World time trial champion Amber Neben will line up in her rainbow jersey at the USA Cycling Professional National Championships in Knoxville, Tennessee on Saturday, aiming to add a second special jersey to her collection with the stars and stripes. But after a limited season and some experimentation with her training, the 42-year-old is looking at the race as a secondary goal to her Worlds title defence.
"I always come in with the same expectation, and that's to win. That's no different," Neben tells Cyclingnews. "My confidence is in my faith. I'll do my best out there and we'll see what happens."
Neben won the rainbow jersey in Qatar by just five seconds in a tight race over Ellen van Dijk and Katrin Garfoot. She knows that she will have to eke out every last watt she can find to have a chance of making the medals this year, so she's changed up her formerly tried-and-true training plan. She admits it has "made things a bit less predictable".
Although she won the 11km opening stage at Redlands in early May by 18 seconds, when it came to a longer test in the Chrono Gatineau, she was off the pace of compatriot Lauren Stephens by 11 seconds. Neben anticipates a close race in Knoxville and whether or not she prevails depends on how she's absorbed the new training scheme.
"With risk comes reward, we'll see if we get that reward. Mentally I'm ready, but physically it is to be determined to see how my body responds," Neben says. "I'm on really fast equipment and have dialled in the aerodynamics. As a time trialist, you find a sweet spot on the bike. When you change equipment you're always searching for that sweet spot. I'm not sure I've found it, but I'm closer. We'll probably go back in the wind tunnel after nationals to see if we can fine tune it a little more. It's a good place to test, so I'm excited about the weekend."
Neben has been racing for almost 20 years and says that finding that competitive edge gets harder and harder every year. "For someone who's been going for so long, it's difficult to challenge your endurance engine, to create overload and get adaptation. At this point, you're getting hit with a hammer pretty hard to get back to this level."
There are few men who remain in the sport after 40, and though it's more common for women – Kristin Armstrong won the Olympic gold at 43 last year – and Neben says that aside from training, staying motivated is the most important factor.
"There's the physical aspect – being talented and blessed with an engine – but there's also a big mental component to it. Honestly, it's the bigger piece of continuing on," she says. "Your head becomes so much more important than the body. Mentally, to do it day after day, you're doing a ton of stuff and nobody sees what's going on and few people can understand how hard it is. You have to want to do it, to still enjoy it and have that passion and desire to do it."
With her main objective so late in the year, Neben has limited her season to a small selection of races. She did one stint in Europe, mainly to become acquainted with her Team Veloconcept teammates. Aside from Sunday's national championship road race and La Course by Tour de France, she will focus mainly on time trials until Worlds.
"I'm at a place in my life where I'm not interested in taking a lot of huge risks, and that's why I don't want to road race a lot right now," she says.
"The (nationals) time trial is the first goal of the year, and Worlds are the main goal. This is a test run to see if what we tried in the spring worked."
The women race only 23km in the national championship time trial, with three laps of a 7.7km course. Neben has been in Knoxville trying to preview the route but has found it difficult to get a good feel for the route while the roads are open.
"It's tricky, you couldn't ride it all at once in the right direction, so you had to piece it together. It's hard to say. My first thought is it's not a traditional TT course. It'll be interesting to see how it flows. It'll be a good challenge. Certainly, it will be a good challenge from a pacing standpoint.
"You look at this course and it's totally up for grabs. The same people that are time trialling really well will be in the mix," she said. Leah Thomas, the winner of the Tour of the Gila time trial, Pan Am silver medallist Tayler Wiles, and Chrono Gatineau winner Lauren Stephens are all on her radar, as are Ruth Winder, Kelly Catlin, Brianna Walle and Alison Tetrick.
"I never count anyone out. Allie Dragoo has been racing in Europe racing hard, which means nobody knows how good she is, and she's probably next level after spending the spring over there. I think it will be a tight race all around in the top five."
After the national championships, Neben will remain at home until La Course by Tour de France and the Crescent Vargarda WorldTour team time trial. Whether Neben will continue to race beyond Worlds or not depends largely on how her race goes in Bergen.
"If I medal again and I have an automatic spot, then it's pretty tempting to go again next year. If I don't, then it will be a harder decision to figure out if it's time to be finished or if I press on."
The opportunity to race on home soil as the world champion this weekend is a rare treat that Neben will savour. "Having a chance to race in America as the world champion is a really special thing. I'm so grateful to God for all he's gifted me for all the opportunities that I've had. It's really fun and crazy cool, it's a really special thing.
"I'll enjoy it, and take the challenge. Obviously, the focus in the race is just you against the clock, so I'll focus on doing what I need to do to have my best race – just put it out there and leave it there. If it's enough, it's enough, if it's not, it's not. There's nothing I can do about that."
Anything beyond this season, she says she's putting on God's hands.
"We'll get through this season and see. If there is a purpose and a reason for me to be doing it, then for sure I'll hang on and do it."