‘It’s the process that makes you a champion’: A Q&A with two-time world time trial champion Amber Neben

by Jen Agen


 

Our Movers and Shakers series features Q&As with women trail blazers in the sport and industry of cycling. These are women who often go unnoticed but make the world of (women’s) cycling go round.

The women we write about in this series include team owners, key industry players, race organisers, cycling advocates, journalists, inventors, designers, business owners and the professional athletes that often play a huge role in advancing their sport. Is there someone you want to hear form? We happily accept your nominations for Movers and Shakers in the comment sections of these articles.

 


 

Amber Neben Doha 2016
Neben takes a moment to recover before making her way to the hot seat.

“It was the years of work and process that made me the world champion. It all adds up – it’s all the little things, the details – it’s not always the obvious things that make the success.”

– Amber Neben, two-time world time trial champion

With the recent celebration of International Women’s Day,  I still feel the glow of inspiration of those around me, and the stories of triumph and adversity of women everywhere.

This series after all is based on women in the industry of cycling who are making a difference, an impact. Women who inspire other women to be the best version of themselves. Women like this issues’ focus, Amber Neben,  a two-time world champion who redefines what a champion is with a smile and a dose of grace and dignity.

Activist Marian Wright Edelman once said that “you can’t be what you can’t see.” And indeed, visibility is one of the most powerful tools athletes have in inspiring others, and Neben has ridden herself into visibility one accolade at a time. Now entering her 15th year as a professional athlete, Neben is a national road race champion, a two-time  Pan American time trial champion and a two-time world time trial champion.

At 42, Neben knows exactly who she is, and how she wants to live her life.

“I know I’m a lot older than most of the women [in the pro peloton], but I’ve never felt better,” Neben told Ella CyclingTips, with a confidence that comes from her faith, perseverance and casting a wide net into the vast openness of possibilities.

Fresh off a good rest after her golden performance at the World Championships in Qatar, winter training  and a team camp with her new team, VeloCONCEPT, Neben took some time to chat with Ella CyclingTips via Skype to talk about the season ahead and her off-the-bike work.

Jen Agan for Ella CyclingTips: 2017 brings a new year and new endeavors. What have you been up to?

Amber Neben: On the bike – I am with a new team. It is Team VeloCONCEPT, the new WorldTour team based out of Denmark. In January, we had our first training camp in Mallorca, Spain. I had a great time meeting the riders and the staff. Prior to the camp I only had one three-week block of training in me, because I had taken a deep rest after worlds. I actually took a full two months completely off the bike. The rest was really important for me to recover, regenerate and be ready to dig in for 2017.

Generally speaking about 2017, I feel good. I know I’m a lot older than most of the women racing, but I feel strong. I feel healthy. I have never felt better.

Off the bike, I’m busy with coaching and my nonprofit that I started in 2010 – The Dare To Be Project.

Ella: What is the most valuable lesson you have learned so far as an athlete?

Neben: One: you have to train really hard but you have to rest really hard. I think experienced riders know this,  but I think with younger riders it’s hard to grasp, because you’re always afraid of backing off.

Two: Having an understanding of your body. I have learned to listen to the whispers my body speaks and act on it, instead of waiting for an injury before doing anything. People crash, I crash and immediately get back on the bike. If you can ride, you don’t think anything of it. However, because we are such good compensators on the bike, which is forgiving, you can get around issue after issue by compensation after compensation. Eventually, you have a really big problem which will take some time to untangle. Knowing what I know now, I encourage my athletes and teammates to always address the whole body and to try to be more proactive.

Finally, the idea of process. For example, winning the world championship. I won Worlds, but that win just gave me a label of world champion – it wasn’t what made me a world champion. It was the years of work and process that made me the world champion. It all adds up – it’s all the little things, the details – it’s not always the obvious things that make the success.

Ella: As an industry veteran you have seen some developments occur in the women’s peloton. What changes have you seen that you think are in the right direction? What would you like to see more improved upon?

Neben: I think what is really good for the sport is seeing more men’s teams having the women’s teams associated with them. I know there are some people that don’t like that but I like it. I think it’s good for advancing the sport with regard to helping us with exposure. I also think it’s cool that there is an actual WorldTour now. I do think the biggest thing that is missing is the story of the women’s race. Where the actual story of a race is being told versus clips of women being interviewed before the start, the girls rolling out, then a rider off the front or a sprint finish – no one told the actual story of the race. We are seeing a little more now,  but any time women’s racing is on TV it’s boring. It’s not boring because the racing is boring, it’s boring because the story isn’t being told.

Ella: As a speaker you’ve been known to speak on adversity, in fact you’ve notably been quoted, “It’s not if but when adversity comes our way we must choose how to respond.” Have you always had this optimistic outlook toward life? Or did a situation prompt such an outlook?

