An interview with Amber Neben, November 30, 2007
American cyclist Amber Neben has been quietly racking up outstanding results in the European women's peloton. After coming second to Judith Arndt in the Thüringen Rundfahrt, she dominated the La Route de France Féminine, winning by more than one minute over Svetlana Bubnenkova. However, when the season ended, she received a shocking diagnosis of skin cancer. Cyclingnews' Laura Weislo talked to Neben about life before and after her brush with cancer.
The C-word. Cancer. It's something you never want to hear coming out of your doctor's mouth, even more so if you're at the peak of your physical condition and at the top of your career as a professional athlete. However, not everyone's fight is as dramatic as that of Lance Armstrong, and Amber Neben was one of those lucky ones who escaped with a relatively simple treatment.
Earlier in the year, Neben had noticed a mole on her back that seemed suspicious. Being red-haired and fair skinned, she knew she had to be on the lookout for signs of skin cancer, but thought it unusual that it might crop up on a spot that was always covered. "It was just a small mole, less than a centimetre in diameter, in the middle of my back. It was not in an area that I could easily see," Neben said from her one bedroom apartment in Irvine, California where she lives with husband Jason. "In fact, it was my husband who asked me what was on my back that brought my attention to it."
"From that point on, I watched it. The more I looked at it, the more I thought I should get in to get it checked out. I was worried, but not so worried to do it in the middle of my season. I waited until after World's, and went to the doctor as soon as I got home. Thankfully, I did."
"Everything possible went through my mind. Everything from 'I'm fine' to 'what if I am done?" -Amber Neben describes her reaction to hearing she had melanoma
After putting in another solid performance at the World Championships where she finished fourth in the time trial and at the back of the first chase group in the road race, Neben finally had a chance to see the doctor where the diagnosis was made - it was melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer which can be hard to control if it spreads.
"It was surreal to hear," Neben said about the news. "As a healthy athlete, the last thing on my mind was a disease like cancer. Even though I knew skin cancer was a possibility because of what the mole looked like and the history of cancer in my family, it certainly wasn't expected."
Neben headed into surgery to remove the mole with a range of emotions. "I was numb and scared yet at peace with things. Scared because until I met with the surgical oncologist, I didn't know how bad it was. I didn't know if it was going to be as simple as surgically cutting out more tissue, or if I would need lymph nodes removed, or if it had spread all over - everything possible went through my mind. Everything from 'I'm fine' to 'what if I am done?'
"At the same time, I was at peace with things, because I have a very strong faith and trust in the Lord, and regardless of what the cancer doctor was going to tell me, I knew I was in good hands."
When the surgery was over, Neben found out that she had dodged a bullet - the cancer had not spread, and since she had had it treated in the early stages, they were able to remove it completely. Now that she's through the worst of it, Neben said, "I am much more into being an advocate for getting skin checks and for using UV protection!"
The dark days
Neben's career is currently at a definite peak, but in 2003 it nearly came to an end after Neben tested positive for nandrolone at the Montreal World Cup in May of that year. She appealed the test, arguing that she had never knowingly taken the drug, and the amount of nandrolone in her system was so low - just barely over the limit for a positive test - that it must have come from contaminated supplements.
The case was one of the first of its kind to be argued in the USA, and when USADA suspended Neben for six months, ruling that she was responsible for the supplements she put into her body - and hammering this point home to all other athletes. With no federal regulations on the quality of nutritional supplements, her case as well as that of fellow American Scott Moninger made athletes fearful of taking the vitamins and energy drinks which had become so prevalent in the sport.
Neben describes that incident as a dark time in her career. "I think it permanently damaged my integrity and my ability to secure financial sponsors within the industry," she stated. "However, it is the mark on my integrity that hurts the most. You cannot put a value on that."
Dealing with the legal case as well as criticism from fellow athletes was a trying time - one that made her wonder if it was all worth it. "It was one of the hardest things I have had to deal with. I would not wish that experience on my worst enemy. There was a small part of me that thought about leaving [the sport], because I was afraid that everything I did would be forever questioned.
"But, there was a louder voice that knew the truth, how much I just love to ride my bike, and that it didn't matter what the others thought. I also had faith that something positive would and could come out of it, if I didn't give up."
An impressive season
Neben rebounded over the following years, heading over to Europe to build her career back up. Her 2007 season would be remarkable even if she hadn't accomplished her results with an undiscovered cancerous growth on her body. Neben's win in the Route de France was nothing short of spectacular, but it was her close fought battle with the German star Judith Arndt in the Thüringen Rundfahrt which was one of the most compelling women's race of the season.
The race began with a team time trial where Neben's Flexpoint team landed nine seconds behind Arndt's strong T-Mobile squad. The gap opened slightly on stage four, when the race hit the mountains. Arndt attacked, and Neben and Italian Naomi Cantele were the only ones who could stay with her. Arndt took the stage and the overall lead, but Neben was only 31 seconds behind in the overall.
Neben then rode herself into the overall lead with a superb individual time trial, putting herself ten seconds ahead of Arndt. The second half of a double-stage day didn't go as well, and Arndt slipped away in the finale to take a time bonus, pulling within two seconds of Neben's lead.
