Mara Abbott
Mara Abbott ’08 races to victory in Italy’s Giro Rosa.

Mara Abbott ’08 is a world-class cyclist.

In 2010, Abbott reached the top of her profession by winning the prestigious Giro Rosa. An eating disorder forced her out of the sport a year later, but she returned with a vengeance, winning the 2013 Giro Rosa while racing for the U.S. national team.

By Edward Weinman

Mara Abbott ’08 is one of the most successful athletes you may have never heard of.

In 2010, Abbott became the first American to win Italy’s Giro Rosa, the most important women’s cycling race. The Boulder native repeated this feat last July, riding to victory in the 786 km, eight-stage race in 20:30.15, which was 1.33 ahead of her closest competitor, Guderzo Tatiana.

However, the results weren’t splashed across the country on ESPN SportsCenter.

“I’m a girl cyclist,” Abbott said. “You can’t find out about women’s cycling if you want to.”

A former competitive swimmer, Abbott began cycling at Whitman when she realized she wasn’t all that good at swimming, or, as she told the cycling magazine Velo News, that no matter how much she trained, she’d still get beaten by “13-year-olds.”

Whitman’s head swim coach disagreed with Abbott’s assessment of her lack of prowess in the water.

“Coaching Mara was a ton of fun,” Coach Jennifer Blomme said. “She was a strong distance swimmer for our team. Her work ethic was stellar. She loved training. It didn’t matter how long or hard a workout was – she just kept at it.”

Blomme said that if collegiate swim events lasted longer than the mile, say, 2,000 or 5,000 yards, there would be no swimmer who could touch Abbott. Because of the endurance Abbott showed in the pool, Blomme was not surprised Abbott went on to become a top cyclist.

“I don’t know that my crystal ball was honed enough to have predicted that this smiley distance swimmer from Colorado could have become a world-class cycling phenom, but looking back, it all makes sense. She had the engine for endurance racing.”

This capacity for endurance training is one reason cycling came naturally to Abbott. In her first year on Whitman’s cycling team, she won a collegiate national title. By the time she was a senior, Abbott had won professional races.

“I’m a person who is competitive, and I want to excel,” the former economics major told Velo News, which covers the sport of professional cycling. “I had a conversation with my brother – and he was an investment banker – and we talked about how special it is to try and do something with the goal of being the best in the world.”

With her second Giro Rosa title, Abbott can now call herself the best in the world. Her success, though, is something that at first surprised her.

“Originally, when I began [racing at Whitman] it was surprise after surprise,” the 28-year-old said. But after she began winning national races, she knew she could excel.

“You want to give yourself the respect of taking yourself seriously. Stuff happens that you don’t anticipate. But once you reach a certain level and enter a race with the best in the world, you have to believe you can win if you want to succeed,” Abbott said.

In terms of her professional career and her personal life, “stuff happens” is an understatement. Despite her incredible success out of the gate, Abbott began to doubt whether racing was her chosen calling. Her inner environmentalist began to wonder whether flying around the world to competition after competition while consuming gallons of water from plastic bottles to stay hydrated was in the best interest of the natural world.

“I had all these aspirations of doing work in environmental sustainability that I felt were a little bit in conflict with cycling, because cycling is a really wasteful sport,” Abbott told The Denver Post. “I just wasn’t sure – in the world, what am I accomplishing by being this elite cyclist?”

Conflicted about her chosen profession, Abbott sought an escape from cycling. Unable to articulate her reasons for leaving, she escaped out the backdoor, through an eating disorder that rendered her already tiny body incapable of successfully racing up Alpine slopes or sprinting across European flatlands.

“I didn’t [not eat] because you think it’s going to make you better. You do it because it’s a disease, not necessarily under your control, or logical. I needed to change something, and [my eating disorder] is the way it was coming out,” Abbott said.

“I left in 2011, and basically what it came down to was that I was naturally talented at cycling from the beginning, but I didn’t know why I was doing it. I wasn’t sure if cycling was what I should be doing. I didn’t know how to get out of the sport with words, so I had to use my action, so I could drop out and find out who I was. Basically, I was unhappy and didn’t know how to express that.”

After a year off, however, she returned to the sport she loves. Today, racing is part of her DNA.

“If your job is getting up and riding your bike, your life is not that bad,” Abbott said.

“You begin going down this path and going toward your potential, and the more you learn about the sport, the more it becomes a part of you, the harder it is to leave behind. Plus, I love being outdoors and [training] in the mountains of Colorado.”

Abbott described the line between finishing first and finishing second as “the biggest, but smallest, line ever.” However, it turned out that taking time off didn’t stop her from quickly rising to the top of her sport. In her first year back, she once again won the Giro Rosa.

“You’re still the same person. If you do it once, you’ll be able to do it again.”

Abbott keeps her success in perspective, though. She admires the work her fellow alumni are doing, and remains adamant that when your job is to ride a bike, it’s easy going.

“I think cycling is a lot like any career. You enter a career, and you go to work and show up. You do your training and do the races, because you have a specific goal to win a race, or just to see what your potential is and what you might be able to achieve.

“Whitman gave me a lot of options and made me a person who didn’t just have to be a cyclist. Look at all the incredible things my peers are doing,” she said.

“I’m just riding a bike.”