Amber Neben of USA competes in the Women's Elite Individual Time Trial on day 3 of the UCI Road World Championships on October 11, 2016 in Doha, Qatar.
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Road cyclist Amber Neben remembers hugging teammate Chloé Dygert at the conclusion of the world championships women’s time trial in 2019.
Neben was in the No. 3 spot before being bumped and finishing fourth, and Dygert won.
“And I remember thinking, ‘Wow, she’s half my age,’” said Neben, from Irvine, California. “She literally is half my age. I was 44 and she was 22. It’s pretty cool to think about being in a position to still compete against them.”
Neben, now 45, is hoping to make her third Olympic team in 2021 and her first since 2012. She was the oldest cyclist to start the women’s time trial at the 2020 world championships in Italy in September, her 16th appearance in the event, and she was the top American and sixth overall. Even in a field where some of the competitors were born the same year she raced in her very first world championships, in 2001, Neben continues to defy the odds and chase her Olympic dream.
“Aw man, it would be so special (to make the 2021 team),” she said. “It really would be such a journey of faith for me considering the obstacles and the waiting period between Games and the challenges and moving forward with faith.”
Neben never really set out to still be racing bikes at this point in her life.
Her biggest decision was to return after a horrific crash during the Tour of California in 2013 that left her with a shattered hip, some cracked ribs, a dislocated shoulder and a long rehab and recovery.
Neben did return, and despite being passed over for the 2016 Olympic team she won the time trial world title later that year; it was her second world title, with the first coming in 2008. As the defending champ she had to race at least one more year, she said. Then she won the national title in both the time trial and road race in 2017, so she had to keep going still. Then she won the national time trial again in 2018.
“And I was like, well, I still have to defend this title, plus now the Olympics are around the corner,” she said. “It was honestly just a lot of just doing tomorrows and trusting in God, listening and waiting to see the path He was going to take me on.”
Neben credits her current coach, Tim Cusick, for reaching out following her 2013 crash and helping put together the plan that has aided in her longevity.
“I knew I was still hungry to try to win big things and if I was going to come back to do this, I was going to come back fully committed and with really big goals,” she said. “Age aside, I knew it was still in me and I knew I needed help. Tim was observant enough, I think, to see something special in me and gracious enough with his time and knowledge to reach out. That was a big turning point for me as far as the second phase of my career.”
Neben’s training for the first 15 years of her career, give or take, certainly wasn’t wrong, she said. In fact, it worked very well for her for a long time as she made the Olympic team in both 2008 and 2012 and amassed numerous national and international wins.
But the body at 40 isn’t the same as the body at 30, and Neben said things had grown stagnant. With Cusick, they created some different training progressions that magnified her strengths but also provided new stimuli to get growth again in areas such as fatigue resistance.
Depending on the point in the season, she said, she averages about 20-22 training hours per week, emphasizing quality over quantity.
“There’s not a lot of junk miles in there,” she said.
She also works closely with a soft tissue specialist, Lawrence Van Lingen, who’s helped her better understand not only how to take care of her body but also how it’s all connected. For instance, she said, she may have an issue with her gluteus muscles but the problem actually is coming from her ankle or big toe, or a problem with her shoulder may really be stemming from her hip.
Plus, she said, with age comes wisdom to know when to push through discomfort and when to take a day off.
“And how do you gain that?” she said. “You made wrong decisions. I’ve made enough wrong decisions at this point to know the consequences and understand the big picture and know that if I address something now it will save me down the line. A lot of that comes with taking care of your body. It whispers, then it talks, then it shouts. Listen to the whispers and you’ll do much better.”
Neben’s also had to adjust her nutrition, which she said has been a big challenge. For years all she ate while on the bike were gels and sugary solutions from bottles — and it worked. But over the years all those carbs wrecked her gut. She no longer eats gluten, soy or dairy, and has had to adjust her intake on the bike and off to get more balanced nutrition.
Overall, Neben said, she feels stronger and healthier now than she ever has, but it is harder.
“I’m not a rubber ball; I don’t bounce back the same way I used to,” she said. “I have to be on top of taking care of my body and paying attention to all the details. The physical element of it is hard, and there’s no way around that.”
Finding financial support has also been hard, she said. She’s not the trendy young cyclist anymore, so she wonders if sponsors think there are better ways to use their dollars than backing her, but she is on the Olympic long team and has a very good chance at being in Tokyo next summer.
And she doesn’t plan to simply go to Tokyo. She wants to challenge for her first Olympic medal.
No matter what, she said, she hopes her journey inspires others.
“You’re never too old, never too young, never too anything to dream,” she said. “It requires a ton of perseverance and it’s not always easy. You can’t give up. There’s no Amazon Prime Dream Delivery. You have to get in there and work and keep working.”
Follow Neben’s journey on Instagram at @Ambernebenpx4.