Commentary: These were the 10 most important stories in US cycling in 2016

by Neal Rogers

December 22, 2016

10. Mara Abbott’s heartbreaking ride at the Rio Olympic road race

by Neal Rogers

The final 10km of Mara Abbott’s Olympic road race played out like a Greek tragedy.

After 127km of racing, there was the winning selection, with Abbott and Annemiek van Vleuten riding away from the best women in the world on the second and final ascent of the Vista Chinesa climb. With a growing lead, it appeared an American and a Dutch rider would battle for gold and silver.

Abbott, the two-time winner of the Giro Rosa, had left the sport in 2011 but returned in 2013, largely at the behest of USA Cycling’s athletics director Jim Miller, who told her the Rio Olympic road course was tailor-made for her. It appeared he was right.

Then, there was the treacherous, twisting descent, where Abbott was gapped by van Vleuten. Suddenly, it appeared Abbott might be racing for silver.

Before the race, there had been an arbitration hearing. There had been tension, and tears. Like gold medalist Kristin Armstrong, Abbott had been forced to defend her Olympic selection before a panel, after Coryn Rivera opened a separate arbitration for Abbott’s spot on the team for the road race, an experience Abbott described as “terrifying and unpleasant.”

On the descent into Copacabana Beach, there was van Vleuten’s horrific over-the-bars crash, caused by grabbing too much front brake to avoid a curb after entering a turn at excessive speed. Abbott passed the Dutch rider’s unconscious body, crumpled over a curb, a handful of seconds after the crash. There was no time to process, or to empathize; there was only time to focus, and push on.

From the bottom of the descent, where she held a 38-second lead, Abbott endured a desperate push to the finish, chased by three women — Sweden’s Emma Johansson, Italy’s Elisa Longo Borghini, and Anna van der Breggen of the Netherlands, who had just seen her teammate, injured, on the side of the road.

The stress was mounting, by the second, on the sport’s biggest stage. The entirety of Abbott’s 11-year racing career — injuries, struggles with anorexia, retirement, return from retirement, more injuries, the arbitration hearing — was all bubbling to a head, with the world watching.

“You just keep going,” Abbott said. “That’s what you’ve been trained to do. There is nothing else that makes sense.”

As the kilometers ticked by, Abbott’s gap slowly came down, from 35 seconds to 25 seconds to 15 seconds. No one watching the race — no one in the race — could predict the outcome. Would Abbott stay clear, to win an Olympic gold medal in the most dramatic fashion possible? Or would she be caught and passed by three chasing riders, bumped out of the medals, in the final kilometer?

The answer, of course, was the latter. With the finish line in sight, Abbott’s legs finally ran out of steam. The spirit was willing, but the body simply could do no more. Van der Breggen would take the sprint ahead of Johansson.

Abbott, caught less than 200 meters from the line, finished fourth.

“I knew it was probably going to come right down to the wire,” she said. “I just didn’t know which side of the wire.”

In the days that followed, Abbott announced her retirement from cycling in a touching essay published by the Wall Street Journal.

“Here is what actually matters more than a medal, she wrote. “For the final race of a career, creating a performance that was truly your best. In which you were tactically exactly where you needed to be at every juncture. Where you overcame your errors of the past and superseded the weaknesses others ascribed to you. Where you took the layer upon imperceptible layer of learning acquired over a decade of wins and losses and embodied all the lessons. Those sorts of race days might be even rarer than pure victories.

“Yet here is what I will always sort of wish I had,” she finished. “An Olympic medal.”