Two for two: Amber Neben backs up TT title with a win in national road race

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After winning the USA Cycling national time trial championships on June 24, Amber Neben (VéloConcept) continued to show off her time trialing prowess by soloing off the front in the women’s national championship road race the following day.

Besting a pack full of favourites, Neben earned her second national title of the weekend, while Coryn Rivera (Team Sunweb) won the field sprint for second and Ruth Winder took home the bronze medal in third.

“Winning worlds – you can’t top that but winning back-to-back national championships is up there. I’m beyond words,” said Amber Neben after the race.

After two straight years in the stars and stripes jersey, defending champion Megan Guarnier had to make do with a seventh place finish. She will now trade her red-white-and-blue kit for the bright orange of Boels-Dolmans for the remainder of the season.

Amber Neben, 2017 U.S. road national champion. Photo: Casey B. Gibson.

How the race was won

After the previous day’s temperamental weather of pouring rain followed humid heat, conditions were kinder as a peloton of 110 riders lined up for the 101-kiometre race in Knoxville, Tennessee. The pack would complete eight laps of a 12.7-kilometre circuit, highlighted by a climb up Sherrod Street with gradients of more than 14 percent for three-quarters of a mile.

All eyes were on the United Healthcare who lined up with four riders, all of them potential race favourites. But even without the support of their teams, sprinter Coryn Rivera (Team Sunweb), and defending champion Guarnier (Boels-Dolmans) would be heavily marked.

The race was anticipated to be an aggressive one, and even before the first lap was finished, a breakaway of five riders went up the road. A good mix of teams, the breakaway consisted of Holly Breck (ShoAir-Twenty20), Jennifer Tetrick (Team Tibco-SVB), Monica Volk (Rally Cycling), Emily Newsom (Team Elevate) and Janelle Cole (United Healthcare). Abigail Mickey (Colavita-Bianchi) joined them a little later after bridging across solo.

The break soon gained an advantage of over two minutes, but when the pace let off, Texas time trial champion Newsom took off. For the next four laps, she would have the ride of her lifetime, giving a tremendous performance that became a real threat to the rest of the peloton, and an even better underdog story.

A mother of two, Newsom was the only rider of Team Elevate in the race. And so without the aid of a support car, it was her husband and children who were handing her bottles in the feed zone. She visibly enjoyed her solo effort off the front, smiling each time she passed the finish line. Newsom extended her lead back to 2’35” over the five chasers, who were an additional 1’3o” away from the peloton.

Disorganised, the chase group lost steam and was swallowed up by the peloton with two-and-a-half laps to go. As soon as the contact was made, teams started firing off attacks one by one. But it was the newly crowned US individual time trial champion and world champion, Neben, who managed to escape, switching on her time trial mode in an effort to bridge up to Newsom.

Without any real response from the now diminished front pack, Neben managed to make contact with Newsom and with just one lap to go. After UHC decided to take responsibility of the chase, a group of 11 riders formed at the front, but the duo still had a 35 second lead.

On the final climb up Sherrod Street, Newsom finally cracked. While Newsom struggled, Neben decided to take the opportunity to attack once more and go it alone, repeating the previous day’s time trial performance.

Steadily, Neben motored on, keeping a 30-second gap over the chasers that swallowed up Newsom. In the final kilometres, attacks were fired, but UHC and the rest of the group had left it too late. Neben was gone and the race was now a sprint for silver. Rivera took the field sprint, followed by Winder in third.

“I didn’t have pressure on me. This wasn’t really my course, so I could just go and play,” explained Neben. “I was just feeling the race. The break had gone away and it was pretty quiet back on the road. Visit Dallas/DNA started riding and I knew I couldn’t follow those girls on the climb. So I knew had to go early and I just went for it.”

“That first lap, I didn’t really think it was too hard of a course. But that first move that went up the road so early changed up the dynamics. I almost tried to bridge earlier, but I’m happy now that I didn’t. Nationals are always interesting because they are unpredictable and today was no different.”

Without any teammates, it was no mean feat to fight off the teams.

“When I got to 3k to go and I still had 35 seconds, I thought ‘Wow, I’ve got a chance!’. Just don’t do anything stupid!,” Neben said. “I thought my front break was rubbing, so I was a bit nervous there. But I just hammered down. Once you go out there, you commit. When I looked at my watts, I thought: ‘Wow I’m going hard’. But if you go, you just go. It was first or 20th.”

Rivera sprinted to second place behind Neben, confirming her status as a favourite.

“I definitely expected breaks and an aggressive race,” she said. “I didn’t really expect a solo break, but if it’s Amber Neben, the world champion, then yeah you can expect that.”

“Cat and mouse games caused the pack to lose momentum. I tried to keep everything moving, we had a big gap to fill,” Rivera added. “I didn’t want to go down without a fight, but once you round that last corner and saw [Neben] pretty far out there you have to reset for the finish [and go for second].”

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