One of the world's strongest cyclists and a top contender in the inaugural women's USA Pro Challenge race this weekend in Colorado, Mara Abbott doesn't want to psyche herself up too much but says winning the three-day stage race would be "the biggest deal of my career."
The 29-year-old Boulder native grew up swimming and took up cycling to cross train at Whitman College. She quickly moved up the ranks, traded the water for the road, and turned pro in 2007, winning the National Cycling Championships. She has won several elite races throughout the world since and has the battle scars to prove it -- tattoo-like splotches of road rash on every shoulder, knee and elbow.
"After a while, you can't remember where each scar came from. It's just part of the sport."
Abbott let us tag along during a recent training day to get a feel for what it's like to ride with a champion.
Part Of The Landscape
A bona fide Boulderite in every way, Abbott has observed the previously male-only Pro Challenge stage race roll through her hometown and homestate, heartbroken to not have an opportunity to compete. That changes Friday, when the first Women's Pro Challenge kicks off with a climbing-intensive time trial on the same course used by the men in Breckenridge, followed by a 58-mile haul between Loveland and Fort Collins with significant elevation gain and wrapping up with a circuit race down the road from Boulder in Golden. Abbott is ready to give it her all.
Mind And Body Awareness
"I practice between a half hour to two-plus hours a day. Yoga helps me stay in touch with what is going on in my body and in my mind. It feels good to stretch, but more than that, it is a relationship and a pause to take note of what is going on. In terms of injury prevention, I'd say it is more the attention given than the physical stretching."
The Colorado Connection
Seemingly every corner of Abbott's house and life contain evidence of love for her home state (see the sticker on her phone). Her parents live two miles away in the house that Abbott grew up in. She writes a regular column for the Boulder Daily Camera and sits on the town's Environmental Board. "My dad is my biggest cheerleader" she says. "As I told a friend of mine at coffee the other day, this race is in Colorado and I am Colorado. There's a certain amount of intrinsic pressure to win the race."
"It's time for the daily squash census. I discovered you can go to a local organic farm on Thursday mornings and volunteer and they give you their leftovers from the CSA the night before. So for three hours of work you can keep yourself in vegetables for the entire week. It's kind of an important financial obligation. You go help harvest, plant and pull the weeds. It's fun and it's a great cleansing thing to do mentally."
Nutrition To Go
"I don't have a 'this-is-my-training-breakfast' meal plan. If you try to set yourself up on some exact plan, you're setting up to be weird about food. You eat enough to keep you healthy. I'd like to be a vegetarian someday. Right now my body needs protein. I eat locally and organically. I have a juicer and I like to juice -- zucchini, kale, all kinds of greens. Think of all the vitamins you get versus sitting down and eating all of those vegetables. That would take all day."
Who Needs A Car?
"I don't own a car. I ride everywhere on my commuter bike. I have a trailer for pulling heavy things. The most I've probably pulled was about 60 pounds of Fuji apples. Commuting on a bike is a great thing."
Riding With Purpose
Abbot has changed cycling teams nearly every year of her pro career. She currently rides for European-based Wiggle-Honda but in the Pro Challenge will represent Colorado-based team Amy D. Foundation, launched in memory and honor of American cyclist and Abbott's friend Amy Dombroski, who died in 2013 after colliding with a truck while training in Belgium.
"One pitfall of professional athletics is when it starts to feel like work, like clocking in and out. I took a year off in 2012 and I'd seen Amy recently before I decided to come back. She had a lot of passion for it and a lot of joy in what she was doing. That was something she was diligent about trying to maintain. You have to be diligent about it ... it doesn't just happen. I was like, 'OK, if I come back, I have to find the joy and pursue it like Amy does.'
"When you're wearing that jersey it makes you more accountable to living up to that legacy. It's one of those things like tying a ribbon around your finger. You put it on and say OK, today is going to be a special day."
Training With A View
"I have a coach I've worked with since 2008 -- Dean Golich at CTS [Carmichael Training Systems]. I have a power meter on my bike. I download all my files and send them to him. You train for a half hour to four hours, depending on the day. He'll look at my power files, look at how I'm feeling. Sometimes he'll give me two weeks of training, sometimes one day. Distance is not the world's best way to measure cycling because it changes tremendously if you go climbing versus riding on the flats. Riding around here is great because I know the roads really well and there's a lot of great climbing roads, where you can just go off into the mountains. Sometimes I listen to NPR when I ride. Lately I've been into country, anything from John Denver to Miranda Lambert. Sometimes I listen to happy workout/spin-class music. Sometimes when I'm out for a while the music starts to feel like noise and I turn it off."
The (Growing) Trophy Case
"This jersey is from my second win at the Giro Rosa. Being the first American to win that is a massive highlight of my career. Winning nationals was also spectacular. It's cliché, but when you're the national champion and go to Europe and get to wear the American flag jersey, you feel pretty cool. Winning the bike race in Colorado would be on par, the biggest deal of my career. I've been waiting a long time for this race."