Amber Neben showed that she is back to her old form this year after two seasons plagued by injury, most recently coming second in the Winston-Salem Cycling Classic, third in the US National Championship time trial and fourth in the road race. It's a relief for the 40-year-old, whose dramatic crash in the 2013 Tour of California time trial broke her hip and required intensive physical therapy to get her back to top speed.
"It's just fun to be racing and to be in the mix, to be able to play again," Neben told Cyclingnews in Winston-Salem, where she was second in a two-up breakaway with Belarus champion Alena Amialiusik. "I feel really good and really strong. It's just fun being a bike racer again."
Neben, a two-time Olympian and the 2008 UCI time trial world champion, seemed to be coming back from her 2013 crash last year, winning the San Dimas Stage Race and sitting second overall on the final stage of the Joe Martin Stage Race last April when disaster struck in the criterium. "It was a freak thing, I was second around the bottom corner and Jasmin [Glaesser] slid out and I almost held it up, but then I ended up landing on the curb," she said. "I just hit it just right" - the impact broke her tailbone, and set her back once again. She missed the National Championship road race after suffering through the time trial for 11th place, and selection for the 2014 World Championships was out of the question.
"I tried to stay positive and keep pursuing the big picture goal," she said. "I had a really good winter - finally. That was the biggest thing. I took five weeks off and just walked." She also underwent intensive physical therapy to get all of the muscles in her hips and glutes working again, and the process paid off in spades. Finally able to pedal and put out power, she had a strong winter of training and began churning out results immediately this season, winning in San Dimas, coming second to Mara Abbott in Redlands, taking third at Joe Martin before landing on the podium at the National Championships.
"My body feels really good, better than it's felt in a long time, and my training has gone really well. It's like, wow - I feel like I'm putting out power better than I've ever put out before, and I'm old!", she laughed. "I'm having fun with it."
Neben is looking down the road to Rio in 2016, which will likely be her final chance for Olympic glory, but unlike national champions Kirstin Armstrong and Megan Guarnier, Pan American champion Carmen Small and medallist Coryn RIvera, who have already earned automatic bids, Neben has to earn a so-called discretionary pick for Richmond, which is a required stepping stone for Rio. The USA looks set to earn a maximum seven spots for the road race.
Neben's non-UCI team Visit Dallas/Noise 4 Good was not awarded an invitation to the upcoming World Cup in Philadelphia, which would have provided a prime opportunity to gain valuable UCI points and further justify her selection, but she intends to keep plugging along and hope her legs can do the talking.
"As of this morning our team has not been invited [to Philadelphia]," Neben said on Sunday. "Apparently the reason they didn't select us is we're not a UCI team [World Cups are usually raced by UCI teams and national teams], but they selected [US amateur teams] Colavita and Fearless Femme, so we're arguing to get in, but we've been denied so far. Hopefully we'll get a call and have a chance."
Absent that opportunity, Neben's team will head to the GP and Chrono Gatineau this Thursday and Friday with the hopes of getting word they've been allowed in to Philly's World Cup on Sunday.
"I'm just going to continue to do my best with the opportunities that are in front of me. Hopefully I'll get a chance to do some racing in Europe in August with the national team or another team if it fits the schedule. I'll keep working hard, and train as if I'm on the team [for Worlds] because I know from experience that to ride well and be ready, the preparation starts now. I'll prepare mentally and physically to be ready and along the way do my best to put down performances that show that I can contribute and be worthy of a selection."
Neben sees the Richmond Worlds as perhaps the best chance in recent years for the USA women to finally win a Road Race World Championship. The last time that happened was in 1980 when Beth Heiden won the rainbow bands in France.
"Richmond would be a fantastic course for any of us," Neben said. "I wouldn't see my role necessarily to be the protected rider, but if you see from today and Nationals, I love to race, and I can help make a race hard, and I can be there in the end. With my experience, too hopefully they'll see that and put me in the mix. I'd love to be there."