She started the year not entirely certain if she wanted to be a mountain-bike racer, a road racer or a research immunologist. By early July, the decision turned out to be an easy one.
Amber Neben said that even at the beginning of the 2001 season, she suspected that her “strength may be on the road.” It’s a good bet, however, that the 26-year-old SoBe-HeadShok rider probably surprised even herself when she jumped into the winning break at the U.S. national road race and finished second to Saturn’s Kimberly Bruckner. Add to that her sixth place in the time trial and a stellar performance at this year’s HP Women’s Challenge — including a stage win, a handful of top-ten finishes and 15th overall — and you might call it a pretty good season for someone in just her second year on the road. And we’re only halfway into the year.
Neben, a member of the San Diego-based Harbor lights squad, competed at HP for Earthlink. That deal was just for the Idaho race, but her performance there caught the collective eyes of several teams and a week after the finish in Boise, Neben had a contract offer from AutoTrader.com
“We had lots of reason to sign her,” said AutoTrader general manager Roy Knickman. “She’s a healthy new and exciting rider with a great deal of potential and we could use a real boost in morale as a team. We’ve had a string of injuries and bad luck. Amber is exactly what this team needs right now.”
Knickman’s assessment is accurate. The team, flush with talent at the beginning of the year, has been plagued with injuries and illnesses, starting with the loss of its key sprinter Karen Dunne. Add to that knee problems suffered by Annie Gariepy, health problems experienced by Sara Ulmer and Tina Mayolo, and Kim Smith’s slow return to form and the team has had a disappointing first half of the 2001 season.
Knickman told VeloNews that Neben might well have a long and fruitful career ahead of her.
“For me it was more than just the nationals performance and her great ride in Idaho,” Knickman said. “You look at the fact that this just her second year (on the road) and that she still has so much potential, this could turn into something special.”
Neben said she was “still a little shocked” at the speed at which her fortunes had changed.
“I did Redlands this year,” she said. “It was a nice experience racing with the elite women, because a year earlier, I won the women’s 3/4 crit. A lot has happened over the last year.”
While her contract extends only for the duration of the season, Neben said she views the AutoTrader deal as a “huge opportunity, especially coming from pretty much supporting myself. You look at the number of veteran riders and the veteran management on the team and I just intend to spend the rest of the season being a sponge and taking in as much as I can.”
Come the end of the season, Knickman said he and AutoTrader will see how things shape up. “I figure we’ll have to fight for her like any other team.”
One employer who probably won’t stand much of a chance in securing Neben’s service in 2002 is the immunology lab at the University of California at Irvine. The one-time Ph.D. candidate said she was headed into work “to tell my boss that I want to be a bike racer.”