The GSB Interview: Mara Abbott, World Class Cyclist + Environmentalist

Mara (rhymes with “tiara”) Abbott, 27, is perhaps the quintessential Eco-Athlete. Born and raised and now living in Boulder, CO, Abbott is imbued with the strong environmentalist ethos that is associated with area.  And she’s one of the top ranked road cyclists in the world, winning the 2013 Giro Rossa (think the women’s version of the Tour de France) in Italy.  But these factoids only tell the basics of Abbott’s compelling story, which includes a retirement from cycling at age 26 while dealing with an eating disorder and subsequent return a year later. GreenSportsBlog caught up with Mara about her “un-retirement” and reconciling the challenges of being a world class cyclist and the environmental impacts of her sport.

GreenSportsBlog:  You were at or near the top of women’s road cycling, in your prime, and then retired. What prompted the retirement and your return to the sport? Did environmental concerns play a part in either or both decisions?

Mara Abbott:  There were many factors that led to my retirement, the main one being that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a world class cyclist. I mean I kind of fell into cycling in college, found out I was good at it and then it just kept building.  But was cycling what I really wanted to be doing?  I had lots of other interests–was an Economics major in college, been passionate about the environment since I was a kid.  And, yet, as I saw how much pollution is created to allow our races to take place (air travel, support teams, transportation to and from the races by fans), I became even more conflicted about what I was doing.  Was that the main reason I retired? No. It was one of them. But the main thing I asked myself was this: “If I’ve got it made–in the sense that I’m at the top of the sport–and I’m not sure this is what I’m doing and I’m not so happy about it–then why am I doing it?” So I quit. And when I quit, I was certain, that was it. I’m done.

GSB:  What made you come back?

MA:  As I said, when I retired that was it. I was going to move on with the next phase of life. And I did that.  I got very involved with the Boulder Environmental Advisory Board and hoped to engage the Boulder cycling community in greening programs.  But, with all this, I found I missed the competition, missed being in the sport.  Even though I wasn’t racing, I was riding most days. So, despite not having reconciled all of the issues that led to me retiring, I decided to come back, this time because I WANTED to, even though I still didn’t have everything figured out.

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Mara Abbott, Winner, 2013 Giro Rossa (Photo Credit: Rick Cummings)

GSB:  So what’s different about Version 2.0 of Mara Abbott’s cycling career, especially from a sustainability Point of View?

MA:  Well, I realize that I can’t fix everything about the heavy carbon footprint of women’s road cycling. I am going to do whatever is in my power to do. That includes speaking out on sustainability issues, both in public and one-on-one with other cyclists and with the people who run races, offset my carbon on flights, encourage folks to ride their bikes rather than drive when they can, and anything else I can do in a non-threatening way. Positive steps are important no matter how small, and it is important to not alienate others by being too much of a zealot.

GSB:  Has being back on tour challenged your environmentalism?

MA:  In some ways, yes, because as I said earlier, professional cycling is the opposite of sustainable.  But I came to realize, as I re-establish myself as a professional athlete, that I have a platform from which to influence people about the things I care about—like living in a healthy, sustainable manner.

GSB:  How do you like speaking out in public?

MA: I’m a private person.  I might not come across that way (Ed. Note: She doesn’t!) but I am.  Overcoming that reluctance to open up to people about what’s important to me is very hard. So I have to push myself because sharing my ideas about sustainability and a greener tour is what I have to do.  I just have to power through it.

GSB:  Seems to me that your mentality on the bike—pushing through physical pain and fatigue—can help you with your public speaking.

MA:  Oh, cycling is much easier!

GSB:  Easy for you to say. I bet your experience on the bike will help you behind the mic!  I’ve spoken to several eco-athletes since I started GSB and I struck by how rare they are as a breed.  Do you have any theories as to why?

MA:  I’m not sure I agree with the premise of your question.

GSB:  Really, why? The couple eco-athletes I’ve spoken to said, basically, that they’re so laser-focused on their sport that they have too little time to get involved with any issues, including sustainability.

MA:  I don’t agree.  YES, we’re focused on our jobs, our sport.  But aren’t people in other jobs laser-focused?  We’re no busier than anyone else.  My thing is that there aren’t many eco-evangelists in ANY line of work and that the percentage of eco-athletes to all athletes probably mirrors that of eco-evangelists to the population at large.

GSB:  THAT IS SUCH AN INTERESTING PERSPECTIVE! We need to test the proposition!  Who are some of the other eco-athletes on the women’s cycling tour?

MA:  Well, one eco-cyclist is Ally Stacher, who rides for Specialized-Lululemon. She started her own nutrition bar company in Asheville, NC.

GSB:  The percentage of eco-cyclists just doubled, at least to my knowledge! Turning towards the future, are the 2016 Olympics in Rio in your future?

MA:  I’m going to go for it.  There’s nothing bigger in women’s cycling than the Olympics in terms of accomplishment or as a platform to speak to the things you care about..  There is no such thing as an Olympic Trials for cycling; there are selection criteria and it often comes down to a coach’s selection, so you just have to ride your best for four years!  That’s what I’m going to work towards.  And I will continue to speak out.

GSB:  Good luck!  GSB will be following you on the bike and at the mic!

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