Analysis: Mara Abbott’s Incredible Olympic Road Race

All you can give is everything you have.

As I watched Mara Abbott, alone, straining against the pedals and headwind with a 38 second lead and 8 kilometers to go in the Olympic Road Race last Sunday, it was plain to see she was pouring everything she had into the effort. Across the nation and across the world we were screaming at our television screens, willing her to Olympic gold.

Alas, it was not to be.

Mara and her teammates did everything right. The final climb suited Mara’s climbing ability and the team set a hard pace going in to the climb to put the peloton into difficulty. As the lead group reduced in size, Mara was in her element. Cresting the summit only one rider was left with her, Annemiek van Vleuten of the Netherlands.

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By now everyone knows the tragedy that unfolded on the technical descent. Van Vleuten appeared to bobble on a tight right hand corner, but rather than slide out, her back tire skipped. She “high-sided”, going airborne and landing heavily on her head and neck in a deep roadside gutter. With the benefit of a few days worth of news we now know she suffered a bad concussion and three fractured vertebrae. But as Mara and then more riders streamed by her soon after it happened, no one knew the extent of her injuries.

Mara successfully navigated the tricky descent, but then faced a long, flat ride to the finish by herself. In that scenario your only choice is to ride as hard as you can, and hope. It’s an all or nothing play, and a Catch-22. If you give everything you have you could make it to the line for a solo win. But if you give everything you have and you get caught, there’s no energy left for Plan B.

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Tactically, Mara was up against a perfect storm. On the flat run to the finish there was a headwind and a chase group of three pursuing her (Anna van der Breggen, Emma Johansson, and Elisa Longo-Borgini). Not far behind that group was another containing four riders, including World Champion Lizzie Armistead.

When you are in a solo breakaway the best thing that can happen is for the chasers to start battling each other. Riders start sitting on instead of pulling, or they launch attacks and then slow down. The infighting behind you slows the chase and increases the chance you can stay away.

With a three-woman chase group, everyone in the group had a chance to earn an Olympic medal, but only if they caught Mara. There would be no infighting, but rather committed cooperation until they were on Mara’s wheel. To make matters worse, there was a four-woman chase group mere seconds behind the first chase. If both chase groups came together to form one group of seven, chances for a medal dwindled significantly. Even if they couldn’t catch Mara, the first group was going to ride all out to keep the second chase from catching them.

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It was four against three against one, in a headwind. Yet, because there are no race radios in the Olympics, Mara didn’t know what was transpiring behind her. It wouldn’t have changed her strategy even if she did. She was all in, full gas, either way.

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The best any athlete can do is to make all the right decisions to put yourself in position to win. That is what you can control, and that is what Mara did. When you do that you can walk away from any race, regardless of the result, with your head held high. Of course, that is infinitely easier to say when the result works out in your favor or you’re a coach sitting thousands of miles away.

I am so proud to call Mara a #CTSAthlete, not just because of her results, but more because of who she is, the strength of her convictions, and the way she competes. Mara Abbott may not have won an Olympic medal, but her courage won the admiration of everyone who watched her race. On Sunday I wanted to reach through the television and give her a big hug, and I’m glad her coach, Dean Golich, and her family were in Rio to support her. As a community, do me a favor and show Mara what her performance meant to you in the comment section below.

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

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Comments 122

  1. I have read your amazing post. I’m a regular visitor to your site and appreciate you taking the time to keep the superb website.

  2. Very excited for you guys. Thanks for the run-down on how you came to your decision to do this – makes so much sense by the way

  3. Good point, Joules, and dovetails nicely into my comment about the impacts on the rest of the economy from marshalling resources to combat the problems we're facing. We're resource richer than throughout history but we've built an intensive civilization on those abundant resources and don't stockpile much of them. Diverting significant quantities of those resources may not meet with universal approval and may require benign dictatorships to achieve.

  4. Megan, I really enjoyed your blog…..Sounds like you are having an awesome time…and so glad you are feeling a sense of belonging….Many blessings being sent your way…and yes, that sign was great!!!

  5. Dear Ms. Wanda:I am sorry that I never replied to this wonderful comment. Whippets are the most amazing creatures on the planet, and I so hope that you have the opportunity to share a portion of your life with one over the next few years. Perhaps you might contact a whrihet/gpeypound rescue organization to see if they have work for volunteers. You might be able to make contact in another fashion, besides being a pet "owner" per se. Finn, our whippet sends you his best. He is napping on the couch right now looking lovely as always! ~ A.

  6. You were delt a hand. You played it out. Much respect and admiration That’s your sport. Thanks for the representation.

