VALKENBURG, Netherlands (VN) — Amber Neben nearly gave the United States a seventh medal this week in the UCI Road World Championships, but came up just short when Marianne Vos attacked violently on the final climb of the Cauberg. Neben raced with the winning group to the base of the Cauberg for the last time, but she “didn’t have it” behind Dutchwoman Vos.
“I had to conserve my legs,” Neben told VeloNews. “But when we hit that last time up the Cauberg, I was just like, ‘oh no.’ I just didn’t have it.”
Beyond the finish, Neben rolled quietly off the race circuit around Valkenburg, which took in the Bemelerberg and Cauberg climbs eight times each in 128.8km. After she gathered herself and put on a jacket to protect from the cold, she explained how it happened. How did she get in the winning move? Why was she out-numbered? Italy had two riders with Rossella Ratto and Elisa Longo Borghini and eventual winner Vos had Dutch teammate Anna Van Der Breggen. And, what was Neben’s plan to win?
“The plan was to drive it hard, just to get it out there and give Evelyn (Stevens), Shelley (Olds) or Megan (Guarnier) a chance to come across, and then be there to ride for them.”
The 37-year-old formed a group of five ahead of three laps to race on the Bemelerberg climb. Ratto, Van Der Breggen, Australia’s Rachel Neylan and Germany’s Charlotte Becker were with her. Vos changed the face of the race, though, one lap later on the Cauberg.
“I could just tell by the fans that Vos was coming,” Neben said. “And then her teammate went to the front and started immediately drilling it so I knew not to ride anymore. I was hoping one of our girls would come too.”
Stevens started Saturday’s road race as the Americans’ team leader, on the back of her gold medal in the team time trial with Specialized-lululemon and silver medal in the individual time trial. She was stuck behind, though, when Vos fired away.
“We saw it when Vos went… I can blame myself, I was just in bad position,” Stevens told VeloNews. “Everyone said you had to be in good position down into the Cauberg. I knew I had to, but I just found myself blocked in on the left. I apologize for not making it.”
The nod went to Neben — also part of the gold-medal Specialized time trial squad — to ride for a result as the breakaway six gained an advantage of 2:57 with one lap remaining. She thought to try on the Bemelerberg, but the Dutch riders were maintaining too high a pace.
“I knew I was going to have to sit in,” Neben said. “I was thinking about trying to attack on that back climb, but any sort of effort wouldn’t have worked given the pace.”
When Neylan ticked up the pace low down on the final climb of the Cauberg, Neben found herself alone, forced to remain steady and attempt to close the gap. She rode her own time trial behind Longo Borghini and kept hope to catch her for a bronze medal. Instead, she placed just 15 seconds back and off the podium.
Almost five minutes later, Stevens, in just her third year at the sport’s top level and fifth year as a dedicated bike racer, finished with a smile, even if it was in 16th place. She was already thinking about next year’s worlds in Florence, Italy.
“This gives us motivation for next year,” she said. “I know it’s going to be hillier; I just hope I can learn how to position myself by then.”
The elder stateswoman of the U.S. women’s team, Neben complimented Stevens and the stable of young American riders, saying, “It’s a good group coming up, and they are getting stronger and stronger.”
Stevens and company will hope to be strong enough a year from now when they hit the circuit at Florence.