The past few years have been a series of struggles for Amber Neben, but the former time trial world champion is getting back on track and has the 2012 Olympic Games in her sights, thanks to her two-year contract with HTC-Highroad.
Speaking at the HTC-Highroad camp in California this month, Neben said she is excited back working with Bob Stapleton and some of the other people she worked with at the start of her career on T-Mobile in 2004. The team has formed a partnership with Specialized bikes, and having two years to dial in the equipment was a high priority for Neben, who has the 2012 Olympic Games as one of her top goals.
"Number one, it's just good people. It's a solid environment from an integrity standpoint, with quality people and quality teammates. The equipment is top of the line. They want the best equipment and want us to find any little advantage from that standpoint - they really do pay attention to the details."
Call it the curse of the rainbow jersey or just plain bad luck, but in the years following her 2008 world title, the Californian has had to overcome one obstacle after another. First came a broken elbow in November 2008, then in the 2009 world championships she broke her hand after crashing into a metal barrier.
Perhaps more disruptive than the physical problems was the news one year ago that her 2010 team, Equipe Nürnberger Versicherung, lost its sponsor.
The bad luck continued in 2010, with a torn muscle in the spring and then a broken collarbone in July meant more time spent out of competition. However, now that she is healthy and has a new team, Neben is hopeful and ready to get a fresh start in preparing for the coming season.
"I think the biggest thing for me right now - last year it was about this time where I found out I didn't have a team. All of a sudden any thoughts and stability about schedule and preparation went up in the air. I didn't know where I was going to race, how I would get to races, what races I was going to do, I just didn't have that stability, and this year I have that. I know what races I'll be doing, who I'll be racing with, what equipment I'm riding so I'm comfortable and I can get settled in and prepare properly. That's huge.
"The other thing that's different this winter is I'm healthy. I had a really difficult one and a half year period. Within 14 months, I had three surgeries from three different injuries and the muscle tear - pretty much spaced equally apart.
"Just to be able to start my winter not coming off a surgery or not dealing with something like that feels nice. People don't always understand that when you have an injury there's the physical side, but the mental and emotional component is also quite challenging. So just as the body needs rest, sometime your head and heart can only take so much.
"So for me to have a winter where I'm starting with a clean slate from the team and from the health standpoint is huge. I'm able to step back and take a breath and dive into my training - to add the right kind of training stress without the life stress," she said.
While her schedule for 2011 was not set at the time of our interview, Neben, a two-time winner of the Tour de l'Aude, will likely have a different season than in previous years after that race vanished from the calendar.
"I'm really disappointed about Aude. It's been on the calendar for nearly 20 years, and it was a great race - it had a reputation as a hard race and was well respected. It's always been a big goal for me, and not to have that in the spring changes things up a bit.
"It'll be different to not race there, but I don't know how it's going to change things. Obviously, I don't have to have that big 10-day stage race peak at that point, so we'll shift the training and racing a bit."
Neben said she would look target a different stage race, if not the Giro Donne in July, then perhaps the Internationale Thüringen Rundfahrt der Frauen, where she has twice been second, or La Route de France Féminine, which she won in 2007.
Neben has yet to place a World Cup victory next to her name, but said she would go into those races with the goal of helping the team. "We have a very talented team with a number of different riders who could be capable of winning those races. I'll want to be ready to help the team's goals. That will be my primary focus for the world cups. If that means I'm in a position to win that's great, but it will be just about being able to race really hard so that someone on the team can win."
Because she keeps her base in Southern California and travels to Europe for set blocks of racing, Neben also plans to take part in some domestic races, likely the UCI races in Gatineau, Canada and perhaps the Liberty Classic and Nature Valley Grand Prix before heading to the USA Cycling road championships.
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