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From Pro Racing to Pizza: Colavita's Commitment to Bike Outreach

For years, Colavita was a familiar sponsor in the domestic pro road scene. After folding its teams four years ago, the olive oil company took a different approach to bike outreach with ex-pro Mary Zider at the helm.

Written by: Chris H. Hadgis

Published on:

Posted in:Features

You may not have heard of Mary Zider, yet. That’s because she leads with grace and a quiet and friendly smile. Though petite in stature, her footprints impact people across America. Just like the focus and determination needed to become a pro cyclist, she ducks her head and gets to work. These days, that drive is applied to a new mission: To help people lead healthier lives through cycling.

An All-American soccer player, Zider took up cycling for fitness after college but was quickly drawn to the New England race scene. She distinguished herself as a strong all-around rider in the domestic elite arena. Zider’s early professional career with the Montreal team Specialized/Mazda led to a spot on the Juvederm/Specialized team in 2011. On several extended campaigns in Europe, she embraced the role of a domestique. In 2012, Zider joined the Colavita/Fine Cooking team where she would continue her cycling aspirations stateside. 

After four years of racing with Colavita, Zider was offered the role of director sportif for Team Colavita. It was an ideal career transition and she took the program to UCI status in 2016 and 2017 while simultaneously adding an extensive international spring racing campaign to their calendar. 

When the Colavita UCI team folded in 2018, Zider took on a new challenge as the Director of Colavita Cares. The Colavita Cares program’s mission is to promote nutritious eating along with exercise as the best means to a healthy lifestyle. 

Colavita’s consistent investment in Zider and the sport of cycling, has helped her appreciate and enjoy her current position with the company. “I never knew if I’d ever fully be ‘ready’ to retire and leave the sport,” says Zider.  “I just knew I always wanted to leave on my own terms and not be forced into a decision.” 

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Attend any Colavita Pizza Truck mobile event and you will be greeted by Zider’s beaming smile along with some of the best, fresh pizza you’ve ever tasted. You would never know that the two friendly, extremely humble, women — Zider and mechanic Ande Smith — serving up these slices are former members of the Colavita-Bianchi professional women’s team.

Pizza tends to get a bad rap as unhealthy due to the preservatives, sugar, and added fat found in mainstream pies. So, Zider and Colavita Cares work to educate people on this topic and healthy eating in general. They use quality ingredients including extra virgin olive oil and their own fresh, crushed tomatoes with no additives to make artisanal pizza recipes.

“We really like to promote a balanced and healthy lifestyle — everything in moderation including libations! Combine that with exercise and it becomes sustainable,” says Zider.

The Pro’s Closet recently caught up with former women’s pro road racer, former Director Sportif, and now Director of the Colavita Cares program, Mary Zider.

"When we’re out of that bubble of professional racing, we’re able to connect with everyday people who ride their bikes for other reasons beyond competition."

TPC: We’re curious about the impact of Colavita Cares compared to that of the pro team. Who are the people you reach through Colavita Cares versus the women’s pro team? 

Colavita pro team impact: 

MZ: Colavita has supported cycling at all levels for well over a decade. Colavita's longevity in the sport supporting regional programs all over the country and most notably their support for the women’s pro team have made an impact on people’s recognition of the brand. 

Cycling is a small niche but a loyal one at the same time. If you’re a fan of pro cycling, you more than likely know about Colavita. Colavita’s commitment to supporting a women’s pro team vs. a men’s pro team also highlights how a company’s marketing efforts can play a role in achieving the mission of the brand’s message. Colavita has chosen to use cycling as its means to promote a healthy lifestyle and eating well.  


Colavita Cares impact: 

MZ: The Colavita Cares program has taken the cycling mission and given it more of a personal connection. With Colavita Cares, we’re at events for the greater good — charity events, fundraisers, grassroots, and beginner-type events. I think this demonstrates the “cares” part of what we do. It’s not just about supporting a professional team, rather, Ande Smith and I travel the country in a pizza truck, connecting with people from all walks of life. Whether that be at a bike shop where we are hosting a community ride, beginners mechanic clinic, or at an endurance event where we’re serving riders brick oven pizza slices — we get the opportunity to personally interact with people. We talk about things from bikes, living a lifestyle that incorporates bikes, the Colavita brand, and all that the Colavita Cares program encompasses. 

