Amber Neben rejoices in suffering, a useful trait for an elite bike racer. She is one of the more decorated American women currently racing with two wins at the Tour de l’Aude and a time trial world championship to her credit. After a year of freelancing, Neben will ride for HTC-Columbia next season. It is a kind of homecoming for Neben, who rode for the T-Mobile team managed by Bob Stapleton in 2003. Stapleton took a chance on the young Californian then, and Neben is very excited to have her career come full circle. She will join Ina-Yoko Teutenberg and Judith Arndt in leading a team rich with talent. "I just want to fit in and add what I can," Neben told me in her typically modest style. A prima donna, she is not.
For all her success, Neben has faced her share of obstacles in her career. A doping suspension, several serious crashes, a bout with skin cancer, and the collapse of the Skyter team have all interrupted her career. A steely determination keeps her coming back. "It’s adversity. You can embrace it or you can run from it," she said, leaving little doubt which option she habitually chooses. Since Neben turned professional, she has seen women’s cycling change and grow, and she has had her share of success and setback. Here is your chance to hear all about her adventures, and learn which names you should know among the deep field of American women rising through the ranks.
When Neben first went to Europe, she and Kim Anderson were the only Americans racing there. Turning professional in 2002, Neben came to cycling in her mid-twenties after playing soccer and running cross-country at university, a pattern typical of many woman riders. Neben cited the growing number of American women making the jump to Europe as the biggest change since she started racing. Going to Europe, "it’s not foreign and scary any more," she said. There are also more opportunities, as the U.S. national team has increased its presence in Europe. "The opportunities are improving and what’s possible is expanding outward," said Neben of women’s racing now. "Girls are seeing cycling as an option, and the awareness of the sport has increased," added Neben.
International successes like those of Neben and Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong have helped fuel the slowly rising profile of women’s cycling in the United States. A climber-time trialist, Neben’s best results have come in the stage races. She won Tour de l’Aude in 2005 and 2006, Route de France Féminine in 2007, and Tour de l’Ardèche in 2008. She also has several victories at the Tour of the Gila and the Redlands Classic in the United States.
Despite her own successes, Neben expects to "blend in" at HTC-Columbia next season. It is a testament both to the deep talent of the team and to Neben’s low key demeanor that a rider with her results willingly embraces a supporting role. If the opportunity arises, she will race for her own results, but she is also happy to support riders like Ina-Yoko Teutenberg, Judith Arndt, and Evie Stevens. Neben emphasizes that the team is "very talented" and that there is also a "good chemistry." "I want to bring leadership to the team, and share the experiences I’ve had connecting with people," she explained of her goals.
The ban on race radios makes an experienced team leadership all the more important. "You need people in the race who can read the race," explained Neben, and she expects to be "another pair of eyes" on the road for HTC-Columbia next year. Neben is a fan of the new rules. "You have to think on the bike a little more," she said. It gives the racing a "good dynamic." To thrive without radios, riders need an instinct for racing.
Neben has ridden as road captain for the U.S. national team in recent seasons, and enjoys the thinking part of bike racing. What makes a good road captain? It starts with a race plan, and "good leadership off the bike." Then, the team needs good communication, so that riders will be honest with one another. The road captain "needs to have a good connection with team-mates." "If they’re having problems, you have to know that," explained Neben. At Worlds this year, Neben had to change the team’s plan on the road, when sprinter Shelly Olds said she was not on a good day. That kind of honesty is essential to success on the road. A road captain also needs good legs. "You have to be respected by the team and in the mix." Certainly, a captain can’t lead from the gruppetto. Most of all, Neben emphasized, "you can’t be afraid to fail." A captain’s role is to make decisions on the road, and sometimes, it means going on "gut feeling" and committing. Sometimes, the tactics bring a win, like when Neben rode in support of Mara Abbott at the Giro Donne, and sometimes it means a finish in the field like in Geelong. "You can’t be afraid of failing," Neben repeated.
Fear does not appear to be part of Neben’s vocabulary. She has twice finished the Giro Donne in the hospital. Laughing she said, "maybe I shouldn’t do that race anymore." More seriously in 2007, doctors diagnosed Neben with skin cancer, after her boyfriend noticed a small mole on her back. Surgeons successfully removed the melanoma, but she continues to visit her oncologist every six months. A second doctor checks her fair skin carefully at regular intervals, and her doctors recently removed a pre-cancerous lesion. No doubt the situation occasionally makes for sleepless nights, but Neben is calm. Of the cancer she said, "people get it, you can defeat it."
As she talks about her reaction to the dissolution of her team early in the 2010 season, Neben’s world view becomes more evident. In 2008, Neben signed a two year contract with Nürnberger Versicherung, after four years of racing with the Dutch Flexpoint team. "It was a good deal," said Neben of the agreement with the German team. At the beginning of the 2010 season, Skyter took over as sponsor from Nürnberger Versicherung. Then at the last possible moment, the Luxembourg yacht company withdrew their support, and suddenly, Neben had no team and no paycheck. "It’s adversity. You can embrace it or you can run from it," said Neben. "You stand firm, and focus on moving forward."
