2021 Olympics: Amber Neben to race on after a close call in Tokyo

Don't call it a retirement: Amber Neben's close call in Tokyo has motivated her to target the 2021 UCI world road championships.

Photo: Sebastian Gollnow/picture alliance via Getty Images

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After riding to fifth place in the Olympics individual time trial this past week, Amber Neben sat in the post-race anti-doping shed alongside her peers and pored over the final results.

That’s when the thrilling and heartbreaking reality hit her — she had been just 11 seconds away from an Olympic medal.

“It’s both cool and really hard at the same time,” Neben told VeloNews. “Wow, I just got 5th place in the Olympics at age 46, and I was just 11 seconds from a medal and [17] seconds from silver. I was right there.”

Neben is this week’s guest on The VeloNews Podcast, and you can hear her break down her impressive ride in the individual time trial, and share her behind-the-scenes stories from her time at the Tokyo Olympics. She completed the 22.1km course in 31:26:13 (26.2 mph average), the top American finisher. Neben was 1:13 down on winner Annemiek van Vleuten, but just 11 seconds shy of Anna van der Breggen in third place.

The close call has reignited the fire of competition that has burned inside Neben for the last decades. In the lead-up to Tokyo, the big question around Neben was whether or not she would hang up her cycling shoes after achieving the goal of making the U.S. Olympic team.

Neben told VeloNews that retirement can wait. After her TT ride in Tokyo, she phoned up her coach and began making plans to race the upcoming 2021 UCI world road championships in Belgium.

“Here’s how relentless I am — and I’m crazy like this,” Neben said. “Fifth place was an automatic qualifier for worlds. I’m going to take a week and then put it out there again for the world championships. Right now it’s on the target list.”

Neben said the closeness of the result was more confirmation that her body and spirit can still hold up to the intense training and racing required to participate at the sport’s highest level. Had she been far off the pace, then perhaps her perspective on retirement would be different.

“It would be different if I had not had a great race, or if there had been major mistakes in the race,” she said. “I keep going back and thinking about what I could have done differently. I had a back-and-forth with a Danish rider that maybe cost 5 seconds. Was it 11 seconds? Probably not. In that sense, I did everything I could and I just got beat on the day.”

Reporters have asked Neben about retirement since her world championship victory at the 2016 UCI road world championships in Doha, Qatar, which she earned at age 41.

In the five years since, she’s proved time and again that age is just a number. In 2017 Neben won the individual time trial and the road race at the USA Cycling national road championships, and in 2018, 2019, and 2020 she scored top-10 finishes in the individual time trial at the UCI road world championships.

In recent years Neben has taken on other challenges away from pro cycling; she launched her own coaching business, and has started mentoring young athletes. She also joined the BaseCamp indoor training platform. Neben said she plans to pursue other cycling-related projects in the coming years.

But for now, she still sees herself as a professional racer who lives and trains to go after big results on the bike.

“Cycling is in me,” she said. “I’m always going to do it, so I might as well find a way to do it and share with other people the experience I have from 20 years of being an athlete. There’s so much to that.”

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.