By: Cindy Abbott, pro mountain bike racer.
Two weeks on the road from Texas to California and back to Texas, with two people in a Subaru Crosstrek...... I don’t care who you are, that is tiring, and tight on space!
That was my journey to this year’s Sea Otter cycling festival. I chose the road trip route mainly because it was cheaper than flying bikes and gear to California, but also because I wanted to share this adventure with my girlfriend, who also happens to be my professional bike mechanic and favorite person to ride bikes with. This was a first for me, both the road trip to California and the Sea Otter experience. I have always heard about Sea Otter, and read about it in prominent mountain bike publications, but I never thought I’d have the chance to be an attendee, nonetheless a competitor.
I had a few objectives for this trip-ride: experience Arizona for the first time, hug a Saguaro, meet new people, and race as a professional athlete at North America’s premier cycling festival. After a long 3 days of driving, my girlfriend and I arrived at the festival, excited to soak up as much of the experience as possible.
Me racing the Dual Slalom at Sea Otter.
The venue at Sea Otter was certainly overwhelming and a bit intimidating. I’ve competed in some large mountain bike events before like the Teva Mountain Games, USA Cycling Nationals, and a few Enduro World Series qualifier races - but this was different. Seeing all of the factory sponsored athletes with their matching outfits, team vehicles, and support crews made me feel small.
Yet, like them, I’m a UCI professional athlete, and I worked hard to be there. I signed up for UCI Pro Enduro, downhill, and dual slalom races and I was excited to race against some of the best female mountain bike athletes in the world. I had never raced dual slalom or downhill before so that would be interesting. After doing a small amount of pre-riding, I felt ready for the race weekend ahead, and thanks to my kick ass pro bike mechanic my bike was dialed.
The morning of the Enduro race arrived and I rolled up to the start line calm, cool, and collected. After over a decade of lining up to the start of mountain bike races, two things remain the same: the butterflies in my stomach and the cold disposition of fellow competitors.
This is a struggle for me because I’m an outgoing person and I want to create a race environment that breaks the hyper-competitive mold of traditional mountain bike racing. Despite being a high-level athlete my entire life, I just want to have a good time, enjoy riding my bike, and be in good company doing so.
Feeling the pressure at the gate of the Dual Slalom start at Sea Otter.
The four Enduro race stages were pretty mellow and tucked back in the beautiful foothills of the Fort Ord National Monument area. I had an excellent race, finishing 8th out of 29 in the sold-out pro female field. This was the best finish to date in my professional Enduro mountain bike racing career and it was exciting to see so many ladies in a historically male-dominated sport.
I lit up when I saw the results because I finished ahead of some incredible racers, who have sponsorship support from some of the largest companies in the cycling industry. My downhill and dual slalom finishes provided a strong realization that Enduro is my race of choice, and I’m excited to continue to see this sport grow, especially for the ladies.
Despite my excellent race finish, it’s discouraging to know that I have an uphill battle to break into the bike industry as a sponsored athlete. I’m from Texas, a state that is not necessarily known for its big mountain riding and professional mountain bikers. I have to get creative with my training, and I practically live on my CycleOps Hammer trainer to provide me with the resistance I need to mimic the elevation change of the mountains that I do not have.
I’ve had to work hard to compete with the level of women coming from mountainous areas like California, Colorado, Utah, and British Columbia. Not to mention that as a woman, it’s hard to get recognition in the bike industry. Up to this point I’ve paid my way into every Pro XC and Enduro mountain bike race, many of them all over the country with hefty travel bills. I want to continue to grow this sport, yet financially it feels daunting and unsustainable.
At the start of one of the Pro Enduro stages at Sea Otter, with the beautiful hills of Fort Old National Monument in the background.
So, how did I manage to get this far? I started racing mountain bikes in 2007 after an Xterra off-road triathlon. I ditched the running and swimming to focus on mountain biking, because of course it was the most fun! After seven years of racing XC at an amateur professional level and a USA Cycling XC national championship title, I realized that I didn’t have the desire or drive to continue to pursue a professional career in XC mountain bike racing. Plus, I had been waiting for the new Enduro style of mountain bike racing to come to the Southern US for a while and was more than happy to jump on the Enduro train.
I immediately started racing in the pro Enduro category and gained top ten finishes in big pro races across the country. In December of 2016 I almost lost the ability to ride a bike after a gap jump in a training ride cost me 10 broken ribs, bleeding lungs, broken vertebrae, and a separated shoulder. The spinal doctor said I should have been paralyzed, and I realized very quickly that the price of pushing the limit in this type of bike racing is very high. Nonetheless, I healed up relatively quickly to race enough races to qualify for the 2018 Enduro World Series. It was then I realized that I actually had a shot at doing this professionally.
The Juliana Strega GREEN MACHINE in all her glory at the top of the South Mountain trails in Phoenix. This was some of my favorite riding on the entire trip!
I started emailing companies in the bike industry, asking about potential sponsorships. Most got back to me with ambassador opportunities, providing free product in return for social media promotion. ZOIC mountain bike clothing was the first to bring me on and they continue to be so supportive along my journey; additionally, I currently get support from G Form, Juliana Bicycles, and Orange Seal.
Product support has been incredibly helpful, especially when all of this gear comes with a high price tag. But the financial support needed to race at this level is very important, and even more difficult to find, which leaves me to ultimately figure it out on my own.
Overall, Sea Otter was a great experience to be a part of, but also a reminder of the difficulty to be taken seriously in this industry. I know I have the natural ability and discipline to race at this professional level, yet I continue to find it trying to find the support I need. Despite my frustrations with this, I’ll continue to roll forward, and hopefully inspire other women to do the same.
Oh yeah, I can’t forget to mention that I almost hugged a Saguaro cactus in Arizona and the mountain biking there was the highlight of my trip! I’m excited for many more trips like this, and the continued experiences of life on two wheels.
The beautiful sunset over the classic Arizona saguaros at the South Mountain trials in Phoenix.
About Cindy Abbott
Cindy Abbott is a native of Austin, TX and has dedicated her life to adventuring in the outdoors! She started shredding the dirt on 2 wheels over a decade ago, and hasn’t looked back. She is a professional mountain bike instructor, director of a women’s non-profit mountain bike skills group, high school mountain bike coach, and advocate for promoting women’s mountain biking. Her favorite type of riding is anything with steep, rocky gnar or Pacific Northwest flow.
Although she has gained success as a professional mountain bike racer, she is also an established rock climber with over 15 years of experience as a professional climbing instructor. Whether on the dirt, in a tree, or climbing on a cliff, Cindy loves the joy that outdoor adventure brings, and hopes to share that joy with many more humans along the way! You can follow Cindy on her adventures over on Instagram.