When you’re a professional bike racer racing the calendar or directing a team, you’re narrowly focused on what you’re doing and trying to accomplish; and rightfully so, because you’re there to race your bike, compete, and win. 

When we’re out of that bubble of professional racing, we’re able to connect with everyday people who ride their bikes for other reasons beyond competition. There is more time for engaging conversations, whether that be standing in parking lots for hours drinking beer and eating pizza talking about the ride you just did, or the event you have coming up. 

Our reach is capable of being broader, traveling the country in a more meaningful and impactful way with each stop we make. Some of the best conversations we’ve had around bikes have been in retail grocery store parking lots when we’re providing shoppers with free pizza and educating them on the health benefits and different ways to use olive oil. We travel with our bikes, so they tend to be a visual magnet and a great conversation starter. 

Boy's and Girl's clubZider at a Boy's and Girl's Club event in Massachusetts. 

TPC: What are some of Colavita Cares’ success stories? 

MZ: Colavita does so much for the sport at all levels, well beyond the regional and pro team. John Profaci is the reason Colavita's legendary program was put on the cycling map, but it doesn’t just stop there. Colavita Cares is always looking for ways to help and serve kids and families. Bikes, bike safety, and bike maintenance education are all ways we help make a difference. 

One of the most incredible experiences was in 2018, when 80 children received Colavita-branded bikes and new helmets at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater High Point and the Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club of High Point, after a bike safety presentation. To see the excitement from these kids receiving a brand-new helmet and bike was thrilling. For a young boy or girl to receive a bike at that age can open freedoms and possibilities they never knew existed. Bikes can be so liberating for kids! 

Being at endurance events and charity rides – Best Buddies, RootedVT, Rasputitsa, CampoVelo, and the A1A Marathon, to name a few — is something we’ve loved being a part of. We’ll continue to support events of this nature as long as we can. To be involved with these types of events serving brick oven pizza gives us an incredible platform to have such meaningful experiences. Seeing the exhaustion, the joy, and knowing the bravery it took for each person to enter the event is what makes each one of these a success for Colavita Cares.

Being at endurance events sums up a big part of our Colavita Cares cycling mission. Endurance activities help foster a balanced, healthy lifestyle and that’s important for people’s overall health and wellness. 

"For a young boy or girl to receive a bike at that age can open freedoms and possibilities they never knew existed."

Vertical, formerly called “BitterSweet,” all-women’s weekends

MZ: We’ve been able to collaborate with Rasputitsa founder Heidi Myers and run some incredibly impactful women’s events. These events were established to bring women together in a non-competitive environment where they could try new activities, learn, ask questions, and strengthen their community with like-minded people. Whether you’re a seasoned professional or a beginner, these weekends are meant for everyone. We can forget that even seasoned pros within their discipline still enjoy and want to be around, like-minded people in a relaxing environment. 

We believe conversations around a campfire help create a safe space to share, learn, and grow. There have been incredible moments at these events: people have had breakthrough conversations that have impacted or changed their lives because they were able to ask the questions they needed or made new friends that could relate to their experiences. 

Other activities we’ve included are fat biking, mountain biking, gravel, and road biking, snowshoeing, nordic skiing, and fly fishing. Vertical was a special event because we incorporated a whole new element to the weekend: camping. What hit home for us was how brave several of these women were to show up alone with camping gear; for some, this was their first camping experience ever. It was incredible to see the bravery of women who were so eager to learn. Our hope is these women bring back the knowledge to their communities and families. We hope to continue growing these events. We have some ideas cooking, so hopefully, it all comes together. 

"It only takes one conversation or one “ah-ha” moment to make a difference in someone’s life."

TPC: What’s easier or harder about this new way of doing cycling outreach versus racing or directing a pro team? 

