Mara Abbott opposing anorexia and financial chasm as she chases third Giro

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.

Mara Abbott results a breakaway during a race in Santa Rosa, California, earlier this year. Photograph: Chris Graythen/ Getty Images

Abbott, who turned professional in 2007, ceased cycling in 2011 after an unhappy season with the Italian pro team, Diadora-Pasta Zara. She was suffering from an eating disorder and did not know how to handle the pressure. I felt I wasnt in control of developments in the situation and I felt uncomfortable, she said. I was getting better and people were expecting more of me and I was saying I dont know if Im worth it. And as an American in a European culture it was hard for me to assimilate.

It was especially hard for me because I grew up in hippy-ville where people are like: Youre great simply the way you are, and thats not actually the way you are appeared on in the European peloton. It was just a growing-up experience and it was my first real task, things were going fast and things were expected of me. I didnt suppose I was worthy of them and I required my brain to catch up with the experience.

She got so thin that she now refuses to sign photographs of herself taken during the Diadora season. The eating disorder was more about control than weight, she said. It was never about weight for me. When people tell me: Oh youre so thin, youre so amazing, you appear so fit, I get so upset about it. For me, the eating disorder was my way out. It was my style of saying: Im not in control. This is how I can take control because if nothing else I can control everything that I eat. If I dont feel good about myself in the world, I can at least perfect what Im eating and build myself was of the view that Im winning with food.

For me it wasnt that I was trying to become thinner. I knew it was attaining me a worse cyclist, I was too thin. I didnt have the power. I was just weak. But at that point I didnt want to be doing cycling and I didnt know how to say out loud that I didnt want to be doing it. So what I was trying to do was take myself out of it but my body was quite stubborn in that and nothing breach. So in the end I did have to take myself out of it.

There is no escaping the facts of the case that Abbott is still very thin, and during the course of its Mallorcan training camp would turn up to meals with vials of supplements and her own special flask. Does she have a handle on the eating disorder? Yes and no, she said. Because the problem with eating disorders is that they are something of an addiction. So I can still get positive feedback from controlling everything I feed. That still builds me feel good about myself, and thats crazy and it doesnt attain you happy.

Anorexics never actually regain, she believes, partly because they cannot avoid food forever. You can tell an alcoholic to go cold turkey and that helps with the addiction. You cant tell someone just dont feed any more, so its really hard in terms of addictive habits. Foods going to come up at the least three times a day. People say youre always regaining from an eating disorder but at the same hour I know my limits and I know how to keep myself as healthy as I can. I believe I know that if I were to get into it really bad I would know how to reach out and help. But at the same hour you still have your weird disordered eating habits and like to control your diet and eat specific things.

She is not optimistic about the future of womens cycling, despite the introduction of the womens world tour this year, and the increased prize money in certain races, such as RideLondon, and the Aviva Womens Tour. Since Ive started cycling, and I started racing professionally in 2007, weve lost races and there have been fewer races to participate in and a lot of races have had less prize money, she said.

There are changes that may bring better things and when you meet people who are doing so much for womens cycling it really lifts your heart. But on the whole, it does not feel like womens cycling is in a better place than it was 10 years ago, so its a little bit hard to feel optimistic when that has been my entire career.

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