The American picks up a fraction of the mens winnings, making for a constant struggle. But, as the Rio-bound cyclist tells Helen Pidd, she must also tackle a more personal battle
Mara Abbott has won the Giro as many times as Vincenzo Nibali, but most cycling fans have not heard of her. The 30 -year-old American won her second edition of the womens race in 2013, the same year Nibali triumphed for the first time in his home country. But while he went on to earn millions, Abbott constructs extremely limited money from cycling that she works at a farmers market in her home town of Boulder, Colorado, in the off-season.
On Friday the two-times US national champion will line up as one of the favourites for the 2016 Giro Rosa, having come second to Anna van der Breggen last year. A climbing specialist, she has also been selected to race for the USA at the Rio Olympics, competing on the hilly course against the current world champ, Britains Lizzie Armitstead.
I first met Abbott in February at a training camp in Mallorca organised by her squad, Wiggle High5. We sat down for a chat after a ride into the Tramuntana mountains, and I admitted with disgrace that her name was new to me until Rochelle Gilmore, her squad administrator, pushed me up the peloton to meet her, saying: Talk to Mara: shes won the Giro twice.
If you were a human I would know all about you, I told her. Does that hurt? She looked a little put under. There are three ways of looking at it. On one level, yes its sad, its kind of depressing, she said. On another level, I suppose perhaps the sadder one, is that after 10 years in the sport you get used to it and it stops hurting. But as a former economics major, she said she gets it: Theres a part of me that understands the economics of it, which is that in terms of sponsorship more people are watching men cycling so more people set more money into it, and theres a cycle there we havent achieved yet in womens cycling.
Asked how different her life would be if she were a man with the same palmars , her answer speaks volumes about the gulf between mens and womens athletic. Well, she said, sipping an americano, I would have an easier period paying my mortgage, and I would have enough money to go out for dinner, maybe once a month.
In 2014, the mens Giro dItalia held a prize fund handbag totalling 1,378, 000. Each stage win was worth 11,000 and a day in the pink jersey was worth 1,000. The final overall win received 200,000. In comparing, the Giro Rosa held a handbag of 17,666 with the eventual win, Abbotts Wiggle High5 team-mate, Giorgia Bronzini, taking home merely over 500. This year there has been a moderate improvement: the overall womens race win will earn 1,050, compared to the 115,000 for the overall win of the mens Giro dItalia.
Abbott, thoughtful and articulated, does not want to criticise the salary paid to her by Wiggle High5. She singles out Gilmore, a Commonwealth gold medallist, as one of the key people trying to improve womens cycling. But she admits that in order to make ends meet over the winter she worked three days a week on an organic farm and two days selling veggies at Boulder farmers market. She also taught yoga classes and was an intern at her local paper, the Daily Camera( she hopes to become an investigative environmental journalist after her retirement ).
The farm work was awesome, she said, and she appreciated the unlimited free veggies. But it is not much fun worrying about money and how you are going to pay for your retirement when you are trying to be an elite athlete. Plus if she was a guy she feels she would have a platform to make a difference outside sport, particularly in relation to environmental issues close to her heart.
It is not so much the money as the lack of recognition which can hurt, she said: When nobody knows what youre doing and you go off to races in the middle of nowhere and nobodys there, at first it doesnt bother you and you think its kind of funny, but after a certain quantity of day it becomes depressing. You dont want to complain, and I do want to say there are a lot of people dedicating themselves to improving women cycling and I dont want to demean their work at all. But you can only keep putting your whole heart into something for so long when you feel it doesnt matter to anybody else.
You dont need to have adoring fans but sometimes when your friends want to find out how you did in a race … and they cant, thats hard and I think that its more hard on a mental level because we all want to feel that we matter, more than on a monetary level. But so often fund represents significance.
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