Amber Neben has won cycling races on multiple continents, but it is one she didn't win that sticks in her mind.
Neben was part of the U.S. Olympic team in China in 2008. She was in the lead pack during the road race, which began near the Forbidden City, went through Beijing and on to the Great Wall, where the serious hills began. On the final climb, Neben tried to switch gears, and her chain jammed.
Neben had to dismount to fix the problem. By the time she got back on her bike, her chance at an Olympic victory was four years away.
"I'd dreamed of being in the Olympics since the fifth grade," Neben said. "Now, there is no guarantee what would have happened. But I didn't have a chance to try. That was a heartbreak for me. But I'm hopeful of getting back."
Neben -- in the Twin Cities this week to defend her title in the Nature Valley Grand Prix -- has been focused on getting back to the Olympics since. The U.S. team will be named Friday, midway through the five-day, six-stage event, and she expects to be on it.
Neben has paid a dear price to arrive on the verge of a trip to London. Six months after her Olympic disappointment, Neben became the 2008 women's world time trial champion. In 2009 she won every time trial race she entered until she sustained a series of serious injuries.
In July 2009, she crashed at the Giro d'Italia, injuring her shoulder and nearly losing a finger; she had to fly home to have a skin graft performed. At the 2009 World Championships she went into a metal barrier in the road race and broke a hand, requiring surgery. She tore a quad muscle in April 2010. In the Giro d'Italia that summer, a woman crashed in front of her during a high-speed descent. Neben went down, shattering her collarbone.
"Over a two-year period, I had four major injuries that took me off the bike and required major rehabilitation" said Neben, 37. "Finally, last year I had a full year."
"I didn't think God was finished with me, so I did my best to persevere."
Neben grew up playing soccer and running cross-country, earning a scholarship to run at the University of Nebraska before a series of stress fractures ended her running career. She had decided to pursue a doctorate in molecular biology at the University of California when riding basically came out of nowhere. She used to ride a stationary bike while reading textbooks, then would mountain bike with friends. In 1998 she entered the collegiate national mountain biking championship and finished in the top 10.
By 2001 she was a professional mountain biker when a Southern California team invited her to a prestigious race held in Utah. She surprised everyone by being one of the few American women to win a stage in the race, which qualified her for the World Championships.
Having traded mountain biking for road cycling full-time by 2002, Neben became a national champion a year later.
A crowded résumé includes victories in the Tour de L'Aude Feminin in 2005 and 2006, a Pan American Cycling championship in 2006 and that world time trial championship in 2008.
Neben has had a strong start to 2012. She won gold at the Pan Am Championships in the time trial. She had two stage wins at the Tour of El Salvador and an important time trial stage win on the Exergy Tour and finished second overall on the tour.
On to London
After the Nature Valley Grand Prix she'll go to the U.S. Nationals, then take part in a race in Germany as final prep for the Olympics.
Neben's approach this week will be a little different than last year. "I'm trying to build towards the Olympics," she said. "I will be, in essence, training through the race."
The Grand Prix might have spotlighted the competition between Neben and Kristin Armstrong, who won the gold medal in the 2008 Olympic time trial. But Armstrong broke her collarbone in a crash in May, requiring surgery, and won't be here this week. She hopes to be back in top form for the Olympics; the bicycle road races in London are July 28-Aug. 1.
The two have competed before, both on and off the bike. Neben got the final U.S. spot in last year's time trial world championship after she appealed the selection committee's decision to choose Armstrong for the spot.
"When you say you're an Olympian, people get that," Neben said. "They can relate to that. It's just one of those goals. It has motivated me the last four years, to get back and have the chance to be in the position to help my team win or be in position to win. There is nothing like that moment."