Neben: That’s a really good question. For me, it has everything to do with my relationship with Christ. My outlook and ability to persevere has absolutely everything to do with who I am in Christ and His power as the source of my strength. It’s a very biblical view of things, but there’s so much peace and power in it.

Adversity is not a question of ‘if’ it is a question of ‘when’, and when it comes, how are you going to deal with it. You know champions always respond to it, and your response is always a choice – what are you going to choose to do? Obstacles can be opportunities. This idea applies to people who are not of faith as well with the difference being the source of strength and the perspective angle. But generally, if you think about trying to strengthen a muscle you have to apply stress to it. Without stress, there is no growth. It’s the life stresses, the life challenges that can bring about opportunities if you’re willing to look at the bigger picture.

 

Neben with one of her Dare To Be Project members

Ella: You started a non-profit The Dare to be Project helping youth with adaptive cycling. How did this come about?

Neben: After 2008, when I made my first Olympic team and won the first World Championship, I wanted to do something to give back. I also wanted to do something that was more lasting and impactful on a deeper level. I thought it would be cool to use the bike, the tool of my trade, to connect with kids and encourage them. My journey has been on the bike, but the principles of embracing adversity, getting up and not giving up, setting goals, working hard, dreaming outside the box of your current circumstances actually apply to anyone. And really, the adaptive cycling kids embody these ideas. We end up inspiring each other! Aside from all that, the unconditional gift of a bike brings them physical freedom. It’s fun to be able to facilitate that in a small way.

Ella: I love the title of your book ‘When Shmack Happens’. Did writing it come naturally to you? What prompted the desire to write a book and do you have another one perhaps in the works?

Neben: It was natural in that it was simply my life, and I didn’t need to find content. It was mostly trying to capture the cliff notes of what I’d been through and how I got through it in a way that people could relate to, whether or not they knew anything about cycling. The desire was more a push. To be honest, it was the internal nudge from an eternal source. I had a crazy story. But more importantly, I had the most amazing peace, strength, and purpose through it all. I know people are often searching for these things, and I wanted to share my story and the tools I had in my adversity tool box. You can argue with the source of the strength, but you cannot argue with my journey! Another one? Yes, I think so. In the last chapter of When Shmack Happens, I was not sure what the next four years would bring. I was simply going to do one year at a time. This last World Championship was very special in the lessons learned in that Shmack comeback. I should write them down.

Ella: What did you want to be growing up?

Neben: HA! I wanted to be a fireman, then a dentist and a doctor.

Ella: What does success mean to you?

Neben: Success is being conformed in the image of Christ – you’re able to live and be light in the world.

Ella: Who have been your personal mentors?

Neben: One, Jesus Christ and two, my coaches that I have been blessed to have throughout my life.

Ella: If you could go back and tell your younger self anything what would you say?

Neben: I started PX4: Perseverance Patience Perspective Power to kind of encapsulate this idea of survival and success, so here is what I would say: “Winning the titles will label you the champion, but it is the process that makes you the champion. As much as the adversity hurts, it is necessary. It is the refiner’s fire that brings out the gold, but it will be your choice in how you respond. You will have to choose to get up and not give up, 1000 + times. You will have to be patient beyond anything you know right now. It takes courage to wait on God’s timing as He does things His way. Be sure to maintain the big picture perspective. You might see giants, but God sees grasshoppers. Look at Him and not the circumstance. Finally, most importantly remember that His power is perfected in your weakness. The less of you, the more of Him. He will not ask you to do anything He has not already promised you the strength to do it with”

Ella: Name a place where you have never ridden but have always wanted to. Where would it be and who would you want to join you?

Neben: I would pick a place where the views were majestic mountains and lakes, but the roads were flat, so I could ride easy and have good conversations with a wide mix of people. I’d take my husband (who never rides, so we either need a flat road or motorized bike!), my coach Tim, my sister Brooke, my friends Lindsay, Heather, and Cath. Then, I’d bring in somebody who knows the mentality of being a champion leader like LeBron James, Tom Brady or Russel Wilson. I know he is not alive, but I’d add John Wooden to that mix. Finally, form the other end of the spectrum; I’d bring out Max Lucado, Greg Laurie and Levi Lusko.

Ella: What woman would you like to see interviewed in our series?

Neben: Iris Slappendel and Marianne Vos

Ella: What is your favorite way to recharge and gain back some zen?

Neben: I’d say worship music on a walk out in nature where I can shut out the noise of the world.

Ella: What does the world need more of? Less of?

We need more of the mindset if we treated others how we wanted to be treated; the world would be a much better place.

Who would you like to learn about next? Let us know in the comments below!

About the author: Jen Agan is a Chicago native and a long-time member of the cycling industry, most recently as an events coordinator. Her true passion is story telling, and she’s always in search of roads to ride, communities to be discovered and people to meet.

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