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Interview with Amber Neben
 
By Vaughn Trevi
Date: 4/15/2004
Interview with Amber Neben
 

Interview by Vaughn Trevi and Sharon Downey

At 5'4" and 110 lbs, this petite red-headed former long distance runner burst on the cycling scene, winning the Cascade Cycling Classic in 2001 winning two stages and the Queen of the Mountain Jersey. As in former cases with mtn bikers turned to race on the road, Amber didn't look back or disappoint in her move from the single track to the road.

2003 had its disappointments and challenges; but the 2003 US Road Race Champion is back for 2004 with the T-Mobile women's team to show her team's colors in international and domestic races.

Hi Amber. This will be your third year as pro road rider, but before this you were on the Sobe/Cannondale mtn. bike team and before that a long distance runner. in college. An interesting transition, from runner to mtn. biker to pro road racer in a really short period of time.

Did you ever think you would be doing pro bike racing? What first interested you in racing mtn bike and then switching to road?

Amber: Never. I thought about being a professional soccer player or a distance runner, but never a pro bike racer. What first interested me about mountain bikes? I found out you could RACE!!! I stopped running for bone health reasons, not because I was tired of competing or being an athlete. I bought a bike, started racing then riding. I loved it. I was outside challenging myself.  I switched to the road because I saw more opportunities there.

Did the running give you advantages when you first started riding? And the mtn biking, do you think it gave you an edge moving over to the road? Do you still ride mtn bike or run as part of your training?

Amber: Yes. It definitely did. Both my running and soccer playing days provided me with an aerobic base that was huge. I didn’t have to develop this on the bike. Yes and no with the mountain biking. The tactical side of road racing is very important and you do not develop this on the dirt. The mentality of mountain biking (which is actually very similar to distance running) and the bike handling skills gained from the dirt did help. Yes, I still ride my mountain bike, but definitely not enough!

Speaking of Sobe/Cannondale, there was a lot of talent that came out of those ranks with you: Kristen Johnson, Jimena Florit, Kashi Leuchs and Tom Danielson just to name a few. Do you have any favorite memories of racing with this elite group? Did you have any idea at the time that so many would go on to race road in the pro ranks?

Amber: When I raced with SoBe, Jimena was riding for Polo, and Kristin Johnson was yet to win her two collegiate titles. Carmen Richardson was the big name on the program. I remember being so in awe of her when I first started. She helped me out a ton…both with mountain bike racing and with the road.

Hopefully, I will have the chance to help out young women racers like she helped me out. I remember the first time Kashi raced with us in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania. He was such a nice guy. He was very disciplined with his diet and his training. As for Tom D., he was one of the young kids in the program, another super nice guy who has turned out to be exceptionally talented.

I think the talent that has come out of the Cannondale program is a reflection of the people and the company over there. They have done an excellent job of creating a development program for grass roots racers.  I was lucky enough to be a part of it. I think the craziest memories I have from my mountain biking days, though, are the travel stories. Getting from point A to point B on your own and without any financial support can be tricky.

There had to be a transition period early on where you had to gain road racing skills, like racing at speed in a group, etc. How did you do that - was it try something, fall down and get up and do it again? Or did you work and practice at each skill?

Amber: The first thing I learned was how to ride in a group. I did the local ride, “Coffee Crew.”  (It was the Tues/Thur 6:15AM group ride…perfect for getting me to the lab or class on time.) Anyway, I remember my first time out. I flatted! Thankfully, a nice Marine stopped and let me use his cell phone to call for a ride home. That afternoon, Mike Y, a grad student in the same department I was in, taught me how to fix my flat. Then, the next time out one of the guys yells at me to ride a STRAIGHT line. Eventually, I was comfortable riding in close proximity to others and others were also comfortable being around me. The speed came with the group rides. I was always thinking so much about what was going on around me I never noticed the speed. Of course you have crashes…I crashed…crashing happens. You clean yourself off and get back on the bike.

Have you had a mentor in cycling or a coach who helped you getting started and encouraged you? Today do you have a coach that works with you?

