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Olympics: Mara's Race

I know that in some distant future, when I think about the 2016 Olympics in Rio, I'll remember Mara Abbott's ride in the Women's Cycling Road Race.

This 87-mile road race featured a demanding climb, a devilish descent, and a near straight line flat track to its finish by Copa Cobana beach. To win a one day race, you have to be near the front, and Mara Abbott (United States) joined Annemiek van Vleuten (Netherlands) in a breakaway up the climb to Vista Chinesa. With about a minute ahead of a small chase group, the two leaders began the steep descent.

In the men's race, just 24 hours prior, several crashes occurred as riders sought out the favorable line across the sharp curves. The women experienced the same problems, to devastating effect. Annemiek had a brief lead on Mara, but in one terrible moment she made a bad turn on the descent and tumbled head over wheels into the curb. She lay still on the side of the road, and I feared the worst.

A few seconds later, Mara passed the prone Annemiek, and at that moment the clock and urgency began to tick. "She could win a gold medal here," I exclaimed. The NBC announcers (Paul Sherwen and Christian Vande Velde) were cautiously exuberant as well, explaining how her lead could be enough to stay ahead of the chase group in order for her to claim the gold.

One of the remarkable things about cycling is that a group of riders can cover the same distance faster than an individual rider, because the group can take turns at the front, shielding the riders behind from the wind. The choreography of riders taking turns makes for a mesmerizing image. In many professional races, nearly all breakaways are caught, but some do succeed. I was hoping today would be the USA's day.

Mara rode alone, maintaining a 30-second lead ahead of a three-person chase group. As she got closer to the finish, the announcers and myself kept getting more excited. The flat finish demands a sprinter though, and one look at Mara's legs told me the obvious: she's a mountain specialist, a climber.

With less than half a mile to go, I let myself think how awesome it would feel for Mara to win a medal, but clearly the chase group had different thoughts. Composed of three riders, Anna van der Breggen (Netherlands), Emma Johansson (Sweden) and Elisa Longo Borghini (Italy), the NBC announcers conjured up a few scenarios in which they wouldn't catch Mara, mostly around avoiding a fourth place finish. I nodded along, agreeing, hoping they were right.

"Don't ever look back," Christian Vande Velde said. "It does you no good." But at 200 meters to go, Mara had to look back. She must have heard the crowd, perhaps the sound of support vehicles, maybe the spinning wheels of the chase group right on her wheel. She stood on her pedals, but riding alone without support had taken up all of her strength.

When you see the replay, you saw the Italian, Elisa, catch Mara's wheel. At that instant, the Dutch woman Anna van der Breggen stood on her pedals and accelerated past the newly formed group. She charged ahead, the Swede on her wheel. Everyone had reversed positions, and on this day, no one would catch Anna as she won the gold medal.

"The teammate for the one who crashed!" I exclaimed. Then I sat silent, letting the emotions well up as Mara crossed the line in fourth place. The finish was fitting: the rider who won was a teammate of the rider who crashed, and that symmetry works. But the finish also revealed the mettle of Mara, who said that she had raced the best she could. What if she and Annemiek rode the flat together? We can only wonder.

As the Twitter-sphere exploded with praise for Mara's ride, an article by Helen Pidd (The Guardian) was shared. Mara is a two-time winner of the Giro Rosa (an 8-10 day stage race that is the equivalent of the men's Giro d'Italia), but because the earnings in women's cycling is not the same as the men's, she ends up working at farmer's market, along with other here-and-there jobs, to make ends meet.

The Olympic ideal is often about the winners, the medalists. Their achievements are the culmination of years of effort. But in fourth-place finish like Mara's, you can still see the value of the effort, and how competition reveals what is in each person. Her finish honors the medalists: she was the one they chased! Mara Abbott came so close, and by doing so she wins the gold of our hearts and minds.

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