2022 USA Cycling Pro Women E28099s Time Trial National Championship Podium
National Championships

Time Trial Specialists Amber Neben and Zoe Ta-Perez Prove Age is No Barrier to Cycling Success

By: Jim Rutberg  August 19, 2022

Twenty-seven years. That was the difference between the racing ages of the youngest and oldest athletes on the podium for the 2022 USA Cycling Pro Women’s Time Trial National Championship.

At 33, Leah Thomas stood on the top step of the Pro Women’s Time Trial National Championship podium, flanked by 47-year-old Amber Neben in second place and 20-year-old Zoe Ta-Perez in third. But this isn’t a story about the fountain of youth or a young rising star. Rather, it is evidence that in cycling it’s never too late, or too early, to reach for the top of the sport.

Getting Up to Speed on Neben and Ta-Perez

Cycling fans have had a long time to get acquainted with Amber Neben. She won her first National Championship medal, a silver in the pro road race, in 2001. In the 21 years since, she has won two UCI Individual Time Trial World Championships (2008, 2016), one UCI Team Time Trial World Championship (2012), four US Pro Time Trial National Championships (2012, 2017, 2018, 2019), and two US Pro Road Race National Championships (2003, 2017), along with road races, time trials, and stage races all over the world.

Zoe Ta-Perez is a name fans may get to know a lot better in the years to come. In 2018, Ta-Perez won the Women 15-16 National Championship in the individual time trial. She followed that with silver medals at Junior and Elite Track National Championships. In 2019, she won an additional four Junior National Championships (Women 17-18 Individual Road Time Trial, Individual Pursuit, Team Pursuit, and Madison), and a Junior World Championship in the Madison with teammate Megan Jastrab.

The COVID-19 pandemic derailed most of Zoe’s 2020 season, and she took some time away from cycling in 2021 to rediscover her love for the sport. She made a strong return in 2022, with gradually improving results through the spring, culminating in medals in the Individual Time Trial National Championships (Gold in U23 Women; Bronze in Pro Women). A month later, in late July, she achieved a string of eight top-10 finishes in 9 elite criteriums – and third overall in the omnium – at the Intelligenstia Cup.

Reaching Top Speed at a Young Age

Neben and Ta-Perez have similar views, albeit through different lenses, on what it takes to reach the top of the sport at an early age. With the benefit of hindsight, and as a coach to younger athletes herself, Neben believes falling in love with the process of training is essential for young athletes. “It’s important not to get defined by the wins and losses,” she said. “You want to chase victories; you want to be excellent. I get that because I’m like that. But wins and losses are quickly forgotten and that’s not what’s going to bring the ultimate value to your life.”

Ta-Perez started out chasing – and capturing – victories at an early age, but within a few years realized something was missing. “I was kind of in autopilot as a Junior. The pandemic gave me time to think and reevaluate why I was pursing cycling,” she commented. “What I learned is that I’m not someone who leans to the external things. I mean, Nationals was a great result, but I’m proud of the day-in-day-out work I’ve put in since I started training again. I love training and racing, and if I’m doing that to the best of my ability then I’m content.”

In addition to prioritizing intrinsic motivation over external rewards, both Neben and Ta-Perez lean into the difficulty of their chosen pursuits. Speaking of her own career and the advice she gives younger riders, Neben commented, “Life is hard. Nothing is going to come easy, and that’s okay. Be ready for it and know that, when it gets hard, it’s always your choice on how you respond. You can control that. You can own that.”

Independently, Ta-Perez saw a similar appeal to difficulty. She said, “Anyone pursuing cycling knows it’s hard, and I love it because it’s hard. In cycling, a lot of things can happen that are out of your control. I lean toward the things I can control, like execution, sleep, and nutrition. I view hard workouts as opportunities to go deeper. That gives me confidence going into race day, and I really enjoy race day.”

Achieving Longevity in Cycling

Loving the process and committing to hard work are essential for success at any age and any point within a cyclist’s career. But there’s a difference between reaching the top of the podium once or twice and being a perennial champion for two decades. When asked about the keys to longevity in cycling, Amber Neben starts in the middle.

In 2013, Neben crashed heavily during the Amgen Tour of California Time Trial, a moment she refers to as the dividing line in her career. The violent impact with a rock wall left her with a broken body and a long road to recovery. Already an Olympian, National, and World Champion, Neben could have retired. Instead, she called upon her strong faith and used the opportunity to create a grand reset.

In the first half of her career, Neben chased victories and trained for speed and power. Working with a new coach, Tim Cusick, during her comeback, Amber set out to create greater durability and resilience by leveraging more than a decade of prior training and racing. “Annemiek van Vleuten just mentioned this during the Tour de France Femmes – being older in your training age, you can handle a lot of work and volume. I did a lot of ‘time-in-zone’ work, developed greater fatigue resistance, and the work we did in 2015 and 2016 really set up the next five years.”

Thankfully, cyclists don’t need to replicate Neben’s massive career-altering crash to achieve longevity in the sport. They only need to learn the lessons it taught her. “I think you’re wiser as you get older. You’re stronger, in a different way,” she said. “Obviously, you’re missing some of what you had when you were younger, but there’s a depth and an element of gratitude and appreciation for what you’re doing, for the people and the community.”

That gratitude and appreciation are already evident in Zoe Ta-Perez’s outlook for the future. “Everyone on the US circuit has been so kind to me. Coryn Labecki is a family friend and I pick her brain whenever we go for a ride. And Amber used to train with my dad, so I pick her brain whenever I see her, too. I’ve looked up to both of them for a long time, and now they treat me as an equal. They are locals for me and whenever I’ve asked for help, they’ve been right there and offered guidance.”

Success at Any Age

Cycling is a lifelong sport, whether you ride for transportation, fun, exercise, competition, or all those combined. For those who strive to stand atop the podium, the good news is that championship performances are achievable at any age, and – unlike many other sports – your potential time at the top is not limited to a short span of years.