  7. Mara – You were absolutely incredible. Your performance in the Women’s Olympic Road Race was inspiring. You gave everything you had and left it all out on the course and no one can give you anything but praise for such a courageous performance. It reminds us all that to succeed in life you must commit and leave it all on the line; and, not worry about winning or losing. I am so very proud of what you achieved and you should be too! Hold your head up high and know that you have achieved something most people can only dream about — 4th best in the world is awesome!

  8. I’m a beginner cyclist and witnessing Mara’s performance inspired me even more to keep doing what I’m doing. She won the gold in my book!!!!

  9. Mara-
    You made us all proud on Sunday. I was cheering for you and jumping up and down and willing that finish line to get to you before the others.

    I have thought about you all week and want you to k ow that you are a true champion and your performance inspired me!
    Heber City UT

  10. Pretty amazing! I’ve only done a handful of road races and I’ve managed to find a different way to do it wrong every time. It takes a will of steel and legs of steel to get an opportunity like that. The rest I believe is a smattering of luck. She was not without that either: kept the shiny side up.
    A race to be proud of.

  11. Thank you Mara for an amazing and inspirational ride. Yes I was screaming at the TV, but I wasn’t on the couch, I was standing and pacing around the room, cheering you on. It was a highly emotional race already, with the horrible crash, and then to watch your effort on the long straight. All in, all in. One for the ages.

    Thank you!

  12. Be proud Mara, stand tall, you rode a smart race, you were left with a finish line on a flat rode while giving 150% . You won in my book

  13. Mara, what a phenomenal and inspirational effort. I cannot imagine the pain and what you were thinking in those last several hundreds of meters. In my mind, you defined the Olympic ideal. Be proud of your race.

  14. I know I speak for so many of us who are inspired by Mara, but what we saw unfold in Rio on Sunday won’t be forgotten. Never have I seen such a display of courage, grit and spirit! Great work Mara!!!

  15. An awe inspiring RIDE Mara!! One to have made us cyclists and fans alike very PROUD to see that effort and GOLD determination, you’re a huge winner in my pages lady, an EAGLE spirit carried your pedals to the winds that day.. Way to ride. Rinse and repeat girl, rinse and repeat!

  16. From Lyttelton Harbour New Zealand we were also urging Mara on! I was gutted she got caught within a whisker of the line and even more so that she rode away without at least a public “well done” from someone on the screen. But yes she can hold her head up high.

  17. I, too, was screaming at the television and wildly wishing Mara would win gold after that fantastic climb. My hear sunk as the chasers closed in and sprinted in before her. Mara is a fantastic and inspiring rider – she gave a gold medal effort and was thrilling to watch.

    1. Totally agree – screaming at the TV, pulling for her – knew it was going to be tough, and close. Felt so bad – she worked so hard, in some ways it should be an unfulfilling win for the the other 3.

  18. Mara, your finish was first place in the hearts and minds of cycling fans – you used every ounce of fuel in the tank and are an inspiration to us all!

  19. You are an inspiration and your race was awesome. You gave it your all!! You truly represent the essence and spirit of the games!!!

  20. You gave the moment everything you had and you left it on the road…..and made it to the finish line! That’s how it should be done…….we are so proud of your efforts, Mara!
    Strong work!

  21. Mara, That was one awesome race. My wife and I were cheering you on like crazy. No shame in finishing fourth because you had the guts to do what you believed was necessary to win the race. We both have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for you and your effort!

  22. So proud of you Mara!
    Watching you in those final K’s was so inspiring and know that you have an entire US fan base that was on their feet cheering you on!

  23. Absolutely thrilling ride, Mara!! I was on the edge of my chair, cheering for you!!! So extremely proud that you ride for the USA!!

  24. We were cheering for you and know you gave it your best. Congratulations on a great race! We knew it would be hard for you not to get swallowed up by the three behind you since they were working together. We have seen it happen so many times in the Tour de France. We were very proud of your effort and for representing the USA. Your sportsmanship at the end was spectacular
    . Be proud and ride on!

  25. Epic Race, instant classic.
    Your brilliant effort is reminiscent of 1972 Munich. You are in good company.

    “Too give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”
    Steve Prefontaine

    1. Mara, what a fantastic, inspiring ride! Your ride will go down as one of the greatest in Olympic history. A medal is just a piece of hardware, but to give all that you have will last forever in your heart.

  26. Mara and the U.S. team. What an exciting and beautiful race you made. I’ll remember this race forever. Team tactics, chasing down breaks, setting up the final climb. Heart pounding, sitting on the edge of the seat, willing you on over the final kilometers. Inspirational. True Olympians. You make us proud. What a beautiful, memorable ride.

