the Olympics, you're going to compete. There are a lot of things around it, but for me, I see it as a really important bike race."
USA Cycling's Selection Committee named Abbott as one of the four women to represent Team USA for the road race. Megan Guarnier had secured an automatic spot after placing on the podium at the World Championships in Richmond last September, and the Selection Committee also chose Evelyn Stevens and Kristin Armstrong, both for the road race and the time trial.
The selection didn't sit well with US time trial champion Carmen Small, who launched a highly publicised arbitration for one of the two time trial spots. Amber Neben joined that arbitration, contesting for a place on the team. Also, Rivera opened a separate arbitration for Abbott's spot on the team for the road race.
"Coryn directly arbitrated against my Olympic spot, and I was really affected by it. I had to get a lawyer and be a witness. It wasn't widely known because a lot of the focus was on Carmen's case," said Abbott, who was competing at the Giro Rosa in early July when she was notified of the arbitration.
"It was terrifying and unpleasant. It wasn't a positive experience. But that is the way the system is right now, and it was absolutely within Coryn's right to fight for a spot that she thought that she deserved."
Abbott said that despite winning the arbitration against her Olympic spot, she doesn't feel a sense of relief, and said the process was mentally draining.
"In my case, USA Cycling [Selection Committee] had already selected me, so I had to present my results, my case for why I was a strong rider and why I believed in my ability to help create success for the team. If you look at the selection protocol, you can see what USA Cycling was looking for when they made that original selection. So I had to prove that it was a good selection on their part.
"Emotionally, it doesn't feel like a huge relief; it feels like you've been run over by a truck. But I'm very happy that I won."
Many would suggest that simply securing a spot on the Olympic Games team is an accomplishment in itself, but Abbott believes differently, saying that success comes through making the most of the opportunity an athlete has been given.
"It's not success yet," Abbott said. "Making the team is a step. It means you got in the door. But if you get in the door and then don't make anything of the opportunity, then maybe it's not such a success."
A pure climbing wild card
Abbott travelled to Rio de Janeiro on Saturday, one week ahead of the women's road race, so that she could spend time previewing the course with Guarnier, Stevens and Armstrong.
The route is 141km and starts and finishes in Fort Copacabana. It's a challenging course that includes long stretches of road along the coast, a 24.8km circuit around Grumari Natural Park with short, pitchy climbs and a cobbled section. They complete that circuit twice. There is also a final Canoas/Vista Chinesa loop of 25.7km that includes an 8.9km climb followed by a ticky descent and a 12km run-in to the finish line.
Many suggest the course is for more punchy climbers like Guarnier, Stevens, Lizzie Armitstead and Anna van der Breggen, among others, but some have tipped the course for pure climbers. Abbott has proven herself to be the best pure climber in the world but she was reserved in her comments about the course or her chances at a medal, instead wanting to preview it before putting expectations on herself.
"Everyone knows about it [the final climb] and have heard the reports coming back," Abbott said. "I'm going to reserve any specific judgement until I see it for myself because different things strike people about different courses. If you arrive there just listening to someone else you often end up surprised.
"I would like it if it was a pure climber's course. But the best thing I can do is take care of getting myself there in the best condition and then I'll be there with the team, and I'll be able to see what the course actually looks like, and to see how we are all riding together. I don't want to invent scenarios in my head at the moment."
Though Abbott was careful not to put too much pressure on herself, she does believe Team USA is strong enough to win a medal given the well-rounded four-woman team participating.
"I know how strong a team we have, mostly because I've raced against all of them; Evelyn, Megan and Kristin, all year long so I know exactly how strong they are. I absolutely have expectations for us to have success in the road race."
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In July, Guarnier became the second American in history to win the Giro d'Italia Femminile, after Abbott, and currently tops the Women's WorldTour and UCI World rankings after her many remarkable performances this year.
After breaking the women's UCI Hour Record in February, Stevens turned her attention to the road where she was second place behind van der Breggen at La Fleche Wallonne. She also won three stages at the Giro d'Italia Femminile, spent time in the maglia rosa and finished second overall behind Guarnier.
Armstrong brings both strength and experience to the team. She has represented the US in three Olympic Games and won gold medals in the time trial in 2008 in Beijing and 2012 in London, and the world titles in the same discipline in 2006 in Austria and 2009 in Italy. She retired after London but returned to the sport at the start of 2015 with an eye on competing in Rio.
"What's really good about our team is that as strong as all of the girls are, each one has their area of expertise," Abbott said. "I think whatever situation we come down to at the finish, we have someone who can succeed if we play our cards right and we are smart. That is exciting because we are not all the same, and that plays to our favour."
As for Abbott, a two-time Giro Rosa winner, she ramped up her season by winning the UCI Tour of the Gila, she won the mountain stage at Pro Road Tour's Redlands Bicycle Classic and was second overall. She also won the mountains classification at Tour of California and Philadelphia International Cycling Classic, both on the Women's WorldTour.
Her well-known climbing ability came out once again in the mountains in Italy, where she won the queen stage 5 that included a daunting ascent over the Mortirolo. It was a bitter-sweet affair, however, as she gained some five minutes on her rivals but then crashed on the descent to the finish line in Tirano, hanging on to only 37 seconds to win the stage. Although she moved into the overall lead, she lost it to Guarnier the following day.
"It was nice to win that stage but I effectively lost the Giro Rosa that day," said Abbott with a hint of frustration and regret.
In Rio, Abbott may have a similar chance at victory if she makes it through to the final Canoas/Vista Chinesa loop and can create a winning breakaway over the final ascent. But if such an attempt fails, Team USA have the strength of Guarnier, Stevens and Armstrong ready to play their cards, giving the nation a strong shot at a gold medal in most scenarios.
"We have four riders who are all capable of having success, and whether that's me or one of the others, I think that that is something we should expect from ourselves. I expect success as a team, and how we accomplish it, we'll have to figure out as we get there."
A common phrase athletes use to describe their participation in an event as big as the Olympic Games is that it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Abbott may be embarking on her first Olympic Games in Rio, but her long-time experience along with successes and setbacks in professional bike racing has allowed her to remove herself from such clichés.
"When you spend a lot of years cycling, sometimes you don't even realise the opportunities that you get until afterwards," Abbott said. "Maybe you had the chance to win a race or a stage, and you look back on it two years later and realise only then that it was a one-time chance. Sometimes you win a race, and try to win it again, and realise it's not that easy.
"I think within cycling there are, for better or for worse, a lot of once-in-a-lifetime chances. That's what it's all built on because you never know what those career-defining moments are going to be. So in a way, yes, the Olympic Games could be one of those. But, in the end, you never know what experiences you're going to come away with as having been the once-in-a-lifetime moments of your career."