Don’t miss out on the latest CyclingTips updates.
I read Mara Abbott’s first Daily Boulder column shortly after landing the women’s cycling editor position at Ella. I’m pretty sure I emailed her to ask her if she wanted to write for us before I reached the end. Mara’s talent with words rivals her talent on the bike, and we’re lucky she so graciously shares both with us.
The column below is Mara’s first for Ella. She joins Chloe Hosking and Loren Rowney as regular contributors to this site.
For my debut column with Ella Cycling Tips, I thought it only appropriate that I offer a few of my own cycling tips to our new readers. Whether you compete for fun, race professionally, or simply enjoy riding your bike around town, I hope there is something here that speaks to you.
Choose your mentors wisely
An eager advisor lies waiting around every switchback in Bike World. The first time you bought a tube or joined a group ride, I suspect that a line of Bike Bros may have been trampling one another to gain your audience. I do hope you at least let them talk – for the Bike Bro is a fragile creature. Beneath his passion and encyclopedic knowledge, he remains very aware of his colored tights and skinny arms. It is polite to help him feel important – but take what he says with a grain of salt.
After your first cycling victory, the advisors may have emerged anew as prophets, eager to shepherd your sure path to greatness. Remember that despite their great intentions, neither the Bike Bros nor the prophets truly know you personally. While their wisdom is admirable, alas there is no cookie-cutter pathway to the podium that can be studied or prescribed.
So get very clear, very early on, about a small handful of people you truly trust. The gift of this confidence is a huge privilege – don’t give it away too easily. Accustom yourself to background noise while keeping the counsel of your true mentors close to your heart.
And yes, I am aware that my entire column is advice. Feel free to disregard me as well.
It is winter in the Northern Hemisphere now, and I assure you: your ski mittens do not look silly. What actually does is the guy who earlier so vainly slid his hands into svelte gloves, but has now been reduced to tears as his fumbling frozen fingers begin the thawing process. Layering is an option: if you get too warm, stuff the mitts up the back of your jersey for safekeeping – they are engineered to be bulky enough that they won’t go slinking out like some skimpy piece of five-fingered nylon.
The same goes for feet. I agree, your cycling shoes are beautiful, and you will have all summer to show them off. I got a pair of lovely neoprene shoe covers in high school that are about a half centimeter thick and fleece lined. The elderly back zippers no longer even have sliders, so I hold them onto my feet with rubber bands. Replacing some things just isn’t worth the risk.
Oh, I wish that weight did not actually affect cycling performance. But it does. The hallowed power-to-weight ratio does indeed have some say in who lands at the top of the results sheet. As a result, the culture of endurance athletics can be tempted to go too far and confuse extreme leanness as being equal to actual strength or health. Personally, having taking a hiatus from sport in 2012 due to an eating disorder, I can attest that my thinnest was definitely not my strongest. I really mean that. Please read that sentence more than once.
My frightening gauntness when I look back over photos from that time is so clear that it still freaks me out. Yet one fall day in 2011, when I was constantly hungry, exhausted and trapped in a vicious cycle of self-control, I went for a ride in my hometown – the “fittest city in America”. As I passed a woman up a slight incline, she called to me, “Your calves are amazing! How did you get them so cut?” I was speechless, distracted by the sudden sensation that all my inner organs had definitely vaporized. I later regretted my silence, envisioning an alternate past in which I turned around, replied “do you really want to know?” before I explained to her exactly the price I paid for those cut calves. Even scarier than my own incremental inner collapse was the realization that someone might see that image as something to be achieved or admired.
We spend so much time trying to be our own best athlete that we sometimes forget what crazy looks like. This is where your true mentors can help – so listen to them. Listen to yourself. And eat your dinner.
Perfect your bathroom strategy
Fact: the boys on the group ride can handle a pee stop with much greater ease and efficiency than you. Therefore, I suggest you select and hone your strategy early on to be confidently prepared when necessity calls. You could go for traditional shorts rather than bibs, but then you have to face a red indentation around your middle for at least the rest of the day. It might even be permanent. You may also want to create a mental map of handy spots – I live in an area surrounded by recreation areas and trailheads, and I always know precisely where the nearest outhouse is.
You can get still more creative – obviously not that I would know, I hear the “pull ‘n’ pee” is also a great tactic. You just have to stretch out the hem on one side of your shorts so that you can pull it across and … I will let you figure the rest out. No judging.
Commute on your bicycle
Several very shiny bicycles have helped me to win very big races, and I will always gratefully recall those passionate summer flings. Yet my one two-wheeled forever love is my golden commuter ‘cross bike, with her fender, lights and toe clips – even in spite of her habit of insistently eating up the right hem of all of my jeans.
Commuting by bike is an entryway to community. It provides the adventure of discovering paths, back roads and new shortcuts. You encounter passersby face-to-face – rather than separated by metal or glass. And it is a massive coup in efficiency, as you can multitask a workout with transportation. We all know that women’s professional cycling is fabulously lucrative, so it might be interesting that in the USA, the cost estimate (including factors such as vehicle depreciation, fuel and repairs) of driving is about 30 cents a kilometer – and our fuel is relatively cheap. This, kids, accumulates to more than just coffee change.
Don’t forget to feel
Relationship with our physical bodies is a privilege of the committed athlete. This kinship is accumulated through a lifetime of investigation – a daily study of limits, capacity, and personal strength. I claim my “Yoga for Athletes” classes are realistically “Advanced Yoga”, for simply folding in half is not nearly so rare as the ability to intelligently articulate one’s limbs (I know – thank goodness).
Yet as we turn into competitors, the joy of sensation is easily forgotten in our desire to perform as invulnerable machines. We strive for flawless willpower and tenacity to match our abs of steel (we all clearly have them – just hidden modestly under bib shorts). We can train ourselves to numb our instinctual calls for rest or food. At least for myself, too much attempted perfection makes it frighteningly easy to forget the simple experience of strength, movement and freedom that led me to ride in the first place. I doubt I am entirely alone on that.
Just remember what it feels like to feel. It is absolutely easier to be numb, but it simply isn’t worth it.
That is my best shot. Truly, we are lucky to be girls on bikes, and lucky to be supported by this new community of Ella. Thanks for reading, you can send your complaints to Jessi. She wrangled me into this. I’ll see you out on the road.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mara was a swimmer before she was a cyclist. She swam competitively from the age of nine all the way through her senior year of college. A seasonal sport at Whitman College, swimming left Mara with more time on her hands than she was accustomed to, so she turned to cycling. Her talent was immediately apparent. She won the collegiate national title (Division II) in the women’s road race at the end of her first season.
Mara turned pro with Webcor. She flourished on the States-based squad, winning the U.S Elite National Championships road title in her second year as a professional. The win, accompanied by consistent podiums achieved throughout the season, saw Mara move across to HTC-Highroad. Since then, she’s ridden for Peanut Butter & Co. Twenty12, Diadora Pasta Zara, Exergy Twenty16 and UnitedHealthCare. She joins Wiggle Honda for the 2015 season.
She became the first American to win the Giro Donne (now called Giro Rosa), riding for the U.S National Team in 2010. She repeated the feat three years later.
Of course, Mara is much more than the bike. She’s an avid yoga practitioner and certified instructor. She a board member of both the City of Boulder Environmental Advisory Board and the Daily Camera Editorial Advisory Board. She’s a staunch proponent of bike commuting and a very proud new homeowner in the city of Boulder.
And now she’s an Ella columnist, too.