Steve Lewis/Durango Herald file photo
The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic women’s road race has boiled down to one simple question since 2007: Can anyone beat Mara Abbott?
So far, the answer’s been an emphatic no.
And with some of the IHBC’s top female regulars spending the weekend on the Exergy Tour in Idaho, one might assume the answer would be no for a fifth consecutive road race.
But there’s a subplot this year as far as the four-time reigning women’s champion goes. Abbott, the first American winner of the Giro Donne and former USA Cycling elite road national champion, has stepped away from competitive cycling, opting to engage in other pursuits, including her love of teaching yoga.
“I guess I sort of, like emotionally and ideologically, was having a hard time finding myself as a cyclist,” said the 26-year-old Abbott, born in Boulder. “Basically, I still love riding my bike, still love competing, but pro cycling wasn’t working for me at the time.
“I quit riding. However, the Iron Horse is special, and the Iron Horse doesn’t count,” said Abbott, who indicated her love of Durango’s cycling celebration is too much to pass up.
Add that to the fact she was cleared just last week to ride after breaking her foot, and the field appears to be as wide open as it has been in years.
“I just finally was able to start going hard again, and so far everything has held together. I’m coming in fairly well-rested,” said Abbott, who added a sarcastic laugh to punctuate the final point.
Healthy or not, however, the rest of the field will have to deal with the legend cast by the only rider – male or female – to win four consecutive IHBC road race championships.
“I’m not sure if she was having health issues or what, but she’s definitely, obviously, the person to watch since she’s won so many years in a row,” said Sarah Zoey Sturm, now a Fort Lewis College alumna who is an entrant in the pro field.
There will be a sizeable crowd hoping to unseat Abbott, but it’ll be missing some familiar names. The Exergy Tour stage race in Idaho will claim Durango native Kristin McGrath, who was second in the road race last year and captured last year’s omnium title, as well as last year’s fourth-place finisher and Durango native Carmen Small. Defending women’s criterium champ and Dolores resident Lauren Hall also will be in the Exergy field among many others.
“Unfortunately, the field is small. But there’s always someone who pops up who knows how to climb,” said Michael Engleman, director and founder of the U.S. Women’s Cycling Development Program.
“It’s kind of the last weekend to qualify for the Olympics.”
Hence the strong pro women’s field in Idaho. However, there’s still plenty of talent expected to be at Durango’s starting line.
Sturm’s coming off a third-place finish at the USA Cycling Collegiate Road Nationals road race, where she also grabbed fourth in the omnium. The winner of the road-race title at that event, Heather Fischer, also is expected to participate at the Iron Horse. Fischer also claimed the road race and criterium at last month’s Squawker Road Classic, hosted by FLC.
“It would be an incredible win for me if I can pull that off,” Sturm said. “I think that would do it as far as maybe getting on a road team. My legs feel great, and my training, I’ve kept up with it.
“(Abbott) usually attacks up Shalona (Hill), so it’ll be about trying to keep her in sight.”
Sturm’s FLC teammate, Lauren Catlin, will be back in the field after finishing 17th last year, along with a sizeable contingent of more riders fresh off their collegiate seasons.
“It’s a pretty climby course, but Lauren’s a strong climber,” Sturm said.
In her first appearance at the IHBC, Meredith Miller will do both the road race and the mountain bike race, and the one-time member of the U.S. teams at the Road and Cyclocross World Championships is looking forward to the challenge.
“I’ll kind of go out and do my best and hope I have good climbing legs on that day,” she said. “Maybe I’ll get advice on the course from some of the locals.”
One of those locals lined up next to Miller will be Marisa Asplund. Now a professional triathlete and duathlete, Asplund was the 2010 omnium winner and road-race runner up in 2007, 2009 and 2010. She’s been on the bike more recently, and according to her blog, plans to use the Iron Horse to build her bike legs as a springboard into her multisport schedule.
Another notable name set to make the trek from Durango High School to Silverton’s city center is Alisha Welsh. The 29-year-old from Salt Lake City finished third in both 2009 and 2010, coming in behind Abbott and Asplund, in that order, both times.
Still, the crown rests atop Abbott’s head until someone finally swipes it. And although she holds no illusions about her skills coming off an injury, Abbott said a chance to pick up title No. 5 was too good to pedal past.
After all, it’d give her a chance to tie hall of famer Ned Overend with five road-race titles. If he doesn’t go back-to-back himself, that is.
“To be able to be a part of the Iron Horse and sort of be part of Iron Horse lore is still an element of professional road cycling that means a lot to me,” Abbott said.
Time to ride. Catch her if you can.