Q&A: Why Mary Wittenberg made the leap from running to cycling

Mary Wittenberg, a former New York City Marathon exec, has joined the EF Education First pro cycling team. AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

Mary Wittenberg, 56, will bring years of executive experience in event organization and marketing to her new post as president of EF Education First Pro Cycling, but the former New York Road Runners CEO and New York City Marathon race director is a relative newbie when it comes to the two-wheeled endurance sport. She spoke with ESPN senior writer Bonnie D. Ford -- who has covered both distance running and cycling for the past 20 years -- about the transition.

Question from Ford: How steep is your learning curve going to be?

Answer from Wittenberg: I'll take full advantage of this period to learn as much as I can. There are common threads across sport, especially endurance sport, when it comes to marketing, but storytelling requires a knowledge of the sport and the athletes. I went to the California [training] camp and found it fascinating, that the athletes spend that long on a bike compared to a run that's one or two or three hours long -- the hand-eye and the physical coordination and the mental, fearless side of downhill skiing ... it's quite interesting. On the participation side, I feel like we know a lot more about the "why" and the motivation of runners. Maybe that's because I've been so close to it. I don't have as much of a sense of why these guys, and now hopefully more and more women, take this so seriously. What do they hope to achieve? What's most important to them? I'm intrigued by that part.

Q: How important is the team's American-based identity?

A: The team is multicultural. We have a U.S. core and nucleus but welcome riders from around the world who fit an ethos that is not win-at-all-costs. It's getting out their personalities, letting them be individuals, being willing and able to be part of a scrappier team, a punch-above-your-weight kind of team. EF is an international company that's selling travel opportunities and education opportunities to young people around the world, and the whole business is built on the belief that if you help people get out and travel in person to other places, and learn languages in person in other places, you wind up promoting a level of understanding and empathy for other cultures.

Q: One area where you won't be starting from scratch is anti-doping. You got quite an education on that with the World Marathon Majors.

A: There are so many institutions that have failed athletes and the public. If we don't support sport and don't promote it because there are people who cheated, it's throwing in the towel and letting the wrong people win. I feel strongly that competitive sport remains something important to fight for and support, and do everything we can to promote and defend clean sport and clean athletes. There are going to be people who try to break the system and cheat the system. We have to work really hard knowing that's the case and try to make the ramifications of other people cheating such that others might be deterred from doing so.

I think it's important for people to know how committed EF is to that and how committed we'll be to education and prevention. And what should be our role relative to bodies like WADA? It's apparent there's got to be real change. Our role starts at home with the team we have. We have to be conscious of protecting athletes from being at risk for various types of abuse. There have been a lot of learnings on that in the last 10 or 20 years.

Q: You're coming from a sport where gender parity, while perhaps not perfect, is an entrenched concept, to a sport that is being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

A: It's a throwback. Forty years ago, women were a sideshow at the New York City marathon. Now fast forward to 2018 -- they're the headliners. I know so little about this, so preface it with that, but in cycling, they're fighting to get on the stage. The potential is similar to where running was in the '60s and '70s. Down the line, it's important to us to figure out what should be our role in lifting women in the sport of cycling.

Q: Not to put you on the spot, but do you ride? Have you been to any big bike races?

A: I ride my 35-year-old Bianchi, which was my biggest investment my first year of law school as I was beginning to pay off my gazillions of loans.

Q: Is it the classic seafoam color?

A: It is. I negotiated really hard for this beautiful bike, and I think I got it down to $535, which was a massive investment for me. In the late '80s, early '90s, I was in Richmond [Virginia] as a young lawyer, and I was running a lot still. I had dear friends at the Tour DuPont -- Bob Sicard, Steve Brunner, a bunch of them are still in the sport. They all wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon, so it was like summer camp as adults. We'd run in the morning and then I'd jump into a 20-mile ride with them. Maybe 50, once. Then I didn't ride for a while. I loved spinning, which is something very different.

While I was at Virgin [Sport, as CEO], we did four days of cycling from Tuscany to the Amalfi Coast. I just fell in love with that experience. But now, nothing other than commuting. I look forward to doing more. For us at the New York City Marathon, the Tour de France was always the event to emulate and understand from a logistics and fan perspective. We think it's such a big deal that we only have five days to build the New York City finish line. The Tour has a new start line, finish line and course every day. But I've never actually seen the Tour in person. I'm excited to see racing in Colombia, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix -- it's the day before Boston [Marathon]. I'm already scheming to see if I can fly out in time.