Amber Neben: 4X Redlands Champ
Sports fans love feel-good moments, watching records being broken, and underdogs winning. The 2019 Redlands Bicycle Classic gave fans all that and more with Amber Neben winning her fourth overall Redlands title while guest riding for the small Canadian Trek Red Truck team.
Amber Neben isn’t a name that needs much introduction in the cycling world. Long-time World Tour stalwart. Multi-time world champion. Multi-time national champion. And multi-time Redlands winner having previously won the 2006, 2007, and 2011 editions of the stage race. But, while Amber has continued to win gold in the pro peloton in recent years, a fourth win at Redlands has eluded her. Even after winning the first stage’s time trial at this year’s race and gapping the field by 24 seconds, Amber wasn’t ready to say that she had her sights on overall win number four. “I still didn’t know if I was going to be able to win it, but at least I knew that I’d have a chance,” Amber told me from her home in Lake Forest, California. “Taking yellow was the most important thing to do on that first day because it gave me an initial time gap and it put me in a position where I could race to win. A lot of things can happen in the Highland and Oak Glen stages. If I could get through that, I knew that I’d have a chance on Sunday.”
Of course, Amber knew all too well that the stage five Sunset Road Race can snatch victory from riders. In 2017, Amber lost the yellow jersey on the Sunset Road Race to a hard charging Ruth Winder by a mere five seconds. This year Lauren Stephens, back from an injury and ready to prove her mettle to the pro peloton, jumped into the winning breakaway looking to steal the yellow jersey. As the closing laps approached, it looked like Lauren might just pull it off.
“I borrowed a radio for the race,” Amber told me, “but the only time that I was able to get a signal was when I was going through the feed zone. And the radio didn’t let me to talk back to the person on the other end, so I wasn’t necessarily getting all of the information that I wanted.” And, to make matters worse, Amber was having trouble finding a race official to update her on the breakaway. “Normally the race commissaire is driving around on a motorcycle keeping time gaps but I didn’t see him until the closing laps. I just tried to keep the gap far enough down so that Lauren didn’t overtake me in the general classification. I had to be patient so I wouldn’t lose control of Lauren. Then, when I went, I went hard. With intention.”
Amber did it. She took her fourth overall title at Redlands matching 2013 Giro d’Italia winner Chris Horner for the number of overall titles. “It was pretty exciting! That fourth win has been hanging there for a while. I didn’t go in expecting to get it. Sometimes you just put yourself in a position and see what happens, it was fun!”
Surprisingly, this record-setting ride nearly didn’t happen. A few weeks before the race, Amber and her coach decided that racing Redlands might be a good training opportunity before her main season kicks off in May. “I initially thought that my European team, Cogeas Mettler Look, might come over for the race, but they didn’t pan out. If I had enough time to plan, I might have put together my own composite team, but it was too late. Then I got an email from Steve Engh, the race director for Trek Red Truck, inviting me to race for his team. He said that when he heard that I needed someone to ride with, it took him about 14 seconds to contact me about guest riding!”
The Redlands win was one of the biggest wins in Trek Red Truck’s history, but Amber didn’t view it as an opportunity to boast. Instead, she celebrated it as the perfect chance to help develop the next generation of riders. Amber said, “I think it’s cool to race with young riders at the beginning of their careers. With me having the yellow jersey, it set up a different perspective to teach bike racing. It gave the girls a chance to talk through and think about new types of strategy day in and day out.”
This selfless attitude has made Amber a pillar in the cycling community and was honored shortly before the race’s final stage when Amber was awarded the Redlands Legends Award. “I think the race organizers thought that I was done racing at Redlands and I surprised them by showing up again this year!” Amber laughed.
“I live about an hour from Redlands, it’s my home race. Receiving the Legends Awards means so much to me. The community, the people, the race itself, what the race has done for the sport over the last 30 year is wonderful. It’s a place where you see athletes get their start. I remember how important the race was in kicking off my career when I first entered it in 2001. I got my first taste of big-time racing at Redlands and I thought, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’ I’ve been on the winning side of the race and I’ve been on the side of the road. I’ve put composite teams together to give riders an opportunity to be noticed and get contracts. It’s a great race, a hard race. I have so much respect for that race.”
Hopefully we’ll see Amber Neben back at Redlands in 2020 trying to win title number five!