  27. What a truly inspiring athlete. Such a strong climber, I watched in awe of her power up that steep climb. Even though I had heard the results earlier, I was still on the edge of my seat watching the last minutes of the race and cheering her on (and wishing the finish line was closer.) What an effort and she has earned yet another FAN!

  28. AWESOME AWESOME AWESOME. Mara watching you, cheering for you made me proud to be an American. You represented your family, coach, and your country so very well. I am so proud of you, and I don’t even know you!

  29. The rides that affect me the most as a fan are the ones where a rider is gutting it out solo for the win. Over the years, a few stand out for me. David Millar at the Tour in Barcelona. Tony Martin at the Vuelta. Sagan at worlds. You can see the rider putting every ounce of their will into taking it to the line. You can sense the pressure of the group trying to chase them down. It is so elemental to bike racing.

    As a spectator, witnessing these rides are what its all about. You get the butterflies. You are on pins and needles, screaming at the TV. I have never experienced those feelings in greater abundance than I did on Sunday watching Mara fight to take it to the line. It was incredible to watch.

    The cool thing is that her ride wasn’t just witnessed by cycling nerds. My mother-in-law experienced it. She was standing up screaming at the TV. My five year-old daughter experienced it. If it ended in a bunch sprint, these folks would have forgotten about the race before dinner. But it was Mara’s ride that people will remember. Thank you for that, Mara. I know that you’ve personally won a lot fans, and I am willing to bet that you’ve won the sport of cycling a lot of fans, too.

  30. Mara has been an inspiration, and not just for her Olympic ride. Her domination up the Mortirolo in the Giro Rosa was pure magic to watch. Seeing her race in person in Philadelphia was a highlight in my summer.

    Thank you, Mara. Because of you and your spirit, there are girls (and grown women!) out there who can’t wait to ride their bikes.

  31. Mara,
    Firstly, CONGRATULATIONS, CONGRATULATIONS for riding a real Olympic race,one that was so special to watch&so special to you in the future. (I’m an ex-GB handcyclist turned rower for Rio!). You showed what the Olympic definition is all about being a supreme athlete&being able to push yourself into darker places just to achieve your next….&that’s what you did. I believe you also struggle with anorexia-I did for an number of years&have been able to turn it round. The power of mind you showed in the road race is the ultimate athlete mindset&for that you’ve won many people’s
    hearts &although I’m sure you feel an overwhelming sense of misery at thet moment. You have everything to look forwards to although right now I’m sure it feels quit rubbish…you won alot of people’shearts &made may proud of V you…

  32. I made a video about her performance and I hope it spreads like a brush fire and brings more people to support Women’s cycling, because after seeing Mara’s performance I am a believer and I am hooked! Mara Abbott Tribute-

  33. Holy RIDE YOUR HEART out Mara! Good on you. You make me so proud to be an American. Inspiration in action! Thank you so much for representing us so honorably.

  34. No one here is a critic and I don’t think error played a part, but my mind turned to the famous passage from Teddy Roosevelt’s “Citizenship in a Republic” speech when I saw Mara get passed right before the finish line (edited here for gender reference):

    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong woman stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the woman who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends herself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if she fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that her place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

  35. I felt similarly to Chris while watching the race and the chase group times. Saw the (previous) men’s Olympic cycling race with near-finish chase group infighting and was hoping for the same at the end of the women’s to put Mara into the gold. Didn’t happen! 🙁

    I thought it was an amazing effort and I was so proud to be an American watching her solo charge leading the field.

    Olympic effort from an amazing athlete!

  36. So glad to come across this article. Nicely written. I was truly inspired by Mara’s efforts. She really made us all very proud. I wanted to give her a big hug too!

  37. Truly awesome effort – we were all willing Mara on and so disappointed that it was just to far to give the true climbers a real chance. Played to perfection tactically – there was nothing left or nothing else that could have been done to give a better chance of success on that course. Bike racing at its brutal best.

  38. Mara – You exemplify the Olympic spirit! I’m recovering from a cycling fall and your heart, strength and efforts make me proud to be a part of the female cyclist community. If only all of us screaming “GO!” at the TV could have disrupted the seven behind you. When I get into rehab replaying your determination will make me give the extra. Thank you!

  39. Mara you were amazing to watch and truly a class act. As a triathlete two weeks from an ironman race I was fascinated by your strength…physical and mental. I was so proud of what you said in your post race interview. Congratulations on a super strong and speedy race.

