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Amber Neben has been here before. Well, not exactly.
The former world time trial champion and two-time Redlands Classic winner took control in the prologue at the National Racing Calendar and Women’s Prestige Cycling Series opener Thursday. Neben did the same in 2010 (and 2006, 2007 and 2009).
The difference was that in those years, Neben rode with European squads Flexpoint and Nürnberger and wore the jersey of a number of different composite teams at Redlands. Last year, she brought the name of her upstart charity, Dare To Be, to the BMW-Bianchi elite squad and beat Mara Abbott and Evelyn Stevens by 16 and 22 seconds, respectively, in the 3.1-mile uphill time trial. Two days later, Neben ceded her overall lead to Stevens’ HTC teammate Ina Yoko Teutenberg under relentless pressure in the stage 2 criterium.
Neben joined HTC-Highroad in the offseason and on Thursday arrived to the race she’s known so well in unfamiliar territory.
“It’s a whole different world for me this year,” Neben told VeloNews. “Two reasons: one, I have the team and the support to defend (the jersey), but also the team has a couple of riders who can win the race. It puts me in the position to either defend or support.”
According to Neben, those riders capable of winning themselves are Stevens and Amanda Miller, who has already raised her arms twice in her first year at HTC. Stevens finished second Thursday, eight seconds back, while Miller was seventh, 49 seconds back.
“The past years I’ve done this race, the goal has always been for me to win Redlands,” said Neben. “This year, the goal is (for the team) to win Redlands. I’m hoping to still go out there and be good and win, but I’m not the only one on the team who’s set up to win.”
Though Neben and Stevens occupy the top two places in the classification after the opener, Erinne Willock (Tibco-To The Top), Kristin Armstrong (Peanut Butter & Co.-Twenty12) and Andrea Dvorak (Colavita-Forno D’Asolo) are all within 35 seconds of the lead and also have the teams to support a run at the jersey.
“I think the talent is pretty spread out this year. The teams are pretty strong and I think it’s going to be a really different race from that perspective,” said Neben. “Erinne is going really good and is climbing really well. Plus you talk about Carmen (Small) and Alison (Powers) there as well. Kristin has Alison (Starnes) and Peanut Butter is strong. Then you have Colavita with Dvorak and (Cath) Cheatley sitting there… I think it’s going to be a really hard race.”
With the 72-mile Beaumont Circuit Race, 60-minute downtown criterium and 68-mile Sunset Road Race on tap for the next three days, Neben’s rivals will have plenty of opportunity to test the women of HTC. But for the first time in her career, Neben should fly down the lightning fast descent to the finish in downtown Redlands Sunday afternoon as a member of the most capable squad in the bunch.
27th Redlands Bicycle Classic
Prologue: Sun Time Trial
Thursday March 31 10:40 a.m. (women) / 12:10 p.m. (men)
Stage 1: Beaumont Circuit Race
Friday April 1 9:15 a.m. (men) / 9:30 a.m. (women)
120.5 mi. (men) / 72.3 mi. (women)
Stage 3: City of Redlands Criterium
Saturday April 2 2:15 p.m. (women) / 4:30 p.m. (men)
60 min. (women) / 90 min. (men)
Stage 4: Beaver Medical Group Sunset Road Race
Sunday April 3 10:00 a.m. (women) / 1:30 p.m. (men)
68.3 mi. (women) / 94.1 mi. (men)