Less than a year out from a frightening crash at the Amgen Tour of California women's time trial, Amber Neben is back in the US peloton and aiming her comeback toward the very top of the sport.
One of the most accomplished US cyclists actively racing, Neben, 39, took gold at the world time trial championships in 2008, is a two-time national champion in the time trial and road race and has competed in the past two Olympics. She was also part of the 2012 Specialized-lululemon squad that took gold at the world championship team time trial.
But after less than a dozen days of racing last season with the Lithuanian Pasta Zara-Cogeas team, the 13-year pro's ambitions came up against a literal wall when she clipped a rock outcropping on a tricky downhill corner of the time trial course, shattering her pelvis above the iliac crest and breaking several ribs.
Through months of rehabilitation, Neben painstakingly made her way back onto the bicycle, and beginning with sustained efforts of just 50 watts, she steadily trained her way back into racing condition. In a show of defiant determination, she set her sites on returning for one last race of the 2013 season. Not only did Neben make it to the Chronos des Nations in October, she finished sixth.
"It was big goal for me just to get back on the bike and get back into the race before the season ended, and that was like the very last opportunity on the race calendar," Neben recently told Cyclingnews.
"By August I was thinking that I could physically get myself into position to maybe win, but more so just to be in the race and not get crushed," she said. "For me and what I represent about overcoming adversity and just getting back up and not giving up, it was an opportunity to conquer the crash before the season ended."
For 2014, Neben signed with FCS/Zngine, a Texas-based Elite team run by a non-profit organization that promotes grassroots and development cycling. She said the team's relationship with bike sponsor Orbea will allow her to collaborate directly with a bike manufacturer for the first time, and her domestic-only schedule with the team will allow a more forgiving transition back into racing.
"I didn't want to put myself into a position where I felt compelled – because I had signed a contract – to push through things I shouldn't push through to be where the team needed me to be or wanted me to be," Neben said.
"This is a pretty important year as far as just coming back, and I'd rather not have any setbacks," she said. "Doing it right this year will pay dividends for the long-term future of my cycling health, whether I compete for another two years after this or whether it's just being able to ride my bike for the rest of my life. I just wanted to make sure I do things right this year."
Although Neben would like to compete in this year's world championships near Orbea's home base in Ponferrada, Spain, she realizes it may be a tall order given her expected lack of international racing this year. But if her body responds well to this season's challenges, and if she doesn't experience any setbacks, the ultimate goals on her long-range radar include trips to the 2015 road world championships in Richmond, Virginia and the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
But for now, Neben is targeting NRC wins for herself and her FCS teammates, and she's hoping for a good performance at the US national championships. Not surprisingly, the same streak of determination that drove her to comeback for the final race of last season is now pining for a return to the Tour of California time trial.
"I don't know if it will be too early," she said, "but I just think it would be so cool to go back to the same race where the accident happened and just, you know, throw down a great race there. Yeah."
The veteran rider and athlete is also well aware – and openly welcome to the idea – that she'll have to take one step at a time and test the waters carefully en route to those prestigious goals. This past weekend, Neben won the opening time trial at the San Dimas Stage Race and finished third overall after three stages. Although others may have viewed the performance as a sign she is back in her typically world-class form, Neben is still not certain.
"Honestly, I feel like I won't really know until we get into the season, because I'm missing a year's worth of race fitness," she said. "I'm super happy the 20-minute efforts came back, but it's still to be determined how I'm going to respond with the road racing and the other stuff.
"I need to get through this year and see mentally how I do, physically how I do," Neben said. "Then I'll make a commitment and a decision for the following two years."
She'll test herself again this week at the NRC-opening 30th Annual Redlands Bicycle Classic, a five-day race that starts Wednesday with a hilly circuit race in the City of Highland. It should provide a solid start on the path toward determining which direction Neben's cycling future takes.