Just as she was embarking on a road cycling career in 2000, Amber Neben won the overall at the San Dimas Stage Race. Two years later, she was racing on the T-Mobile Professional Women’s Team where she won the U.S. National Road Championships.
Fast forward to now, where Neben is back to working for Bob Stapleton, as a member of the HTC-HighRoad team where she just won the overall at the San Dimas Stage Race.
“It’s really a fantastic feeling. Obviously it’s my first win with HTC-HighRoad, we won New Zealand and I was a part of that. It’s nice for me to get a chance into a leadership role and have a chance to win myself but, it never old and you never take it for granted. It’s been such a pleasure to race with my teammates this week and this year so far. It’s really a great group of people and I’m really enjoying it. You know we’re really a unit and we win together and I couldn’t have won this week without them.” a shivering Neben said as she waited for the final podium on Sunday afternoon.
“When I think to when I won, it wasn’t a race like this, it was just started off, I was a mountain-biker at the time, I kind of didn’t know what I was doing,” she laughed, “I could climb that’s what happened, [how I] won the race then.”
Highs and lows. So much has happened in those eleven years, both good and bad. On the up side, she won back to back wins in the Tour de l’Aude Feminin in 2005 and 2006 and the 2008 World Time Trial Championship in Varese, Italy.
On the downside, Neben has faced teams suddenly collapsing through lack of funds and several bad crashes, one of which saw her racing with a lump of rock in her arm for five days before it was finally extracted. Though petite in stature, Neben is known to be one tough rider.
In 2003, she tested positive for the banned substance 19-norandrosterone after winning the Tour du Grand Montreal. Neben said that the positive test came from contaminated supplements. After an appeal, CAS ruled that the doping was not intentional and handed down a 6-month suspension. For the following 18 months. Neben was tested once a month at her own costs.
In 2007, she was diagnosed with melanoma, a potentially deadly form of skin cancer. The melanoma was successfully removed and Neben has experienced a full recovery, with no re-occurrences to date.
Through all the ups & downs, the 36-year old never lost her passion.
“It’s funny.” she smiled. “I guess God has giving me an incredible ability and I’ve been blessed to be in a position to take advantage of that and I’ve never lost my passion for the racing and I think that’s why I’m still in it because I have been through a lot. I’ve had to battle back a few times through numerous injuries and the melanoma but I’ve never lost my passion for it and my drive to race. I think once that goes, I’ll probably hang my bike up but I’m still enjoying it, I enjoy the people.”
Winning the rainbow stripes is absolutely the highlight of her career. “I still get choked up when I think about it, it was a life-time in the making, life-time of building, working hard, being prepared for that moment and it was incredible. Truly you can’t put it into words what is means in the sport, what it meant to me just on a personal level, it’s just such an amazing thing. Definitely the highlight of my career so far.”
As for the skin cancer, she continues to get regular checkups and has had pre-melonoma taken out of her back. “I’m real vigilant which are my check-ups and just watching, if you get it early it’s not a big deal with that stuff because you can cut it off, it’s once it gets beyond stage 1 that’s when is dangerous.”
Not done yet. That feeling was very clear during our chat. “I still have a lot of racing in me left and I’m happy to be in a situation like HTC, it’s such a professional environment, I treat the sport that way and I’ve always treated it that way so it’s really refreshing. I’m so blessed to be in that position so I’m just looking forwards to just racing my bike.”
Her primary goal this year is to be the best teammate that she can be. “We have such an incredible group of people, everybody at every race is capable of winning, just working on maintaining that unity within the group, being prepared to do whatever I’m asked to do. It’s kind of cliché but it’s really what it’s about, doing all the things off the bike preparing when you get to races, being the best teammate that I can be. Doors will open and I’ll have my chances and I’ll also have my chances myself for my teammates, it’s fun, either way it’s fun, I enjoy both sides of it.”
Being the best teammate also involves teaching the younger riders on the team. “At this point of my career, it’s fun for me to be able to share with the younger riders coming in and to try to give back, I’m really enjoying that side of things and I like to be able to mentor and do that kind of things.”
Speaking of mentoring, what would she tell herself if she knew them what she knows now? “It’s good just to know that you’re going to have to work really hard and you’re going to have challenges, there are going to be ups and downs. You’re going to have to be mentally strong and you can’t give up, you have to stick with it, stay with your goals and keep working hard and it’s the little things, it’s the hard work off the bike, it’s patience and it’s time, and not trying to do things too quick.”
Is the best yet to come? “I don’t know, you never know.” she replied. “I have two more years committed, we’ll see what happens. God willing I’ll have another good run, obviously trying to win another World Championships is a big goal but a lot of things have to go right too. You set the bar high and you go for it.”
Neben and her HTC-HighRoad teammates will be racing Redlands Bicycle Classic starting Thursday. A race that Neben has won twice in 2006 and 2007 and HTC-HighRoad has won for the past two years.
“We’re motivated, we’re excited, again it’s just trying to keep the ball rolling. Have a good time trial on Thursday and then we’ll see what happens. I think it’s going to be a lot different race this year, there are a lot of really strong teams, the talent is spread out. It should make things interesting.” Neben said about Redlands.
Expect a throwdown.