When Amber Neben recounts her crash at the 2013 Tour of California time trial, the images still make her anxious: a lapse in focus, a mistimed turn, and then a wall of dirt and rock. As Neben’s petite 5-foot-3-inch frame crashed to the ground, her dream ride in California came to a shattering halt, leaving her future unclear and her bid for the upcoming Rio Olympics doubtful.
“I didn’t know whether or not I was going to race again,” Neben says. Most people questioned whether she would ever walk again, let alone ride a bike. With broken carbon scattered across the road, the agony of broken bones set in. Neben dislocated her shoulder, broke a hip, and cracked two ribs in the dramatic crash. The rehab took years, as she worked to eventually walk, ride, and race again.
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It was a turning point for Neben. She was 39 at the time, and inching toward her career’s twilight. It was hardly her first brush with adversity either — during her career Neben faced Olympic snubs, injuries, and even a doping positive that was deemed to be from a contaminated supplement. However, the years following her California crash would prove to be some of the most challenging of her 16-year-long career.
As so often happens, the trying times would lead to some of the most rewarding outcomes.
“What are you going to do?” she says. “You can focus on the past and what didn’t happen, or you can control what’s ahead of you and move on to the next opportunity.”
Neben decided not to retire. Instead, she forged ahead. Driven by her faith, she used a succession of opportunities and accomplishments to fight her way back from the hospital bed. Redemption has come her way.
NEBEN IS NO STRANGER to struggle. It came to her early on: At the age of four, she fought for her life after contracting spinal meningitis. Doctors gave her a slim chance of survival. Despite the prognosis, Neben survived.
A native of Nebraska, Neben was an athletic child. She played soccer and ran track throughout high school, earning a scholarship to run at the University of Nebraska. Debilitating stress fractures ended her running career prematurely, so Neben turned to cycling as a new athletic outlet. She quickly excelled at the sport, first on the mountain bike and then the road. Neben began to race when she moved to California to pursue a master’s degree from the University of California, Irvine.
Riding for her collegiate team, Neben finished in the top 10 at the collegiate national cycling championships in 2001. The result earned her the chance to race at the prestigious HP Women’s Challenge stage race in Boise, Idaho.
Dotsie Bausch (who would go on to win an Olympic silver medal in the pursuit in 2012) was just starting her cycling career alongside Neben. “HP was an epic race and intense battle every year,” Bausch says. “It showcased the best of the best, both in the athletes it drew and in the courses that were designed for the race.”
Riding for the Mr. Safford’s Earthlink cycling team based in Southern California, both Neben and Bausch faced more accomplished professionals such as Judith Arndt, Jeannie Longo, and Lyne Bessette.
“I really had no idea what I was getting into,” Neben says. She had only been mountain bike racing for three years.
Perhaps it was Neben’s ignorance that allowed her to sneak away during a 13-mile final climb to Magic Mountain Ski Resort to earn her first pro victory. Nobody told her she shouldn’t be able to out-climb the best riders in the world in her first real road race. Her breakthrough ride was a clear sign to herself and her competition that big things were to come.
After the HP Women’s Challenge, Neben’s racing opportunities quickly flourished. She earned a chance to race at the world championships later that year, and signed a deal to ride for the new T-Mobile team for 2002. Putting her academic career on hold to pursue cycling at the age of 26, a new life had just begun.
PRO CYCLISTS RARELY DISCUSS their religious beliefs with the public. Riders don’t often thank God during podium speeches. Neben, however, is open about her faith, and shares her beliefs with those who ask.
“At the core of who I am is a Christ-follower,” she says. “I’ve been blessed with an amazing gift and this opportunity. I just have this strength that is beyond me. It’s given me a purpose in life and what I’m doing.”
Faith centers Neben. It’s the keystone that holds everything together during the ups and downs of her tumultuous career, she says. It’s helped her face adversities and seen her through the darkest moments.
One of the darkest came following the 2003 UCI World Cup race in Montreal when Neben tested positive for nandrolone metabolites.
“To say I was shocked is an understatement,” Neben wrote in VeloNews following her positive test. “I cried as I struggled to understand what could have happened. As an athlete, I try to be prepared for anything to happen in competition, but I was not prepared for this.”
Convinced that her positive result was due to contaminated supplements, Neben fought the doping charges. She took her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and argued that the trace amount of the steroid found in her sample (1.9 parts per billion over the legal limit) wasn’t enough to warrant a full-term doping suspension. The arbitration panel agreed, stating the violation was unintentional and recommended Neben serve a six-month suspension along with an 18-month probationary period in which she would be subject to monthly doping control tests at her own expense. Neben gracefully accepted the terms and pressed forward.
“Everyone faces adversity — it’s not if, it’s when,” Neben says. “It always comes in the context of our own lives, and for me that’s been cycling. So I’ve faced a great deal of adversity in cycling and had to persevere through it.”
If early adversities matured Neben’s faith and resilience in cycling, recent challenges have tested her resolve. Beginning with the devastating crash at the Tour of California, Neben has been a passenger on an emotional roller coaster. While her immediate goals after the crash were to walk, then ride, and then, if all went well, try racing again, Neben’s long-term Olympic dream never fully faded. The years leading up to Rio would be some of the most difficult.
According to Neben’s coach, Tim Cusick, the process of rehabilitation, recovery, and return to form is difficult and exhaustive for any athlete, and particularly a pro.
“It can be even harder when the athlete is at an age at which most others have already retired,” Cusick says. “Having a clear plan was crucial, as it put a vision to her passion and gave her specific milestones and goals that would inevitably build confidence in the process and belief in the expected results.”