Amber: Yes. My coach is awesome! I have worked with him from the beginning. He (Dave Jordaan) volunteered to coach the UCI (University of California, Irvine) cycling team when I was a grad student. We started working together then and have continued ever since. Without his guidance, direction, program planning, and time, I would not be where I am now. I have also had a number of riders who have helped me out along the way. When I first started on the mountain bike, I raced with Rock N Road Cyclery.

The first guys I rode with were from this team…they all know who they are! Thanks for letting me chase you up and down the mountain. The same thanks to all the guys on the group rides too. As for names, Mike Yarski helped me get my first road bike and introduced me to the world of road cycling. Carmen Richardson, Alison Dunlap, and Mari Holden have all played a role in my development as a cyclist. Jim Safford gave me the opportunity to race with him at HP. All of my teammates from Earthlink, to Autotrader, to T-Mobile have at some point taught me something valuable and have put up with my inexperience and growth. T-Mobile people like Bob, Jim, Van Poppel, and Jeff. I haven’t gotten to where I am alone. I know this. I hope they do to.

One could get the idea you just went out and effortlessly started winning bike races; did you do well at first or did you struggle until you won your first race? What stands out in your memory about winning your first race?

Amber: I actually started winning races fairly quickly. I wouldn’t say it was effortless, though. I started competing when I was a little kid and never stopped. There were many, many years of “racing” prior to me racing a bike. What stands out about my first victory? It was on a mountain bike. I think I was wearing a Nebraska Cross Country T-shirt and running shoes. I crashed at least once.


Amber wins the US Elite Road Race Championship in 2003. Courtesy USA Cycling.

You told me last year, "I have been submerged in my winter training since I've been back. I love this time of the year...I love to train as much as I love to race " Give me a little insight into your training, is it a solitary time with lots of solo rides, or group rides? Do you train with the pro men you know in the area?

Amber: Most of my training is solo. I’m an introverted person. I enjoy this time alone. I also find it easier to stick to my program and do what I need to do. On Sundays, I do the hard group ride, and sometimes I drag myself out of bed for "Coffee Crew." On Saturdays during the winter and on various days throughout the year, I train with a small group of guys my coach works with. I think it’s a good balance.

You’ve had some very high finishes in races such as La Grande Boucle Feminine and the Giro d’Italia. You’ve also done very well in domestic races such as the Housatonic Valley Classic, the Cascade Cycling Classic and, of course, the National Championships. Which do you enjoy competing in more -  the domestic or international races? Why? What was it like to line up at the Giro or one of the first races in Europe for you?

Amber: A) I probably enjoy the international races more. The racing is very different in Europe. The depth of the field is stronger, and the sizes are larger. Also, the courses are usually very challenging. B) It was fun! The people, the racers, the atmosphere…it was so crazy…there were so many! The peloton is very different too. The size, the speed, the languages, and the aggressive nature of the riders were all things I had to adjust to on the fly.

Your toughest race?

Amber: My toughest race??? Definitely the stage at the women’s Tour where we did two HC climbs (the Madeleine and Glandon) and finished on a Cat 1 (the Vaujany). We started in pouring rain… Climbed in pouring rain, froze to death on the descent, climbed again, I lost contact to the front group of five(?) about ¾ of the way up, raced solo down, across, then up Vaujany to the finish.   The conditions were horrible. Wet, cold, and the visibility over the passes was very poor. I was spent. That was a tough day.

Well I don’t think I would have survived it! You said a few years ago on the Sobe site when asked how you prepare to race, "Physically, I make sure that I am rested and well hydrated. Mentally, I visualize the race and prepare myself for the 'suffering' ahead." Has this changed?

Amber: I would add two things. The stuff I do on a day to day basis prepares me to race. Also, now that I am on the road, the team meeting is a part of my preparation. As part of a road team, we have a pre-race meeting where we discuss the various strategies, roles, and goals for the day. I still try to prepare myself physically and mentally so that I am ready and able to do the job I am asked to do.

