By Fred Dreier
Achilles had his heel, and Amber Neben has her index finger.
The reigning time trial world champion, who lives in Irvine, California, has spent the last month recovering from injuries suffered July 8 at Italy’s Giro Donne, otherwise known as the women’s Giro d’Italia. The day after taking the leader’s jersey, Neben crashed on the third stage of the 10-day race while speeding down a descent at 60 kilometers an hour. The pileup resulted in a torn rotator cuff, as well as the usual cuts, bruises and road rash.
Neben’s right index finger, however, took the worst battle damage.
“Apparently a Spanish rider who was going Kamikaze down the hill crashed into me. It was if all of a sudden my bike just stopped and I went into the air with my arms extended like superman,” Neben said. “I took stock of my body and looked at my finger was like ‘Oh my gosh!’ I could see big opening in the side of the finger. It was really painful.”
The gash went deep into Neben’s finger, and the Californian said she immediately knew her race was over. The finger bone itself was not broken. But enough flesh was missing from the digit that the nerve poked through, which caused a crushing pain. On the ambulance ride to the hospital, Neben said she couldn’t even feel her other injuries because of the pain in her finger.
Italian doctors scrubbed the asphalt out of Neben’s road rash and dressed her wounds. An x-ray revealed a large chunk of rock was embedded in her arm, which also had to be dug out.
The finger wound, however, was bad enough that local surgeons would not operate for fear of causing permanent damage to the nerves in Neben’s hand. Neben would need to go back to the United States for a skin graft, they said.
“My option was to either let it grow back on its own or do the (skin graft),” Neben said. “Letting it grow back would have been much slower. And you can have nerve damage. And then you open it up to the possibility of infection.”
Doctors in Southern California performed the operation. They removed a chunk of skin from under Neben’s right wrist and patched up the hole on her finger. The surgery went smoothly. But doctors informed Neben she’d need to take a few weeks off the bike to let the wound heal. Exercising and sweating, they said, could result in the new skin not growing into the wound. She could put herself back to square one or worse — open the wound up to serious infections.
Taking time off the bike in the meat of the season wasn’t easy for Neben to stomach.
“It was hard. My legs were OK so I wanted to train. Even cross training was out of the question because it might ruin the skin graft,” Neben said. “This is the time of the year you don’t expect to be off the bike. I was going good before (the crash) so it was hard to take a hit like that.”
Neben spent two weeks off the bike, finally climbing aboard her rig again on July 24. She’s been training since then, trying to regain the form that won her last year’s UCI world time-trial championship in Varese, Italy. Neben took her first-ever world title, finishing seven seconds ahead of Christine Soeder of Austria.
This year’s race will be held September 23 in nearby Mendrisio, a small town on the other side of the Swiss-Italian border. Neben said she expects the usual suspects to challenge for the win: Soeder, Emma Pooley of Great Britain and, of course, reigning Olympic champion Kristin Armstrong of the United States, who is set to retire after the race. Neben said she’s tailoring the next two months of her training solely for the time trial.
But before she can seriously hone her skills, Neben still needs to overcome the finger injury. While the skin graft has begun to heal, the pain remains. Neben says she has trouble typing on a computer and picking up heavy objects, let alone gripping the handlebars of her bicycle. Sometimes her fingertip throbs with pain. Other times Neben has numbness on the area of the graft.
“I’m still not really using it when I ride. Squeezing the brakes is really hard,” Neben said. “I guess I really never realized how often you use your finger.”
Neben plans to fly to Europe in early September to tackle a handful of UCI races before the world championships including the September 13 World Cup in Nuremburg, Germany. By then, Neben hopes, her legs will have returned to their previous strength.
And her finger will be back to normal.