Mara Abbott: Riding for Amy Dombroski at Tour of the Gila

In this year’s media lead-up, the Tour of the Gila asked to honor me as a “Legend of the Gila”. Flattering, yes. Unfortunately, “legendary” status does imply something awkward about the age of the honoree. As a bike racer still struggling to process a 2015 racing age of thirty, this was a tough compliment to take gracefully.

Silver City, the host community of the race, is a very small and very eccentric town. As a very small and eccentric person, I fit in well there. Pondering the “legend” label, I had to admit this year at least how very much of a part of my own story this town has become. Our history dates back to my impressive first visit in 2006 when I got food poisoning, finished 40 minutes off the back of the bunch and puked in front of the prom night dates at the Red Barn Steakhouse. It got better from there. This year, the artist who makes the ceramic bowls awarded annually to the winners requested that I say “hi” to my mom for her. I always mandate a stop at the Glenwood Trading Post on the drive home from the first stage, and this time the owner was so excited to hear I won on the climb up to Mogollon again that she insisted on a big bear hug before I could leave. After many vocally enthusiastic visits to the Silver City Co-op, for 2015 they gave me an honorary membership.

Here is the lesson that Silver City teaches - or one of them. It is a town where the tattooed podium girls are my friends (we met back in 2010 when I told one her dress looked like a princess’. She replied, “Honey, I ain’t no princess…”), yet at the same time there are a grand total of maybe ten people, team managers included, there to witness those jersey presentations. This supports an unacceptably mature revelation I’ve had about cycling: trophies and victory salutes aren’t really the most important part at all. They can’t possibly be. In a sport that is virtually defined by patience, uncertainty and heroic acts in the name of the mysterious “team win”, it is extremely unwise to measure your career’s worth with a certain result. Whether or not a day ends on the podium, what matters more is the people who surround you at the finish - particularly if they happen to have the sophisticated sense of humor (or compassion) to laugh at your joke about how their color-of-the-day dresses happen on that afternoon to be the same color as the porta-potties.

Yes, goals are important, and so is being honored on occasion for hard work - but to make a career in sport sustainable, it must be supported by relationships, awareness in experiences, and a passion not only for victory but for the process of pursuing it.

Passion is another thing in rich supply in crazy Silver City. I have a point to make about supposedly “crazy” people - scorn all you will, but they all care deeply about something. Perhaps some are consumed by art, others by extreme politics, maybe it is just a drive to collect the best seashells, or maybe, just maybe, some lunatic is simply all in about trying to ride a bike faster than all those other idiots. Make no mistake, if the “crazy” lady approaches you on the street, it is because she is going to tell you something that matters to her. She’s passionate. And I like passionate.

This all brings me to my second point. The 2015 Tour of the Gila was no average race for me - I had the privilege of racing on a composite team for the Amy Dombroski Foundation, honoring the legacy of a friend of mine and a cyclo cross star who was killed in a training accident at the end of 2013. I remember that in 2012, while contemplating a return to racing after a one year hiatus, I had promised myself that a return to bike world would only be permitted if I could do it like Amy D. To me, that meant that I had to train and race not only with dedication and passion, but also with adventure and delight, fighting the temptation to ride motivated by data or obligation. Even prior to her accident, if I found myself getting too wrapped up in numbers, training plans and “have-tos”, I would gently chant to myself, “like Amy”.

The Amy Dombroski Foundation was created by Amy’s brother, Dan, and her sister-in-law, Nicole, to create opportunities to empower young female cyclists. Spending a week with the big Amy D heart on my jersey was an incredible honor as well as a type of privilege that is rarely available to the professional cyclist.

See, we race representing sponsors. Generally, those sponsors will shift from year to year - personally, my beloved career-long relationship and trust in SRM Training Systems is probably my only exception to that rule. My first few contract cycles as a pro I felt like a turncoat, extremely unsettled to suddenly change allegiances every time the calendar turned to January 1.

This is not to complain - for the reality is that sponsors allow a professional cycling career to be viable, and frankly for a competitive version of our sport to exist at all. Utmost gratitude is due to them - without corporate sponsorship the last ten years of my life would have been a very different landscape. Yet for one week, to be racing simply to bring visibility and honor to a person and cause that I care for so deeply for was a pure and incredible experience.

I felt a great sense of purpose and responsibility at Gila this year - which amounted to a corresponding quantity of nervousness and pressure. Unfortunately, racing for a noble cause doesn’t mean that the Bike Gods can automatically guarantee a win. So when our team was able to bring home that victory on Sunday afternoon in Pinos Altos, you better believe the awe and gratitude I felt to represent not only the memory of my friend, but the dedicated work of Dan and Nicole to cement her tangible and positive legacy.

So here, my dear Cyclingnews readers, is the challenge of the month: Find the people and places where your heart is at home. Find the things you are passionate about and immerse yourself in them - forget the risk of appearing insane. Then pursue your commitment to these people, places and causes with dedication, alertness and joy. If you need a reminder, you can even borrow my refrain.

“Like Amy”.

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