BRUGES, Belgium (VN) – Five weeks ago, Amber Neben’s pelvis was broken in three places when a car driver turned into her path during a training ride.
She only booked her trip to the world championships 10 days ago.
Despite the pain and stress of the last five weeks, the American rode to fourth place in the elite women’s time trial, a minute behind Annemiek van Vleuten in bronze position. Fourth place can often be the cruelest of finishing positions, but Neben looks at it with her usual positivity edge.
“I left it all out there. The prep coming in when you’re recovering from a fracture there’s not a lot of training, it’s mostly just recovery and rehab. Mentally, I just tried to stay focused on what I needed to do. It was a lot of heart and a lot of gut today,” Neben said.
“Fourth place is always that place where you shake your head and you’re like ‘man, I was so close to the podium’ but when you put everything in perspective, with the season and the last five weeks with the setbacks, I have no regrets. I’m thankful that I was able to be here today and be in the mix with such a high class of riders, with my age and everything that has gone on.”
Fortunately for Neben, her injuries did not require surgery but she was unable to walk initially and the journey back to was not straightforward. It would be some time before she could sit in the saddle again and spent much of her riding ahead of the worlds on the home trainer.
The ultimate goal for Neben was the individual time trial and she pulled out of the mixed relay and road race to pour all of her efforts into that.
“The first week, I was trying to walk, and it was about 11 days afterward that I sat on the trainer, and it was like “ok, I can sit on the bike” and really it was just turning circles,” she said. “Every day, it was just turning circles.
“I had a couple of setbacks along the way and another trip to the ER. All of a sudden, I was three weeks in, and I was starting to think about it. My body was progressing well, and I thought I was going to get there. God put it in my heart to go for it. Even if I couldn’t see it, it was like “ok, let’s go and do this”. And I was crazy enough to do it.”
At 46, Neben is one of the oldest riders at the worlds and by far one of the most experienced. Donning the stars and stripes for international competition is still a special moment for her, after nearly two decades of racing at the worlds.
“I’m so blessed to have these opportunities. So many riders dream of being able to compete at the world championships and, for me, it’s my 17th time competing at the world championships,” Neben said. “Every time is special, and I don’t take it for granted. I know there is a whole nation that is cheering for me. It’s really a cool thing. Definitely an honor.”
Leah Thomas motivated by TT ride
Leah Thomas was also competing for the USA after being selected to replace the injured Chloé Dygert. It is the third time she has represented the U.S. in the individual TT at the worlds and she rode to 14th at 2:50 behind van Dijk.
She has previously finished fifth and seventh, in 2018 and 2019 respectively, on far hillier courses than the one she was presented with Monday but still went into the event with ambition. However, a bike change put paid to a better result than the 14th she took in Flanders.
While she was not happy with the result, she hopes to use it as a building block for building her TT skills in 2022.
“I think I can take motivation from this ride. I feel like I haven’t yet had a perfect worlds TT and I think that focusing on it and making it a goal is something that excites me and motivates me. Hopefully, we can use that as a guide for next year,” Thomas said.
“I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I had a big racing block before this, and I wasn’t expecting a time trial spot. I haven’t really had the opportunity to dedicate myself and focusing on this event this year. I really wanted to be able to cross the finish line and be proud of my effort at the end of the day. I didn’t have a perfect ride, but I felt like I dug to the end, and I can use that as a learning experience.”
Thomas will ride the mixed relay and the road race over the coming days where she hopes to pull out a strong result. She’ll be one of the potential contenders for the USA in the road race Saturday after a strong period of racing through September that brought a stage win and GC victory at the Tour de l’Ardèche.
“Anytime you’re on a good stint, it builds your confidence,” Thomas said. “In this last racing block, my goal was to race without fear, going all in and letting the cards fall how they fall. If they didn’t work out in my favor, I wanted to learn from it and move forward, but to give it a real try. That brought me a lot of success this year and it was really liberating and fun.
“When you have the freedom to race aggressively, at least for me, it really motivated and excites me. More than anything, I was bringing that excitement and energy to racing at this world championships.”