How has cycling and competition changed your life? Has it led to deeper insights into your motivation and life?

Amber: It sounds so cliché, but I think that cycling or sport is a metaphor for life. On a daily basis, you have to do the little things…be disciplined, train, etc. You have to be able to face challenges, setbacks, and victories. You have to persevere and struggle and do things you don’t want to do. There are tears and smiles…good times and bad times. Life is full of the same kinds of peaks and valleys. Being able to be flexible, adapt and overcome in sport helps give you the mentality to do it in life or business as well. I have always been an athlete so competition is a big part of who I am. Through all of the struggles, injuries, good times and bad times, I have definitely gained character, patience, and the ability to persevere.

What do you believe are some major reasons more women don’t get into the sport? Do you have any ideas on how to attract more women to the sport?

Amber: I don’t think they know it is out there, or I think they may be intimidated by the riders, the bikes, the speed, or maybe they’ve tried it once and can’t stand the prospects of a ‘sore butt.’ There are so many women who exercise and are competitive. I think we need to find a way to get them to try out cycling in a relaxed, learning environment. I also think that targeting collegiate cross country runners would be a good place to start. Those are the type of people who would enjoy physical exertion and who may be looking for a new outlet for their competitiveness

I agree on all counts. With constant travel through out the season, how do you and your husband cope with you being on the road?

Amber: It’s hard. My husband is amazing. He is so supportive and understanding. I think he understands the unique ability and opportunity that I have been blessed with, and he wants me to take advantage of it. T-Mobile makes it easier...phone and blackberry service make communication possible anywhere in the world!

You’re one very smart lady, earning a master’s degree in biology from UC Irvine. Before leaving school to pursue your racing career, you were working on your Ph.D. in physiology and biophysics. Are you planning on returning to school to earn your Ph.D.? Have you set any career goals for life “after cycling?”

Amber: I don’t know what I will do yet. The degrees I already have will provide me with some opportunities. I may finish my Ph.D. in Physiology and Biophysics, or maybe pursue one in a different field where I could do research on women specific exercise physiology questions… maybe I’ll teach and coach… maybe my sister and I will start our own business. I will trust the Lord to direct my path.

Have you got an idea of your schedule for 2004? What particular races will you be targeting with T-Mobile? What race or stage race would you win in your wildest dream this year?

Amber: I have not received my schedule for the year yet. What race would I win in my wildest dream? They play the national anthem if you win it.

There is a bit of controversy regarding women specific equipment. Is it a bit of hype or is there some equipment you have found really addressed your needs as a woman rider? Did you find having a bike made to your measurements last year was an improvement for fitting on the bike?

Amber: I actually don’t have experience with any women specific equipment. I rode a stock frame with an 80mm stem last year. I didn’t need a custom frame, but everybody is unique, and the more options that are available, the better.

Any advice you would like to extend to young riders to guide their future?

Amber: Advice…hmmm….keep things fun.  No matter what you do in life, I say, “dream big, set goals, and work hard.” Nothing comes easy. If they are serious about riding, I would recommend that they find a coach who can help structure their training and development. I would also tell them to talk to other women who race.  Every woman I know would gladly help out a young aspiring rider.


Amber getting back after a wheel change at the HP Challenge. Courtesy HP Challenge.

Can you describe to me how and when you got the news that you had gotten a positive test for nandrolone and what your initial response was.

Amber: I was in complete shock and disbelief.  I thought my director was playing a joke on me.  When I realized he wasn’t, I started crying uncontrollably.

The amount of nandrolone metabolites at a level of 6.9ng/ml. or 1.9 parts per billion over the legal limit. Let me figure this out: I'm no biochemist but that doesn't really sound like very much. I would think that if one was doping it would be much higher. I can’t believe a level this low would give any athlete an edge.

Amber: Yes it would be much higher…I have been told it would be in the thousands or even much higher than that. It would also be in your body for longer than a couple of days. No…no edge at all.

[Editor's note: Amber was tested previous to and after and had no further positive tests.]

