Should Amber Neben retire or keep racing? It’s a question she’s mulled over multiple times during her 16-year professional career.
As Neben prepares for next week’s UCI road world championships in Bergen, Norway, the question is again on her radar. Neben, 42, is the defending champion in the individual time trial. Her performance in the race against the clock could determine whether she stays in the sport, or rides off into the sunset.
“Honestly, I don’t know. It’s definitely not ‘no,’ but it’s not 100 percent ‘yes’ at this point either,” Neben said, when asked if she plans to continue in the sport. “We’ll see what happens at worlds. I’ll do some praying and some thinking, and I’ll sort it out.”
If Neben reitres, she will exit the sport as one of the most decorated female road racers to ever wear the stars and stripes. Her accolades include two world time trial titles, four national titles (two in the road race, two in the individual time trial), four wins at the Pan American Championships, and a collection of other national and international victories.
If Neben continues racing, she will do so having created an enviable competition schedule that caters specifically to her annual goals. Top female racers spend the competition season crisscrossing the globe chasing points on the UCI Women’s WorldTour. A decade ago Neben followed a similar schedule, racing from the early spring until September, battling in stage races and one-day events across the U.S., France, and Belgium.
In recent years, however, Neben focuses her season on two goals: the U.S. championships and the UCI World Championships, with a handful of other races peppered in to build her fitness. In 2017 she raced for the Danish Veloconcept pro cycling team, which allowed her to craft a light racing schedule focused squarely on those two events.
“The lack of racing the last two years is due to my age,” Neben said. “Having been on the road full-time since 2002 my body just gets tired from that much racing and travel. There is only so much intensity I can do now. If I’m going to target big events, then I have to be smart with how I decide to use those types of efforts.”
In 2017, Neben raced the Redlands Bicycle Classic before heading to Europe to race in the Amstel Gold Race, La Fleche Wallonne Feminine, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege events. She used the races to build for the U.S. national championships in Knoxville, Tennessee. The racing schedule went perfectly for Neben — in Knoxville she dominated the individual time trial, winning the title by more than half a minute. The next day, Neben attacked with 35km remaining in the road race, then held off the chasers to win her second title of the weekend.
“I knew that if I was strong enough to win the time trial then I had some good form,” Neben said. “There were no team expectations in [the road race] so I could just go out there and race with my instincts and see what happened.”
Since nationals Neben has raced just once — La Course by Le Tour de France where she was time-cut. Rather than racing, Neben has spent her time training specifically for the Bergen world championships. She spent much of the summer training in Annecy, France, before returning to Southern California to build intensity for the time trial.
Neben said her season, which she called “a tale of two peaks,” has gone according to plan. She’s dodged injury and burnout, and she believes her form is again hitting its peak right on schedule.
However, Neben’s performance in Bergen could be dictated by the course. The 21km world championship course is nearly eight kilometers shorter than the course Neben won on in Doha, Qatar. She has traditionally excelled on longer courses, where her diesel engine and meticulous memorization of the fastest lines boost her advantage. The Bergen course includes the 1.5km Birkelundsbakken climb, which reaches 16 percent at its steepest point. The descent includes plenty of twists and turns, as well as a short section of cobblestones.
“I still need to have that awesome effort on the day to win,” Neben said. “It’s a TT so a lot of it is not overthinking things.”