Mara Abbott Mara Abbott ’09 is shown racing July 12 in the last stage, Stage 9, in Grumo Nevano, heading for a second-place finish in the pretigious Giro d’Italia, Italy’s version of the Tour de France. Photo courtesy of CJ Farquharson.

A former Whitman College cycling team member — now a professional rider for the No.-1-ranked women’s team in the world, Team Columbia-HTC — recently finished second in one of the world’s most prestigious bike races, Italy’s women’s Giro d’Italia.

Mara Abbott ’09 was only 30 seconds behind the winner, Claudia Häusler of Germany, as they finished the 10-day 918-kilometer race. Abbott also won the third stage in the nine-stage race.

“She shows great promise as a bright young rider and a teammate, and we are proud of her,” said Bob Stapleton whose company, the California-based High Road Sports, Inc., owns Team Columbia–HTC, currently the world’s winningest professional cycling team. It won more races in 2008 than any other team, according to the team’s Web site.

Abbott already had many other cycling successes on her resume including winning the 2007 US National Road Title, placing  fourth in the Time Trial, earning a podium placing in the Montreal World Cup, winning the Tour of the Gila and representing her country at the World Championships.

Mara Abbott Mara Abbott ’09 celebrates her green jersey win, given to the race’s best climber. Photo courtesy of CJ Farquharson.

Abbott started competitive cycling at a time considered to be late. Her main sport since childhood in Boulder, Colo. had been competitive swimming. But at Whitman, during swimming’s off-season, she started riding with the cycling team because she didn’t want to be without a daily sport.  She says she “missed the structure and rhythm of having a competitive sport as a daily focus.” But she discovered she might have real talent in the sport.

She would quickly capture championship titles at the collegiate level. And because of the newcomer’s meteoric rise at one point she was featured in the “Face in the Crowd” section of Sports Illustrated and on the cover of VeloNews in which associate editor Fred Dreier described her as “one of America’s top hopes to bring home a medal” from the 2007 UCI World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany.

 “I honestly probably wouldn’t be riding at all if it weren’t for the cycling team at Whitman,” she said recently.

Abbott, daughter of an elementary school teacher and a public library employee, said she read about Whitman in the book “Colleges that Change Lives” and decided to visit Whitman. “I felt instantly at home,” said Abbott, who had been searching for a “small, liberal-arts scene.”

“Such a good choice,” she said.

She said it’s “a community of the happiest and most inspired people I know,” and it showed her the sort of life she wanted to lead.

“The period I was at Whitman was some of the happiest times of my life …. and it has shown me that I want to lead a life that is sustainable, with lots of laughter and wonderful friends, following the things I am passionate about and consistently challenging myself intellectually …. Whitman taught me how important utilizing my intelligence is and how exciting it is for me to be engaged in things I really care about.”

While becoming a powerhouse cyclist on the current most successful cycling team in the world, Abbott envisions graduate school and work in sustainability or environmental advocacy.

There are similarities between her experiences with Whitman faculty and students and the experiences she has had with her racing team.

“I like the fact that there is such a level of talent and mutual respect within the team that it holds each person accountable to accomplish their very highest level of excellence,” Abbott said. “Team Columbia-HTC to me represents professionalism and greatness.”

- Virginia Grantier