Mara Abbott blog: This one is for the fans

This one goes out to the fans. Specifically, I mean the folks who follow cycling. The ones who get excited about it, who might even show up to watch races, who think that sport is inspiring (or at least passingly interesting). People like my dad, who get up at 6am when I am racing in Europe to follow live the tweets if there is no other coverage - though maybe that is just because he is my dad... and because he can work an iPhone better than me. The fan and the competitive athlete have a strong symbiotic relationship - it is tough to have one without the other. It is my good fortune that enough people choose to watch cycling to make the racing viable.

Two distinct experiences over the last month brought this particular gratitude to mind.

First, over Memorial Day weekend, I drove to Durango, Colorado to compete in the Iron Horse Classic - the greatest weekend of bike racing of which you may not yet have heard. In addition to a circuit race, a time trial, a kid’s race, a cruiser criterium and a mountain bike race that is routed directly through a local brewery (really), the highlight of the weekend the weekend goes to Saturday’s fifty mile road race. From a sunrise start at the Durango Rec Center, it traverses two 10,000 foot passes to finish in downtown Silverton - a historic mining community of less than a thousand permanent residents. It is not only contested by pros, but also by amateur racers, citizen riders, hand-cyclists, unicyclists and tandems all trying to make it in before the 6 hour cut-off when the road re-opens.

It was barely 10am this year when I rode into Silverton, yet the finishing chute through town was packed with people cheering me as the first woman into town. Literally, there were more spectators than I see at most events all year - and in a truly rural town, not some hidden hotbed of endurance athletes. Is the Iron Horse the most prestigious race that I have ever won? No, but I was tearfully emotional crossing the finish line to see such an outpouring of genuine excitement for cycling - the spirit, love of adventure and camaraderie of mountain people Perhaps the I have raced long enough to realize that type of support isn’t actually the norm - or even all that common. Or maybe it just felt good to indulge in the reminder that some people consider special what I sometimes forget as common.

In any case, at Iron Horse the road back to Durango stays closed until 1:30pm to allow all racers to finish. With limited routes out of town, everyone is captive to a morning of community celebration. People burst out of the coffee shop and the breakfast joint. We gather to eat giant free cookies on the lawn and cheer on the steady stream of finishers. You couldn’t just pack up and jet to the next event if you tried.

The fans of the Iron Horse aren’t fans of me, or of any particular racer - with the possible exception of local legend Ned Overend. These are the fans of the experience, of adventures and challenges on their bikes. Reflecting later that night, I wrote that the significance of the Iron Horse is that it is “less about precision than adventure, less prestige than community, less city than mountain, less image than humanity - even less competition than celebration”. It simply a shared joyful experience - if you happen to be the winner, everyone is just glad you happen to be representing cycling so well.

A few weeks later into June, I travelled to Philadelphia for what is now the “Parx Casino Classic” but which for most racers is simply “Philly”. (As in the following intelligent conversation: “Where are you going this weekend?” “Philadelphia.” “What race?” Pause. “Philly...”) I remember my first year there - my teammates explained how big race was to me by describing the sound under the train tracks approaching the Manayunk Wall, the cacophony of cheers magnified through the tunnel of thick old steel girders. And that was when the women raced at 7am and half of the spectators were still sleeping!

Now, these fans at Philly are a different breed entirely. By that I mean that the traditional followers of cycling are almost outnumbered by a sea of college kids on summer break and barbequers who might already be five beers deep on lap two. Some may not even own a bike, but they are still so excited to cheer the racers through their city. Their parties say that the sport is something worth celebrating!

Since it was the only race state-side this year for Wiggle-Honda, I was so proud to get to show Philly off as an example for my international teammates. Cycling in the USA has the reputation of being a bit of a side-show compared European racing, and in some cases, that is true - a lot of people don’t even know a race is happening until they hit a road closure on their way to work. The enthusiasm of Philly, however, defies that stereotype - and to see Elisa, who as our champion of Flanders has won the biggest race in what I believe is formally known as the cycling capital of the universe, get excited (and maybe a little impressed?) by the atmosphere at a race in my own country made me stick out my chest a bit.

Perhaps the history and tradition of the race has made it an annual and “can’t miss” event for the people of Philadelphia, perhaps it is the work of race organizers to promote it in the community, perhaps I just don’t hang out in big cities a lot - whatever the reason, Philly is a spectacle. Let’s be real - it is thrilling to be a part of such excitement.

From grizzled mountain folk to U Penn co-eds and everyone in between, I am incredibly grateful to anyone who shows up to watch bikes whizz by. See, competitive sports fall under the “if a tree falls in the forest” paradox - without witnesses, did you really cross the line first? I think it is a common human desire to feel that we are in some way significant to others, and honestly it can be easy to doubt that we are. I consider myself so lucky to have the fans of the sport to assure me that - even if only as a morning of entertainment - I can be.

Back in the real world, where cowbells just seem to be a little rarer, it pays for all of us to listen a bit more closely to the sounds of our own personal fans cheering us on - and reciprocally for us to intentionally let those who inspire us remember their value too. We all have our own daily Manayunks - and they are a whole lot tougher to get up alone. To those who watch, to those who cheer - thank you. Without you, we are all just a bunch of skinny logs lying mysteriously in the woods.

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