This set up a battle for intermediate time bonuses on the final stage and a battle royale that would be decided by just fractions of a second. "It was quite a battle - a fun one, though," Neben described the final day. "Arndt is such a fantastic bike racer, and her team was very strong. I have a ton of respect for all involved."
"On the last day, I went in with a small two second lead. However, there were two time bonus sprints along the way and then the final bonus on the finish line," Neben recalled. "Arndt is a fantastic all around sprinter, and I am not as blessed in the area. So, in order to protect the lead, my team tried to get a small breakaway group off to take the early bonuses."
Iris [Slappendel], Luise [Keller], and Suzanne [Van Veen] were all relentless in their attacks, but they were unable to get away. The next chance was for Susanne [Ljungskog] and I to try and attack on the climb. We did and were successful but only for a moment.
"Arndt was strong and managed to get back to us. This meant that I had to try and sprint Arndt for the two intermediate bonuses. With Susanne L's help, I was able to minimize my losses. But while Arndt picked up a three and a two second bonus, I only picked up a two and a one second bonus. Then, neither one of us picked up a bonus at the finish, so after seven days of racing, we were tied!"
The racers, fans and even the organisers were in a state of confusion as to who actually won the race, but after careful calculations, Arndt was declared the winner by just 0.4 seconds.
"Unbelievable," was Neben's word for the outcome. "There was some initial confusion about who actually won, but in the end it wasn't me. As I said, I have a ton of respect for my competitors, and I understand that you can win and lose bike races by a small margin, so I cannot complain." Neben is fortunate to have two teams to race for: her trade team and the USA National team, allowing her to expand her race schedule to events which her Flexpoint team does not attend. "This year, I had the chance to race San Marino and La Route de France with the USA team. I really enjoy racing with both."
Since the years when the T-Mobile women's team served as the US National team, the strongest American riders have been scattered amongst the rapidly expanding number of UCI women's teams. However, Neben sees the women's national team on an upward swing. "It is very cool to see the depth and growth of all the girls who have been racing in Europe," Neben commented. "They have earned the respect of the other countries. One of my favourite memories from La Route was when Buba [Svetlana Bubnenkova] came up to me on the last day and gave me a fist in acknowledgement of how strong my team was. I thought this was a fantastic compliment to each of the girls, and I also think it can be spread to everyone involved with the program."
Raising the level of the US women's peloton
Neben is also involved with the US Women's Cycling Development Program as a mentor, and this program combined with the USA Cycling programs has produced the strongest women's program in years. "The USA team now has the respect of the international peloton," Neben said. "I think the US is on the right path... The re-establishment of the national team back in 2002 was huge. That has since changed into what we have now, the national team/residence program."
Both programs provide one thing that has been, according to Neben, lacking in the past. "Opportunity... There is now opportunity. Sometimes that is all we girls need! What is set up now offers something concrete for American women to chase. As this chase goes on, and as the awareness that there is both a program and support to race in Europe increases, each individual athlete and team is more motivated to raise their game."
With each individual rider improving, Neben sees the peloton responding. "This in turn raises the level of the peloton in the States, which then helps to prepare and create more riders capable of international success. It builds on itself. I also think that as more of us race on European teams, others see racing in Europe as an option to consider and strive for."
Regardless of where it comes from, Neben said, "[Women] just need someone to offer some guidance or a chance... sometimes that comes at the very grass roots level, and sometimes that comes closer to the top, but it has to come at some point. Hopefully, these two programs will continue to grow and compliment each other as we try to make women's cycling huge in America."
There are a few reasons why Europe has an advantage over the US when it comes to cycling, and Neben, who races the full season overseas, is very familiar with the differences. "In Europe, the fields are larger and deeper. As a result, there are more teams and individuals capable of animating and driving the race.
"There are a few other things that aid the level of European racing. The level of local racing in Holland, Belgium, Germany, and Italy is very high. These local fields are very large and competitive and this translates to the next level. Another thing that helps raise the level is that you can drive across Europe in a day. This makes it easier to concentrate the racers at a single race and to do it on a regular basis.
This is one problem that the USA will not be able to fix, given the size of the country. "America is so huge; it is virtually impossible to get everyone together weekend after weekend."
After six years of racing at the sport's highest level, one might expect the 32 year-old California native to start thinking about what the next phase of her life will be like. However, the one thing that is front and center in her mind is the bike. "I love to race and ride my bike. As long as I am healthy and enjoying things, I will continue."
Clearly, with the Olympics around the corner, this is a clear goal for Neben, who missed out on the selection for the 2004 Sydney Games by a slim margin. "I would like to make the Olympic team and be a part of a Team USA medal," Neben said before ticking off a long list of unfinished business.
"I would like to be a part of a team USA medal at the world championships... There is this little race in France (the women's version of the tour) that I will always go after. There are major races like the Giro and Thuringen that I have not won yet that would be fun to go after. I would like to help Mirjam [Melchers van Poppel] successfully defend her Flanders World Cup now that she is back healthy. I would also like a world cup podium. There are lots of things... Stay healthy. Impact lives. Be a good wife. Race my bike. Fun stuff like that."