“Seriously, this does not get old.”
Although Amber Neben might be the oldest rider on the start list for the UCI road world championships this year, she’s still having the time of her life racing her bicycle.
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In Imola, Italy, on Thursday, Neben, a two-time world champion in the individual time trial, will line up at the UCI road world championships for the 16th time. Neben says that despite her age — she’s 45 — bike racing still offers plenty of challenge for her individually and as an opportunity to share her experiences with other riders.
“I think it is a pretty cool story,” Neben told VeloNews. “I hope I inspire guys and gals, old and young to continue to dream and persevere. I don’t know that my age affects my head that much other than to know I am old. How I race and what I can do in the races is not exactly the same as it was when I was a spring chicken, but that’s part of the challenge I enjoy.”
Neben’s palmares at worlds are as extensive as the stamps that the race has put in her passport. Of course, she cites her two individual time trial wins — in 2008 and 2016 — and a team time trial win in 2012 among the most memorable, yet Neben has stories from other editions that are just as imprinted in her memory.
There was the first worlds she ever attended in 2001, one month after the horrific events of 9/11. It was Neben’s first trip to Europe, and she recalls that Team USA spent most of the time under police protection, only donning anything with stars and stripes on it on race day and the day before.
In 2009 in Mendrisio, Switzerland, she, Kristin Armstrong and Emma Johansson slid out in a corner and Neben ended up in a barrier — and then in the ER with a busted hand.
At the road race in 2016, Neben says she had a brief moment to dream about the possibility of a double rainbow.
“Jack [Seehafer, former USA Cycling women’s endurance program manager] wanted me to attack, so I did,” she said. “I got out solo and he says, ‘Go-go-go for as long as you can!’ It was going to be a sprint that day, so we were trying to burn up some of the lead-out trains. I made it to the last half of the lap.”
There are few cyclists who are able to reflect on how they’ve evolved over the past twenty years while still starting races as a contender. Neben says that while she has always been grateful for the opportunity to race for Team USA at worlds, there are a few things that her 25-year old self might have seen differently than her current self.
“Probably young Amber thought winning would be everything, but old Amber has a great appreciation for the process,” she said. “Winning is so quickly forgotten, but the process will leave a lasting impact.”
Neben wasn’t alone in suffering some setbacks in 2020. With the U.S. national championships canceled, she wasn’t able to defend her national time trial title, and there were no other domestic racing opportunities to speak of. Neben says she has stayed motivated and worked hard during the strange months of the pandemic and is hopeful that the top end that has been elusive without racing won’t be a huge issue.
“I’m praying my years — remember I am old — of experience and muscle/brain memory will kick in,” she said.
Neben will join defending ‘world champion Chloe Dygert, and Leah Thomas on Team USA in the ITT at worlds this year. Dygert smashed the race in Yorkshire last year, but at fourth place, Neben wasn’t that far down the line.
Given everything — COVID-19, knowing that she’s racing against women half her age, a truncated race season — it would be easy for Neben to head into Thursday’s race with more than a little trepidation. Yet, the confidence that comes from fifteen years of world championship experience isn’t easy to sway.
“To steal from Rebecca Rusch – my stoke is high,” Neben said. “I am wired to go for big races, so for me to be in a position to race for a world title as a long shot, to still be in this game at 45, is pretty cool. I’m thankful, and I am in awe of what God is doing and the story he is writing.”