Amber Neben’s victory at last month’s UCI world time trial championships marked a fitting bookend to a three-year period of struggle, injury, and professional disappointment. Neben, 41, nearly walked away from the sport in 2013 after crashing into a rock wall during the Amgen Tour of California women’s time trial. She broke her hip and dislocated her shoulder in the pileup, and as she slowly healed, Neben says she was closer to quitting than returning to her sport.
Neben didn’t quit, and instead set out to accomplish two goals: qualify for the 2016 Olympics and win another world title. Neben didn’t make the Olympic squad, but grabbed the world title.
VeloNews recently caught up with Neben to talk about her comeback, her decision to arbitrate against USA Cycling’s Olympic selection, and why, at age 41, she is faster than ever.
VeloNews: So where are you stronger at age 41 versus where you were earlier in your career?
Amber Neben: I feel that I’m more powerful than I’ve ever been and my numbers would say that. My stamina and my endurance is better than it’s ever been. I think all that has improved. I think I’m better at reading races now and coming up with a pacing plan in a time trial. I’m more targeted and focused on a few races that I’d like to go after.
VN: And where do you feel that you’re weaker?
AN: There’s definitely a lot more wear and tear on me, so it can be harder to come back from aches and pains. I’ve always said had I only have one fast twitch fiber in my whole body, and it hasn’t gotten stronger, so I’ve gotten less explosive as I’ve gotten older. The other thing is the mental component of racing in a peloton and taking risks — I’ve experienced some really dramatic crashes and I now understand the consequences, so I have a lot less desire to take risks.
VN: Take us through your preparation for Doha.
AN: It started in the spring. You could see from the map that there were a lot of corners, and a totally flat course, and since it’s Doha, we’re going to experience massive wind changes. So already that’s three things for me that are my weaknesses. So I had to get comfortable riding the deep dish wheel in windy conditions, and I spent time doing technical work on the time trial bike. The flat stuff was just knowing I’d have to make power on the flat vs. on a mountain. I did a lot of flat efforts.
When I got to Doha I spent a lot of time on it, maybe 10-11 rides. Every day I was there. I did three laps on Monday. I just wanted to find the right lines through the roundabouts, and a few of them had manhole covers, so I used those as markers for the line.
VN: Do you always take such a meticulous approach to time trials?
AN: Yeah. If you’re putting all of that energy into your preparation, then you don’t have to think about it when it comes time to race. It’s just in your head already.
VN: Earlier this year you were left off the Olympic team. Why did you arbitrate USA Cycling’s decision?
AN: For me, I never thought I should go ahead of Carmen [Small], and even she was left off. The way I saw things, I saw the [USA] national championship as the Olympic trials, due to the way the criteria was laid out. We were all going to be there. I had seen some inconsistencies and irregularities in the process, and I didn’t think it was necessarily fair. I thought it was important that the USOC and USAC were aware of this, and hopefully going forward, they take that into consideration and build a process that is a bit more clear so that athletes feel like we have a chance to earn [a spot] on the road. It was a difficult decision, and I wrestled with it a lot.
VN: USA Cycling was accused of playing favorites in the past regarding these selections.
AN: It goes back to just having a clear path. Choosing a road race team from a selection standpoint is super-hard, so I understand there needs to be criteria for selection. With a time trial, it is something you track with time, like track and field or swimming. You can set up a one-day race or a series of three races. That’s what needs to happen, so no matter if you’re on the inside or on the outside, it doesn’t matter.
VN: You nearly retired after that scary crash in 2013. What do you remember from it?
AN: It was a course I knew all too well. I had memorized every detail and thought I had it down. But I was one corner off — I thought the next corner was the exit of the canyon, but I was one corner too early. I slammed into the mountainside and it was brutal. I knew my season was over.
VN: Take us through your recovery from the crash.
AN: I contemplated retirement a lot. I was leaning more toward retirement than continuing on. There was a lot of prayer, and I was reading a lot of scripture, and I read one passage that encouraged me to press on.
VN: What passage?
AN: It was Luke 5:1-11. Basically, there was a fisherman who had been fishing all night long. He was done with fishing, and Jesus told him to go back out. For me it was like OK, I’m ready to be done. But I can make a big big push to go back out.
VN: Cycling is a sport where few riders openly discuss their religion. I’m curious if your decision to reference your faith has a backstory.
AN: I have never kept it secret. I don’t always talk about it, but it is a part of who I am. I want people to know who I know, but I can’t force that. With my own race results or story, I do speak about it, because there is a real thankfulness for the ability and the strength [God] provided.
With others, I try to let my life speak first. I try to care and connect. Just be real. There is a human heart right there. I don’t always know what they’ve been through, but I can listen. We can talk about bike racing, training, nutrition or overcoming challenges. Normal life stuff. Then, when I do have the opportunity to share more about the source of my own strength, I take it. Or, if someone asks me a question, which happens after you care, I will always give an honest answer.