Instead of riding for a trade team, Neben spent the 2010 season with the U.S. National team and guest-riding for Webcor Builders. "I was racing without a paycheck, but I gained the relationship with the national team," said Neben of her season. "That’s typically what comes from adversity. Sometimes good comes from it," she emphasized. Her close relationship with her American team-mates showed at the World Championships and will certainly help the American women in London at the 2012 Olympic Games. Neben also called Mara Abbott’s win at the Giro Donne a special moment.
She credits her ability to "stand firm" to her Christian faith. "Suffering is character-building," explained Neben. "I’m a work in progress, growing through experience," she said. Paul’s Letter to the Romans provides one of the foundational texts of Neben’s Lutheran beliefs and Paul’s writings draw an explicit link between suffering, character, and faith. "Adversity is part of life," Neben said. Explaining her resilience, Neben quotes from the fifth chapter of Romans, "we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope." The verse seems an apt choice for a bike racer, whose life is so much shaped by her demanding sport and its neverending challenges.
The most difficult challenge of Neben’s career came in 2003 when she tested positive at the Montreal World Cup race for a steroid metabolite. She claimed the substance came from a tainted supplement. The disciplinary panel agreed and Neben received a reduced sanction. "I was struck by lightening, it was totally out of the blue," she recalled. The injuries and her cancer diagnosis were not easy for Neben. But the positive doping control "affected my integrity." "It scarred who I was. There was nothing I could do to reverse it," she explained. In doping cases, "people make up their minds, they believe what they want to believe," she said. The people questioning her integrity did not know her and could never know for sure that she told the truth of the story. "You file the lawsuit, but..." Neben’s voice trails off, as if to communicate the infinite nature of the argument.
It is not all suffering and adversity. There is plenty of joy in the racing for Neben. Her victory in the 2008 world championship time trial stands out as "a big moment." "It was a lifetime in the making," said Neben of the rainbow jersey. All the years of soccer, running, and cycling culminated in that one special day. Looking ahead, Neben dreams of an Olympic Gold medal. She would also like to add a win at the Giro Donne to her list of stage racing successes, though she is happy to have contributed to Mara Abbott’s win at the 2010 Giro. She will miss the Tour de l’Aude next year. "The race had so much respect, because of how hard it was," Neben said of the now-gone French race. "Every day was raced hard" at the Tour de l’Aude. The UCI now limits women's stage races to seven days, so no one can resurrect the ten day Tour de l'Aude.
Neben is excited about the new generation of American women riders. The U.S. Cycling organization has sent more women to Europe to race over the past few seasons, and the results are beginning to show. That exposure is key. "That’s what I gotta do" is how Neben describes the lesson of racing in Europe for the first time. Some riders take to it more quickly than others. Neben points to Sinead Miller as one young rider who learned quickly in her first trip to Europe this season. "She has an instinct for racing. She was always in the right place, always making the split," said Neben of the young American. Miller rode the spring classics in Belgium and the Netherlands and showed a knack for moving around the field and reading the race. "If you can race your bike in Holland, you can race your bike anywhere," said Neben, laughing.
Mara Abbott, Evie Stevens, and Shelly Olds are "world class talents," in Neben’s estimation. But she also highlights Amanda Miller, Alison Starnes, and Teresa Cliff-Ryan as riders to watch. Though Cliff-Ryan "buried herself as a lead-out" for Shelly Olds this season, Neben expects the young American to do big things when she has her own chances. Neben also named Carmen Small as one of the unsung heroes among the American women. Small "just does so much work during the race" that is not visible. Her name will not appear in the results, but Small’s efforts are essential to her team’s successes.
"Success breeds success," says Neben of women’s cycling. The big international results in recent years have raised the profile of the sport in Neben's view. But it still has some ways to go. Geography works against bike racing in the United States, because it’s difficult to get everyone together in the same place. "We need a schedule that brings people together," she said. Neben also pointed to prize money and more team sponsor support as crucial to building the sport. "Half the population is female and women like to compete," she noted. Women have buying power, young girls need role models: these reasons alone should provide incentive to build a strong women’s sport.
As for Neben, she is looking forward to the coming season with HTC-Columbia. "I’m going to step in where I’m needed," she said. She is excited to work with Bill Stapleton again, whom she credits with with "a passion for women’s cycling." There is a wealth of experience at HTC-Columbia, and Neben expects to thrive. "Cycling is a big part of who I am," she concluded. On the bike, Neben endures suffering, she builds character, she embraces hope, and she finds joy.
Story by Jen See.