REDLANDS, Calif. (VN) — The Sunset Loop Road Race runs up into the hills above downtown Redlands, Calif., up through twisting, tree-covered roads. The climb is as relentless as it is deceiving. A false summit announces a final pitch to the summit.
On the final lap of Sunday’s women’s race at the Redlands Bicycle Classic, a solitary rider crested the summit first and disappeared over the top of the climb to descend to the finish line. She was Mara Abbott (Exergy-Twenty16), winner of March’s San Dimas Stage Race, announcing her return to elite racing in emphatic style.
After a year away from elite-level cycling, Abbott tore away for a solo victory in the final stage of the four-day National Racing Calendar opener. She crossed the downtown finish line almost a half-minute ahead of second-placed Joelle Numainville (Tibco-The the Top). The time gap left the two-time U.S. road champion plenty of time to celebrate.
“With this race, it’s an interesting climb; it’s of a distance, if it’s ridden easy, the race will stay together,” said Abbott. “It’s short enough that you have to ride it hard in order to make a selection, so the harder the race goes, the better it ends up for me.”
Sunday’s race was fast from the start, spurred on by a fierce battle for the mountains jersey. Abbott, who won the Giro Donne — the top stage racing prize in women’s cycling — in 2010, was part of a two-rider breakaway that escaped with four laps to race. Abbott’s breakaway partner was another former Giro winner, Tibco’s Claudia Häusler.
“It was a great battle on Sunset, and the final selection came down to two of the world’s strongest climbers,” said Exergy director Nicola Cranmer.
Abbott attacked with the goal of winning the stage and possibly overturning the general classification on the race’s final day. She started Sunday’s stage in 17th place overall, 1:28 behind race leader Alison Powers (NOW-Novartis for MS).
“If you go to get away, they kind of take care of each other,” said Abbott of her general classification hopes. “But that being said, it’s hard, those last 10 [kilometers] coming down the mountain is a long 10 kilometers to be alone. You know you’re going to lose some time there, so you have to have a pretty good lead to get that kind of time on GC.”
Behind Abbott, race leader Powers rode steadily and kept her from running out the clock in the general classification. All the same, Abbott’s great escape moved her up to seventh overall by the end of the day.
After the stage, Abbott said she was happy to come back to Redlands with a stage victory, but she lamented the loss of the race’s traditional opening time trial, which finished with a sharp climb to the top of the Sunset course, in reverse.
This year, Redlands began with a mostly flat time trial in Big Bear Lake that saw solid winds beating back the pure climbers like Abbott. Add to that the loss of the Oak Glen stage, last featured in 2007, and the Redlands Classic has veered more toward an all-rounder’s affair since Abbott’s debut in 2006.
“It was a great way to come back, even if they took away the cool time trial. You can print that!” she said, laughing. “And, Oak Glen! They took both of those away! Sunset’s all I got left, man.”
The final-day romp in the hills above Redlands was all she needed. Abbott dropped out of the peloton unceremoniously in 2011, just over a year after her Giro triumph. Battling motivation and health problems, and having lost a significant amount of weight, Abbott left the sport without a plan to return.
Flash-forward to late-summer 2012, and Abbott, a former collegiate swimmer, was experimenting with triathlon and considering dipping her toes back into road racing. She quietly rode the Aspen Women’s Challenge criterium in August with Exergy and announced her full-time return later in the fall.
Cranmer said Sunday she was not surprised to see Abbott win the finale of her NRC return. “Athletes do not generally return to their sport at this level unless they are hungry for success,” said Cranmer.
Next up for Abbott is a triathlon in Tempe, Ariz. It will be her second attempt at the three-sport discipline. Then, it’s on to one of Abbott’s favorite races, the mountainous Silver City’s Tour of the Gila. “One good thing after another!” she said, smiling.
Abbott has only planned her schedule through May, so she does not yet know if she will head to Europe this summer with the U.S. National Team. But it is clear that she has returned to the sport with plenty of ambition.
“The win adds to Abbott’s confidence,” said Cranmer. “She has openly set her goals high. She wants to be the best in the world.”
The “best in the world” includes a shot at a medal at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games in 2016. Sunday’s win over a quality field represents a step forward for Abbott, who left the sport as one of the its top climbers, and looks to be on her way back up to that lofty position.