WALLA WALLA, Wash. - For someone who was racing primarily as a training exercise, Whitman College senior Mara Abbott finished remarkably high in the final standings of last week's six-day Giro di Toscana cycling race in Italy.
Abbott, using the race as a tune-up for this weekend's UCI World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, finished ninth overall -- two minutes and 13 seconds behind the winner, Noemi Cantele of Italy.
Cantele's cumulative time for the six-stage race was 14 hours, 22 minutes and 46 seconds. The event concluded Sunday after covering about 580 kilometers (361 miles) with a total of 83 cyclists finishing all six stages.
As expected, Abbott made her strongest showing in the two longest stages. She placed seventh in the 122-kilometer third stage, finishing just 13 seconds off the lead, and was eighth in the 109-kilometer fifth stage, just a few seconds back of the winner.
Michael Engleman, director of the U.S. Women’s Cycling Development Program, called Abbott’s overall finish "extremely respectable, especially when (the race) was really just for training" and to gauge her fitness and readiness for Saturday’s road race at the World Championships.
Stages three and five were the "only days she was expected to ride really hard, and she finished with the lead group each time," Engleman said. "So, that is a positive and exactly where we want to see her fitness."
Engleman said he wasn’t surprised to see Abbott place as well as she did, either in the two stages or in the final standings. "Knowing her talent, nothing Mara does surprises me but then everything she does impresses me," he said.
Abbott, also a varsity swimmer at Whitman, qualified for the World Cycling Championships by winning the U.S. national road race title in July, outsprinting defending champion and 2004 Olympian Kristin Armstrong.
Saturday's 133.7-kilometer (83 miles) women's road race is set for 9 a.m. Stuttgart time, or midnight Friday on the U.S. Pacific coach. Riders will complete seven laps on a course that winds through the streets of Stuttgart.
The official Website for the World Championships can be found at www.radwm2007.com.
Abbott, an economics major from Boulder, Colo., joined Whitman's cycling club team in her first year on campus and quickly rocketed to the top of the collegiate cycling world. Over the past three years, she has won or shared the national title nine times in various events. She also helped Whitman capture a pair of National Collegiate Cycling Association Div. II team championships, and claimed the last two women's all-around individual titles.
Only in recent months, however, has the 5-foot-4 dynamo established herself as one of the very best cyclists in the nation, collegiate or otherwise. Competing in her first season for Webcor Builders, one of America’s top professional teams, Abbott surprised even herself by stringing together an impressive set of victories since last spring. After finishing a close second at the Montreal World Cup to Italian great Fabiana Luperini, Abbott won the U.S. women’s road race national title in mid-July.
Abbott's recent cycling exploits attracted attention from two national magazines. She was featured in the "Faces in the Crowd" section of the Aug. 27 issue of Sports Illustrated, and her smiling photo graced the cover of the latest issue of VeloNews, the journal of competitive racing.
Abbott returns to Whitman after Saturday's race and jumps from her bike to the swimming pool for her fourth season with the Whitman women's swim team. Her best event is the 1,650-yard freestyle. She has placed in the top five in that event at the Northwest Conference championships in each of her three seasons. She ranks fourth all-time at Whitman at that distance, and she ranks in Whitman's all-time Top 10 in three other events.