    1. A Facebook post partially spoiled the ending for me, however it spurred me to drop what I was doing and fetch the remote. Undoubtedly this was the race of all races with a Gold medal performance, despite it going to the first girl across the line. A class act. Courage beyond words. Simply stunning. If only the line had been 1/4 mile closer!

  40. Mara, you are amazing and truly courageous. As many others have pointed out, your beautiful ride is an inspiration to millions around the world, and will be remembered long after the names of the podium finishers are forgotten. I am honored to be your friend and expect you will receive a hero’s welcome when you come home 🙂 You’ll probably have hundreds of fans trying to follow you on your rides around town – not that anyone could really keep up with you 😉

  41. Thank you, Mara for such a fantastic ride.
    Sunday was a great day not only for U.S. Cycling, but women’s cycling as well.
    You and your competitors showed the world – again – how fantastic, how exciting cycling can be – men’s AND women’s.
    You were, in a word, fabulous.
    Thanks again.

  42. Amazing effort, very proud to call you one of our US Cyclists, you put your all into every effort and didn’t skip a beat, leaving everything on the road. Nice article Chris, well said.

  43. To be honest never really watched women’s cycling before until I tuned it to watch it this Olympics. It was a pretty amazing event. I imagine Mara is disappointed to work so hard and come so close without a medal to show for it, however, I hope she realized she represented her country extremely well and her performance earned the respect of many. I’ll be paying closer attention to women’s cycling from now on.

    Also, good to hear Annemiek van Vleuten is stable. Not only was her fall tragic and caused some broken bones, she’ll be left wondering if that didn’t happen would gold be around her neck? Part of the tough drama that unfolds in cycling.

  44. you are a champion!!
    your bravery and commitment
    the way you went for it
    tears and goosebumps for you over the last few yards
    you are my champion!!!

  45. Congratulations Ms. Abbott on a tremendous ride. So much respect for all your work and your incredible effort in the Olympics. You are a model for all athletes, cyclists and someone kids should look up to. Way to put it all out there.

  46. I get to ride with Kristen Armstrong on occasion at home. I was SO impressed with the American women’s effort. Mara gave it everything and it was awesome to see. You should all be very proud!!!

  47. It was incredible to watch. I was standing inches from my TV, screaming, but knowing that cycling is a cruel, cruel sport. It would have been super human to pull that win off. The courage and guts you showed on Sunday will be with me for a long time. The pain you must have been in is beyond my comprehension. The thrill of the almost and then the destruction of the pass. The emotional roller coaster you must have felt and be feeling. You have to know, Mara, that you have inspired a generation of young women cyclists. You have to know that you made a difference! You are the talk of the world, this incredible woman cyclist that held us all in her hands and how we wept for you. You and that race will be one of my most memorable Olympic moments. There can be so much success and learning in not winning. At this moment you may not feel like it, but you are a hero. Much respect, Sally Butler

  48. 4 of us on Team Placid Planet had finished our TT race are were watching at a local sports pub near the race venue. The place was going crazy watching Mara lay it all out there trying to stay away. There are now 4 TPP fans and 40 other locals who are fans. What a great ride. You’re grace and dignity in that post race interview was special. We are proud of you. You’re pure gold in our book.

    Hal and the rest of the Team

  49. Mara, your gutsy, all-out effort shows the best of American women athletes. That’s what the Olympics is about anyway, so you’re a gold medalist in my eyes.

    1. Mara, you are truly a great ambassador for women’s cycling !!!!!!!! Thank you for one of the most exciting races n Olympic history !

  50. Courage, Courage, Courage! Mara won the hearts of all with a performance that can only be described as an epic Olympic battle. This is what sport is all about; skill, talent, tenacity and never giving up. Mara: Congratulations! May you fully understand what you did and its overwhelming effect on all of us who witnessed it.

  51. Mara, I was trying to help you pedal that last stretch. It was inspiring to see you go all in to win. You won even though you did not receive a medal. Thank you for your Olympic effort!

  52. It was heartbreaking to watch, but it was clear everything she had was out there. What an amazing athlete. Thank you for explaining some of the strategic issues and unknowns she was dealing with. We are so proud of her!

  53. Mara, Mara, Mara what a beautiful name and the name of a real champion. My wife and I heard about you from Jane Marshall and we made sure we watched your heroic journey. My wife screamed at the TV. We are a lot older than you but you brought a real spark to our life. A big hug for you sweet heart, you are our hero. Please enjoy the games and from our perspective all the glory, you are a winner.
    Joe and Jean

  54. You represented the USA and yourself with an awesome show of dignity and strength. I know you are disappointed but WOW! You are an amazing athlete.

