Amber Neben celebrates winning gold at UCI Road World Championships on Oct. 11, 2016 in Doha, Qatar.
Last year, at the age of 42, cyclist Amber Neben won her second time trial national championship, equaling the number of world titles she owns in the event.
This past June, Neben followed that up by winning another one, cementing yet another trip to the UCI Road World Championships, this time Sept. 25 in Innsbruck-Tirol, Austria, where the two-time Olympian seeks to become the oldest woman to win a world title in the event.
“I’m closer to the end of my career than the beginning, and I’m very wary of that,” Neben admitted before heading to Austria. “Any elite athlete who is over 40 can testify that our bodies are really different at this point in time than they were at the beginning of our careers.”
Neben, who lives Lake Forest, California, with her husband, Jason, won her time trial world championships in 2008 and in 2016. Her win in 2016 made her the second-oldest woman to ever win a time trial world title, behind only French legend Jeannie Longo, who was 42 when she won in 2001. A four-time Olympic medalist, Longo won 14 world medals in road cycling, including nine golds.
Success later in athletic life truly comes with wisdom, but Neben, who will be competing in her 14th world championships, points out that it’s also highly unpredictable.
“It’s a whole new challenge in how you approach training, how you respond to training, how your nutrition changes,” she said. “And you have to be OK with it being more unpredictable than predictable. It’s different, but at the same time I still love the challenge and the glimpses of what’s there, and am super motivated for worlds.”
Throughout her 43 years and long career in the sport, some challenges have been more difficult to overcome than others.
As a 4-year-old, she was diagnosed with spinal meningitis. Doctors first told her parents that she would not survive, and that if she did survive, she would be brain damaged and deaf. The doctors were wrong on both counts.
In 2003, Neben received a six-month doping ban following a positive test for nandrolone metabolites. She escaped a more severe suspension by arguing to the Court of Arbitration for Sport that the results most likely came from contaminated supplements, and that her levels weren’t high enough to warrant a full-term suspension.
And then in 2007, her husband noticed a dark patch on her back, and when the 2007 season ended, in advance of her first Olympic berth, Neben was diagnosed with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.
“We moved as fast as we could to avoid impacting the Olympic year in 2008,” she said. “Within 10 days I had surgery, and they also not only got to it early, but were able to cut all of it out. They cut really deep and I had no other treatments for it.”
The setbacks were not over. In 2013, at the age of 39, Neben crashed during the time trial at the Tour of California, breaking a hip, cracking two ribs and dislocating a shoulder, injuries that should have ended her career. Instead, she returned to form, made her second Olympic team for the Rio Games, and won her second world championship in the time trial.
More recently, her challenges have been more typical for an elite athlete. Though she won the time trial national title last year, the world championships didn’t go as well. Neben competed in both the road race and the time trial, and the races took a mental and physical toll. This year, she is focusing strictly on the time trial.
“The biggest mistakes are also the biggest lessons,” she said. “It’s never fun failing like that (last year), but I take the perspective of pulling as much positive out of it as I can.”
She explained that the biggest physical challenge now is getting her body to work properly.
“You can have a beautiful Porsche sitting in your driveway, but if there’s no fuel in the gas tank or a hole from the transmission to the engine, it doesn’t matter how nice the car is,” she said. “For me, I have to deal with energy issues more than physical issues.”
The mental side of cycling, the acceptance of reality, comes without the aid of a certified sports psychologist.
“I have my Bible,” she said. “All of it. It’s really infinite in its wisdom, in the light that’s there. It’s fun to see all of the principles of success, even sports psychology. They are all in there. It’s a bit of a treasure hunt sometimes, and it requires digging and searching.”
Neben’s faith has carried her through her entire life, she said, from surviving debilitating meningitis, melanoma and injuries, to so much more.
“The goal is always the podiums or the rainbow (jerseys), but that isn’t the ultimate goal,” she said. “Chasing the rainbows really becomes the means by which I am able to experience God’s power and God Himself in my life. I’ve matured into seeing that ultimately, that relationship is better than any victory.”