I've been following reports on nandrolone positives on a number of athletes in the last three years. In doing my research I have run across scientific testing that trace amounts of hormones in pork and nutritional supplements have led to positive tests similar to yours. Do you think this is what may have happened to you? I assume you take nutritional supplements, vitamins, minerals, energy drinks etc.?

Amber: The arbitrators agreed that my positive was most likely due to a contaminated supplement. Yes, I do drink an electrolyte/sugar mix on the bike and take vitamins and minerals, however I do not use any other nutritional supplements.

I imagine you and other athletes would be a bit afraid to eat pork, or take the normal vitamins that any elite athlete or average person would take. I mean, doesn't this set up a quandry for anyone with the chance to be tested at your level?

Amber: Exactly. In college I had very low bone density so I have been taking calcium ever since. There are also women’s specific issues such as menstruation, along with my long term general health that I am concerned about. I want to be healthy. At the same time, every time I take my calcium or multivitamin I am risking my career. It doesn’t seem like a fair choice to have to make.

I might add here, for any person not an athlete, I would prefer not to have something "added" into my food or vites that I didn't see on the label. It seems this would be a bigger issue in itself for the general population, not just for athletes. I give my kids vitamins, electrolyte drinks on hot days and protein smoothies they love. It's a bit of a problem for me as a parent.

I know that some people, no matter the evidence, will believe the worst. Personal integrity may be all you have at this point. I can hardly imagine how tough this can be; can you tell us how you are dealing with it? Having met you and knowing you; for me it’s pretty unbelievable. 

Amber: It is very difficult. The thought that my integrity will be forever scarred is hard to deal with. I try not to read stuff or listen to stuff. It hurts. I know there will always be someone who questions me. In my heart, though, I know the truth. I sleep and compete with a clear conscience. The people who I love and trust also know the truth, and these things will remain a constant.

On a personal level, because of your suspension, you became ineligible to participate on the team for the World Championships. How did this affect you? Have you noticed any difference in the way some people treat you now?

Amber: It was hard. I knew the circumstances of my case were unique. There had never been anyone with the testing history combined with a level as low as mine was, so I had some (very small) hope that I was going to be eligible to race. It didn’t happen, though. To be honest, I can’t say that I felt any worse because I was already buried in the valley. Do people treat me differently? Most of the people I have been around are those who know me, so the answer is no.

You told me earlier this year, "I understand there will always be doubters and I will never be able to prove myself to everyone, but I do know that the people who are close to me, and hopefully those I have only met briefly, will recognize that my character is true and my integrity is genuine." How has the support been in the last few months in the cycling community?

Amber: The support in my local community has been outstanding. I have also received a number of supportive emails from various people in the community. All of which is very much appreciated.

Amber, I for one believe in you, and if I might note here in my research on the subject, I have found far too many of these positives with miniscule amounts in every sport. The outcry of athletes in complete disbelief that this is happening to them makes me believe that sometime in the future the cause might be explained beyond what we currently know.

Amber: I hope so. I wouldn’t wish this experience on my worst enemy. The dangers are real. Contamination is a problem. Hopefully the problem gets solved quickly, but I don’t think there is a quick and easy solution.

Sharon and I would like to thank you very much and hope you have a great race season. The T-Mobile women post diary entries on the USA Cycling/T-Mobile site. Read Amber's latest, from April 4th, here.

Amber Neben Palmares

2003
Giro d'Italia - Overall 5th
Tour of Montreal GC 1st
US Elite National Road Race Championships 1st
US Elite National Time Trial Championships - 3rd

2002
US Elite National Time Trial Championships - 2nd
La Grande Boucle Feminine - Overall - 9th
Housatonic Valley Classic - 2nd
Gracia Cez-Ede GC 1st 
Vuelta Ciclista Castilla y Leon - Overall - 4th
Sea Otter Classic - Overall - 9th

2001
GC Cascade Cycling Classic - 1st
Road World Championships 30th
US Elite National Road Championships RR 2nd
US Elite National Road Championships TT 6th
NORBA Nationals Cross Championship 1st


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