Despite a glittering career, a surprising omission from Mara Abbott’s palmares is a start at the Olympic Games. She missed out on a spot in 2008 and was on a year-long break from the sport in 2012, meaning that the Rio Olympic Games in 2016 could be her first tilt at the quadrennial event.
As a climber, Abbott is well suited to the lumpy course that heads along the Rio coastline, and could be a contender for a medal, but she refuses to put any pressure on herself when it comes to getting a spot on the US team. While many are already building their season around this one major target, Abbott sees a ride at the Olympics as an added bonus to what she’s already setting out to do in 2016.
“I’ll be the best bike racer I can be and everyone else will, and then [USA Cycling] will have to make the decision,” Abbott told Cyclingnews from her home in Colorado. “If you go out and race your best across the board, then that is going to give you the best chance of being selected for the Olympic team. You would hope that if you are dedicating yourself to being a bike racer then you’ll want to be doing your best all the time anyway. So it’s a little bit of an incentive but it’s an incentive to do what you’re already going to do anyway.”
You get the sense that she really does mean what she says, and it isn’t just an attempt to deflect the pressure, but the thought of what she faces should she be selected is a tantalising prospect. “I’m excited,” she said of the Rio course, which features two climbs including the 8.9km ascent of Vista Chinesa.
“It’s always difficult to tell what the course is really like, especially from other people’s interpretations. Someone will tell you ‘it’s a hill’ and then you go and look at it and think ‘that’s not a hill’ but it really seems like the signs are lining up and we keep hearing about how good and hilly a course it is. I haven’t seen it personally, so I’ll withhold my judgement until I’ve actually seen it, but it is an exciting prospect from the rumours that I’ve been hearing.”
Away from the Olympics, Abbott will ride a very similar programme to that of 2015, although the details have not been finalised. She is likely to split her time between the US and Europe, with the Tour of the Gila and Redlands in the States sandwiched between the Classics and the Giro Donne, where she is targeting her third overall victory. For the first time since 2009, she will be riding for the same team for the second year running after she extended her contract with Wiggle-Honda. While the team are based in Europe and registered in Belgium, team manager Rochelle Gilmore has allowed Abbott to compete outside their standard racing programme – as Gilmore has with other riders such as Jolien D’hoore and Peta Mullens.
“For me, looking at Wiggle and the options that Rochelle was able to offer me it gave me the best picture, out of all of my options, of what 2016 could be for me,” explained Abbott. “Wiggle in this last year they gave me the opportunity to come back and do some races like Gila, Redlands, the US Pro Challenge with some composite teams in the US, so I was able to keep some roots with the races that are important to me here in the US.
“That was really important and that flexibility was one of the reasons I’m looking forward to racing with them again because they’re allowing me to do some races that I’m excited about.”
Abbott has been a professional rider since 2007, when she signed with the Webcor Builders team. Since then, she has seen a lot of changes in women’s cycling, both good and bad. When Abbott joined the sport, there were two Grand Tours on the women’s calendar. That has since gone and she says that the continuing loss of races has been a worrying trend. The introduction of the Women’s WorldTour in 2016 is part of an initiative to build women’s cycling back up.
It should see a more stable structure for the women’s teams, better coverage and prize money but the proof is in the pudding and Abbott is reserving her judgement until a later date.
“I think that starting the Women’s WorldTour is a great opportunity for women’s cycling and it’s a great opportunity for us to get more stability but it is hard to tell when nothing has happened yet,” she told Cyclingnews. “I think that it is really promising and hopefully it will work but if you stay around in this sport long enough then you get burned a lot. It looks like it could be a really positive step forward and hopefully we can continue the momentum. I don’t think that much will happen in the first year but if it can create more stability and more of a structure then that is where its value is going to be.”