It was a month to the day before crossing the finish line of the UCI Road World Championships time trial that Amber Neben was hit by a driver, suffering a potentially season-ending pelvis fracture that put her participation in her 17th Worlds in severe doubt.
But fast forward 31 days on from the run-in on the Pacific Coast Highway and the 46-year-old American was all smiles in Flanders, having just completed the 30.3-kilometre time trial in fourth place, 1:24 behind Dutch gold medallist Ellen Van Dijk.
Neben, who first competed in the Worlds in 2001 in Lisbon, has twice won the rainbow jersey in the time trial, but her ride on Monday, weeks after fracturing her pelvis in three places, and at an age by which most pros have already long retired, surely ranks among her most impressive achievements.
After her 37-minute effort, Neben said she left everything on the road during what was her 15th participation in the Worlds time trial.
"Five weeks ago tomorrow, I fractured my pelvis in three places, so I'm just super excited to be here and super excited to feel as good as I did today and just to be able to put it out there, race with all my heart and put it in God's hands and let Him take over," Neben said.
"I left it all out there. As for the preparation coming in, obviously, when you're coming from a fracture there's not a lot of training – it's mostly just recovery and rehab. Mentally I just tried to stay focused on what I needed to do. There was a lot of guts and a lot of heart today."
Neben's participation in the race was still up in the air just 10 days ago, she added, saying that she suffered setbacks along the way during her recovery, and saying that she was "crazy enough" to go for the Worlds despite the arduous recovery from her injuries.
"Honestly, I don't think I knew I was going to be here until probably about 10 days ago," she said. "I think I bought my ticket about 10 days ago to fly over. The first week I was just trying to walk and then I think it was about 10-11 days after that I sat on the trainer, and I thought 'OK I can sit on the bike' and I was just turning circles.
"Every day after that I was just seeing if I could do a little more and progress a little bit. Not to create any pain but just continue to push my body to get better. I had a couple of other setbacks along the way and another trip to the ER, but it was just like – all of a sudden at probably three weeks in I started to think about it.
"I was like 'my body is starting to progress really well and I think I'm going to make it back'. God put it in my heart to go for it. Even though I couldn't see it, it was like 'OK let's go do this'. I was crazy enough to do it."
Having trained largely on her turbo trainer since getting back on the bike, including two hours a day during the past week, Neben said that she had no regrets about missing a medal place, instead put her ride into the perspective of the past month. After racing to fifth at the first checkpoint, she turned a five-second deficit to Germany's Lisa Brennauer into a nine-second advantage by the end of the ride, while third-placed Annemiek van Vleuten lay a minute ahead.
"Fourth place is always like that place where you shake your head and you're like 'agh man, I'm so close to the podium'," Neben said. "But when I look at everything in perspective of the season and the last five weeks with the setbacks – no regrets and happy, thankful that I was able to do what I did today and get in the mix with such a high class of rider.
"I didn't feel it, but honestly, I don't think I was going to," she said of her pelvis. "Sometimes your brain just switches into race mode and it's big race mode so you're in the moment and you just enjoy the moment. I honestly try not to feel anything, as much as I'm suffering. My prayer is always 'lord, I just want to feel your presence more than any pain out there' and just go with it."
With 30 kilometres of pain and suffering now behind her and some achievement in the books, having beaten the likes of Brennauer, early leader Riejanne Markus, Olympic road champion Anna Kiesenhofer along the way, Neben will now have time to rest and prepare for 2022, having opted out of the Wednesday's mixed relay TTT and Sunday's road race.
"When I fractured my pelvis, I was like 'I think I can stick a time trial out there, but I'm not sure how much else I'll have in me, so I turned down the road spot to make sure Tayler [Wiles] could get in there and we've got a young group doing the relay on Wednesday so they'll be fine," she said.
"I am so blessed to have these opportunities. So many riders dream of being able to compete at the World Championships and for me, this is my 17th time competing at the World Championships. Every time is special, every time is an honour. I don't take it for granted and I know there's a whole nation cheering for me and it's a really cool thing."
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Daniel Ostanek has been a staff writer at Cyclingnews since August 2019, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later part-time production editor. Before Cyclingnews, he was published in numerous publications around the cycling world, including Procycling, CyclingWeekly, CyclingTips, Cyclist, and Rouleur, among others. As well as reporting and writing news, Daniel runs the 'How to watch' content on Cyclingnews and takes on live race text coverage throughout the season.
Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France, and has interviewed a number of the sport's biggest stars, including Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mark Cavendish, and Anna van der Breggen. Daniel rides a 2002 Landbouwkrediet Colnago C40 and his favourite races are Tro-Bro Léon, Strade Bianche, and the Vuelta a España.
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