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Olympics

Jolanda Neff Takes Olympic Gold in Tokyo

With a 1-2-3 sweep of the podium, the Swiss team dominated the women's mountain bike event.

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The mens’ XC race saw conditions so dry and dusty that riders struggled to see the trail in some places—but the women had an entirely different set of challenges. With tropical storm Nepartek advancing on the area, heavy overnight rain forced officials to alter the course due to safety concerns.

Among the alterations: various “A-lines” through the boulder gardens were closed; the now-famous training ramp (which caused trouble for Mathieu van der Poel the day before) was replaced on the Sakura drop; and in some places the track was widened to allow riders more room to navigate mud.

Many riders continued to air the drop despite the inclusion of the ramp, and didn’t seem fazed by the slick, mossy boulders; but simpler features such as off-camber switchbacks, stone pavers and wooden bridges, proved treacherous. Ultimately it was Swiss powerhouse Jolanda Neff who deployed the full strength of her technical prowess to take her first Olympic win, made sweeter by countrywomen Sina Frei and Linda Indergand joining her on the podium.

IZU, JAPAN - JULY 27: The peloton takes off during the Women's Cross-country race on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Izu Mountain Bike Course on July 27, 2021 in Izu, Shizuoka, Japan.
With multiple pinch points looming on course, the world’s fastest women duke it out for the holeshot.
Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

The Favorites

Going into Tokyo, the 2021 World Cup season had been dominated by one woman: Loana Lecomte. The 21-year-old French rider made waves in 2020 when she won her first elite world title, and she’s won every XC race so far in 2021—in decisive fashion. The only riders to have denied her a win this year were 2019 world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prévot of France, and young American Haley Batten; both in the short track.

Neff, who won the test event on the Tokyo track in 2019, would have been an easy favorite for the gold medal given the conditions and her formidable technical skills. But ever since that test event victory, she has battled injuries, including a ruptured spleen in the winter of 2019 and a broken hand this season. While her results have been steadily improving, it was unclear if she would be riding at full speed in Tokyo.

How it Happened

Like in the men’s race, the start lap was crucial—even with a smaller field than a typical World Cup, the various pinches and technical features on the course had the potential to create large bottlenecks early on, costing riders precious seconds. As such, the pace for positioning off the line was furious, with the pre-race favorites coming quickly to the front.

It was Austrian Laura Stigger who took charge early on, pursued by Lecomte, British rider Evie Richards, and the Swiss contingent. Pauline Ferrand-Prévot looked focused but comfortable just behind, and Americans Kate Courtney and Haley Batten came through the start lap with some work to do, riding in 14th and 15th, respectively.

IZU, JAPAN - JULY 27: Jolanda Neff of Team Switzerland jumps off a boulder during the Women's Cross-country race on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Izu Mountain Bike Course on July 27, 2021 in Izu, Shizuoka, Japan.
Neff charges to the front during the race’s first lap and proceeds to dominate the race with a furious yet calculated attack.
Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

With her signature powerful, even cadence, Lecomte took the lead at the beginning of the first full lap, and it looked like it could be another repeat of the World Cup season so far—but her gap didn’t stick like in past races, with Ferrand-Prévot passing her young protégé on the first greasy climb. Neff took control in the first tech descent, but was marked closely by Ferrand-Prévot, who passed her back after a bobble on a muddy switchback. The two veteran riders are nearly the same age and have traded world championship wins throughout their careers, so it seemed fitting that they would ultimately battle it out for an Olympic medal.

Sadly, it was not to be. PFP cleared the Sakura drop ahead of Neff, but slid out shortly afterwards on a seemingly-innocuous section of uphill pavers. In an excruciating moment to watch, she got caught on a guard wire and lost contact with her bike, which slid back down behind her, forcing her to chase after it over the slippery stones. She was passed by the top five riders and never regained contact with the front of the race.

IZU, JAPAN - JULY 27: (L-R) Linda Indergand and Sina Frei of Team Switzerland ride during the Women's Cross-country race on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Izu Mountain Bike Course on July 27, 2021 in Izu, Shizuoka, Japan.
Neff’s fellow countrywoman and Olympic teammates Linda Indergand and Sina Frei shook off the rest of the field, resulting in a Swiss sweep of the women’s Olympic mountain bike podium.
Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Neff on the other hand, continued to put on a clinic in technical consistency, leading every lap and ultimately stretching her lead to over a minute on Sina Frei and Linda Indergand, who finished within 10 seconds of one another. The next rider, 19-year-old Kata Blanka Vas of Hungary, came through the line with an incredible 4th place finish for the young rider, though nearly two minutes off the pace. Lecomte fought through to finish sixth and Ferrand-Prévot rounded out the top 10, just behind young American Haley Batten, who finished ninth. Full results here.

IZU, JAPAN - JULY 27: (L-R) Silver medalist Sina Frei, gold medalist Jolanda Neff, and bronze medalist Linda Indergand of Team Switzerland, pose on the podium during the medal ceremony during the Women's Cross-country race on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Izu Mountain Bike Course on July 27, 2021 in Izu, Shizuoka, Japan.
Gold: Jolanda Neff; Silver: Sina Frei; Bronze: Linda Indergand.
Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images