MZ: It’s hard to say one avenue is easier or harder over the other. Racing and directing is extremely time-consuming and require a lot of travel for weeks on end. The cadence of the pizza truck is extremely time-consuming and requires a lot of travel for weeks on end. The difference lies in the objective of the endeavor. Both are gratifying, but the audience is the main difference.  

From my experiences being on both platforms and looking back now, I can fully see and appreciate the work that is done at the grassroots levels and how important this is for the sport and industry. What makes it so rewarding to be at these events now with Colavita Cares, is our capacity to reach more people beyond seasoned pros and competitive racers. We’re now connecting with everyday recreational cyclists, beginners, families, and their kids. 

Much of the population we are interacting with are riding bikes to stay healthy, and fit, and want a community with like-minded people. It only takes one conversation or one “ah-ha” moment to make a difference in someone’s life. 

I’ve gotten more out of cycling than I ever imagined and I’m grateful for every experience and the friendships I’ve made because of the sport. Colavita has provided me with an opportunity to give back to a sport that has given so much to my life. Cycling is now an extension of my everyday lifestyle. It’s not about competing for me anymore or training for sport. It’s about training for life and enjoying the bike as means to stay healthy. It’s a wonderful way to see the world, learn, and connect with the outdoors.  If it can bring this much joy to my life, I know it can do the same for others — that’s a mission I’ve embraced as I travel the country in a pizza truck. 

TPC: How does Colavita Cares fit into the broader context of a withering domestic pro road season plus the pandemic? 

MZ: The pandemic reminded everyone of what’s important in our lives. It also brought about a renewed understanding of a balanced lifestyle. I believe we were reminded how important it is to live a healthy lifestyle through exercise and eating well. People were either purchasing a new bike or dusting off their old bikes to fill the vacancies within their lives caused by the restrictions of the pandemic. As people made this paradigm shift within their lives, the demand for recreational activities — particularly cycling — increased dramatically.  

From the perspective of the Colavita Cares program, this translated into a much greater audience in which to spread our mission and introduce them to the Colavita brand. This renewed perspective of many freshly coined fitness enthusiasts has afforded the program to be received and perceived with a new outlook. Riding bikes and enjoying pizza — pizza doesn’t have to be unhealthy —was appreciated in a whole new light. 

In some regard, while the pandemic is tragic, it also provides a fresh perspective and renewed fervor for recreating and having an overall healthy lifestyle, which ultimately is part of the mission of the Colavita Cares program. We are thrilled for the new opportunities as conduits for these folks to continue a commitment to healthy living.   

Women who wrench event
Colavita Cares at a Women Who Wrench event. Photo: Steve the Bike Guy

TPC: What’s next and where do you see the program going?

MZ: The program will continue to diversify its portfolio. For 2022, have a full summer and fall schedule of events lined up ranging from The Drivers Tournament, a golf charity tournament supported by Graham Rahal, an outdoor movie nights series in Hoboken, NJ, The Peacham Fall Fondo, community bike shop rides followed by pizza (of course!), and Vertical, the all-women’s weekend encompassing a variety of outdoor activities. 

The great thing about our program is we get to dabble in a lot of different types of events, so we’ll be adding events throughout the year as we see fit. Having a balance and diversity of events is important to the program so we can continue to broaden our reach and mission. 

Colavita Cares is fortunate to have a mobile brick oven pizza truck to use as a valuable tool — to represent Colavita at these events makes each event welcoming, interpersonal, and fun. 

Our goal is to inspire, encourage, have meaningful conversations, and share our story of how we got to this point with bikes and now, a pizza van. We never know when we’ll have that opportunity to share how cycling has impacted our lives for the better. 

Our past experiences have helped us navigate our way with Colavita Cares and a pizza truck, especially out on the open road. Together, Ande Smith and I, with my background and involvement with Colavita as a racer, Director Sportif, and hers as a professional mechanic, have given our involvement with this program more meaning: a deeper passion and connection in all we do and how we represent the company.

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