Just one year after her crash, Neben returned to racing with a strong second place finish at Oregon’s Cascade Cycling Classic. It was the first sign she was on her way to a full recovery, both physically and mentally. It also gave her hope as the Rio Olympics quickly approached.
Over the next season, Neben continued to gain confidence as her power numbers soared. She wasn’t winning races yet, but she was feeling as strong as she had in 2008 when she won her first individual world championship title.
“I was like, ‘Wow, it’s still in me to go for this,’” she says. The Olympics began to feel possible again.
As Neben crossed the line in second place at the 2016 U.S. national time trial championships, she knew she was back. It had been a difficult journey, pushing Neben to the edge — maybe over it at times. She’d threatened to quit, to walk away from the sport altogether. But her faith brought her back for another shot at an Olympic medal. As she stood on the podium next to Carmen Small, who won nationals that year, Neben could almost taste gold.
Still, Neben knew her silver medal did not guarantee an automatic selection to the Olympic team according to the U.S. selection criteria. “I saw the U.S. national championship as the Olympic trials, due to the way the criteria was laid out,” she says. “We were all going to be there.” It was a common belief throughout the peloton.
“We knew we needed to do well at nationals for Olympic selection,” Cusick says. “Right about this time, Amber started to put out power numbers that were looking like career bests.” It wasn’t enough, however.
When Neben and Small were left off the U.S. Olympic squad, shock quickly swept through the cycling community. First, the question became how could they not bring the national champion? Second, Neben had beaten both riders who were selected to compete in the time trial in Rio, Kristin Armstrong and Evelyn Stevens.
“I was disappointed when I didn’t get selected. I was disappointed when Carmen didn’t get selected,” Neben says. “Knowing [Carmen] hadn’t been selected at that point, though, I really had to come to terms with the process.”
Small and Neben filed an arbitration case, arguing the results from nationals should count for more.
Neben saw inconsistencies and irregularities in the process that she couldn’t ignore.
“I thought it was important that the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Cycling were aware of this, and hopefully going forward, they would take that into consideration and build a process that is a bit more clear,” she says.
Small and Neben could not sway the Olympic Committee’s decision, however, and Armstrong and Stevens retained their spots on the team. Armstrong would go on to win her third consecutive Olympic gold medal in Rio, perhaps legitimizing the selection process after all.
Nonetheless, the decision stung.
WHILE MISSING THE OLYMPIC selection was a major setback in Neben’s career, she didn’t let it consume her. “My identity isn’t based around the sport or whether I’ve won or lost,” she says. “So as I’ve struggled or dealt with injuries, I‘ve never been caught with that struggle that my values and work are based on whether I can come back.”
Instead, the 42-year-old looked forward, focusing on the next goal in line: the world championships in Doha, Qatar. She was “laser-focused, missile-locked” on how to get selected for the world championship team. It helped her rapidly move past the Olympic disappointment. And it worked. Neben showed up in October 2016 in top form. She studied the course, knew every twist and turn, and every moment the wind would shift.
Her second individual time trial world championship win was built on pride and faith. As she stood on top of the podium, she was able to reflect on the ups and downs that brought her to the very top again. Her first win in 2008 was the culmination of eight years of learning, growing, and battling her way to the top of the sport. The second victory was built upon a shorter, more challenging journey back from the Tour of California crash and the people who’d been there along the way.
“In 2008 I was ready and I knew everything,” she says. “In 2016, it was like, ‘Wow, I have a lot to learn and a lot to grow still.’”
NEBEN HAS RACED professionally for nearly as long as some of her competitors have been alive. Maintaining a successful career has been no easy feat. “You really have to be intrinsically driven and really love and enjoy what you’re doing and feel another purpose with it,” she says.
After the California crash, Neben had to fight to get her pelvis, glutes, and back working properly again. She enlisted the help of physical therapist Lawrence van Lingen to help rebuild her body and started working with Cusick for training. At the age of 42 she says she’s never felt healthier.
“The core of [Amber’s new training] plan was the introduction of change,” Cusick says. “This was challenging for Amber, because she’s been training for many years and was pretty set in her ways.”
It’s been a learning experience for Cusick as well. “She can do an amazing amount of work, but controlling that to the right point and timing it for a peak at the right time has really pushed me, as that peak can be very high,” he says. “It takes a lot of precision to achieve that, and it’s been stretching to learn how to deliver it.”
[pullquote attrib=”Amber Neben”]”I feel like I’m still on the edge. I still love racing, and I love being in a place where I’m a sniper in my races.”[/pullquote]
The new approach sees Neben racing far less. Before signing with her new VéloConcept team, she made it clear she wanted to limit the amount of travel and number of races she competed in. She had one goal and that was the time trial world championship this September. The team agreed, allowing Neben to target a few major races along the way, including the U.S. national championships where she took a dramatic double victory, winning both the road race and time trial.
After winning the time trial, she pulled the stars and stripes jersey over the rainbow jersey. It was a magical moment for Neben, and a clear sign she’d made the right decision to fight her way back from her horrific injuries.
Neben laughs off the question of whether she’s gunning for Tokyo. She says she wants to take it year by year. She wants to enjoy the ride and prepare for the next round of adversity that will almost assuredly come her way.
“It’s been a fantastic journey,” she says. “There have been times when I’ve been ready to be finished. But through a lot of prayer I was able to keep going and keep doing this.”
At the world championships in Norway, Neben will bring the confidence and security only true adversity can bring. She’ll face riders half her age who are fighting to break their way into the sport.
“I feel like I’m still on the edge,” she says. “I still love racing, and I love being in a place where I’m a sniper in my races.”
Neben is ready for anything that comes her way.