  55. Mara- I will not remember who podiumed in women’s cycling in Rio 2016, but I will never forget your amazing ride! You are the best!

  56. Chris, Pass along our family’s kudos to Mara. She rode a perfect race. I know it’s heartbreaking to come up a couple seconds short, but there’s nothing more she could have done.

    We were all pulling for her, too, and if the race was in the Northern Hemisphere, then she could have heard us screaming encouragment through our TV!!

    Do pass along our heartfelt congratulations to Mara.
    Thank you!

  57. Cheering from my sofa is an understatement!! If there were a medal for courage and hard work, Mara would win hands down. I was screaming more energy for her!! So proud and such a nail biting race.

  58. Mara, your race was such an inspiration to my daughter and me. Your mental and physical toughness to dig down so deep was amazing to witness and we are very proud of American tenacity!

  59. Mara Abbott is an an American hero and a champion. Watching her race was so much more exciting than any other road race I’ve watched all year, and it’s definitely an historical Rio moment we’ll be talking about for a long time. Amazing race. Incredible post-race championship attitude. Mara is an inspiration to all.

  60. Mara you win a metal for courage what a race you are a true champion. Your effort will be a model for all of us to follow. What a great interview after the race

  61. Mara: on the hardest ride of my life, my heart rate has never been higher than rooting for you to pull off that win. It was a great lesson in pure sacrifice and team effort to show my two young children. Thank you for an amazing ride!

  62. Mara…. What an incredible ride….!! As a coach myself, I tell the kids have fun and never give up….. I could replay your effort a thousand times as you were gutsy and never gave up…. People won’t remember who got what medal in a few weeks but they will remember Mara riding an incredible finale to a well planned and executed race ….. Congrats on making wonderful Olympic memories for all of us…..

  63. Truly inspirational ride by Mara. Thank you for representing the US with so much class and character both during and after the race.

  64. All I can say is WOW!!! What an effort. I cannot believe Mara was able to hold the gap at around 10 to 15 seconds for so long and then to be passed just meters from the finish line! What an exciting and memorable race. Way to go Mara!

  65. Your did your best you will always look back at the tremendous effort! We are very proud to watch you do the best against difficult circumstances. Thank you for a great show!

  66. Mara raced her heart out; left EVERYTHING on the road. She did what champion does!!!! Made us all super proud!!! Way to go, Mara!!!!

  67. I’m currently reading the book Grit by Angela Duckworth and your ride personified the thesis of her book. I gave you a virtual hug after that gritty performance. Your true gold medal is your heart.

  68. Excellent article and so wonderful to learn that Mara Abbott is a CTS athlete! She rode like a champion and I was cheering for her all the way home. Such a shame to miss a medal but when I remember that race I will recall her bravery! Well done.

  69. Mara, Your grace and absolute presence of mind is an inspiration for all athletes (and with luck, more than a few politicians). You absolutely nailed what being an Olympic athlete is all about. I cannot think of anyone who has made me more proud to be an American. Thank you for your years of dedication to the sport and to being a good sport.

  70. Congratulations Mara! Your ride must have inspired hundreds of girls and women in future women’s events. You have given back to your sport in a way most can not. Thank you.

  71. Bravo on your amazing ride on a brutal route. And another BRAVO on your interview right after where your pride in what you accomplished overshadowed coming short of an Olympic medal.

  72. I, too, was screaming to Mara through my TV. I’ve watched enough pro tour cycling to know what was developing, and I knew the finish would come down to mere seconds and meters. Mara was all in and gave one of the gutsiest athletic performances I’ve ever seen. She represented, and as a US citizen, I couldn’t be more proud of her performance.

  73. Incredible performance in crazy situations…Anna makes it down the hill safely and you are on the podium. Gutsy! Way to race Mara. You make all #ctsathletes proud!

  74. Mara, your “give it all” attitude will be an inspiration to many. You promised to perform in a pre-Games interview, and you delivered the performance of the Games.

  75. That was an incredible effort and, to me, the best of what this sport offers. Tactics, fitness, grit, environment — and a little luck — all combining into one moment. At the 5k mark I told my family that I wish the race was 200 m shorter, but WOW what an incredible race! Thank you to Mara (and all of the women) for sharing with us.

  76. So amazing, so brutal, this sport – Mara, you put in an amazing ride – you never quit and you will always be a winner …

  77. Mara,
    You did great. My whole family was screaming for you during the last few miles. You made your nation proud!

  78. Congrats Mara! Haven’t cheered at the tube so passionately since the early tour days of Lance Armstrong. Truly inspirational! Go USA! Go Mara!

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