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After a fragmented 2020 season, the 2021 World Cup has been a rollercoaster full of injuries, surprise upsets and new faces—though we’d expect nothing less from an Olympic year. Favorites like Kate Courtney, Pauline Ferrand-Prévot and Jolanda Neff have found themselves in casts and neck braces. New names like Batten and Richards have found their way to the top of the results sheet. And a 21-year-old Frenchwoman has decimated the field in almost every race seemingly with ease. In Tokyo, we’ll see the same cast of characters placed on mountain biking’s biggest stage. The course is, by all accounts, very technical, and the weather, which was expected to be hot and humid, now looks like a 40 percent chance of rain. Who will take home the gold? And who will go home to train for another 4 years? We’ve compiled a list of the women to watch.
Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, France (Absolute–Absalon–BMC)
Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, 29, is the defending World Champion, and currently ranked second overall in the World Cup standings behind countrywoman Loana Lecompte (who we’ll get to in a moment). At just 23, she became the first person (male or female) to hold world titles in cyclocross, road, and cross country mountain biking—but the Olympic podium has proven elusive. There’s no doubt that she’ll be hungry for a medal in Tokyo.
PFP’s greatest strength is her adaptability; she has a tattoo across the back of her neck that reads (in French) “life is a joke,” a reminder to keep things in perspective. This is a woman who had back-to-back surgeries to repair the arteries in her hips (which had started to thicken from the repeated stress of pedaling) and then went on to win the World Championship that same year. Whatever happens in Tokyo, we have no doubt she can turn it to her advantage.
Jolanda Neff, Switzerland (Trek Factory)
Jolanda Neff, 29, won the Tokyo test event in 2019, which speaks to the technicality of the course. The multi-time World Champion tends to excel where other riders back off, earning time through the most punishing technical descents. She also has the power to close (and create) impressive gaps, which makes it impossible to count her out, even if she appears to be struggling.
A bad crash in the winter of 2019 left Neff with a ruptured spleen and strict recovery protocol. It’s been a tough journey back to the pointy end of the World Cup, but in this year’s Leogang XC she finally found her way to the podium—only to discover later that she’d broken her hand in a crash before the finish. Will she close the gap again before Tokyo? Don’t count her out.
The Young Blood
Loana Lecomte, France (Massi Bikes)
If it seems like the French phenom Loana Lecomte came from nowhere, she didn’t; she’s just been off winning world championships in the U23 field. Still, it does kind of sting to see your favorite racers get trounced by a kid who doesn’t appear to even be breathing out of her mouth. After her surprise win at the Olympic qualifier in Nove Mesto in 2020, Lecomte, 21, has won all four of the 2021 cross country world cups by impressive margins, snagging one short track win as well.
It makes sense when you see her ride: her style is surgically precise, and her cadence is unrelenting. She makes up time on every climb and every descent, and her focused expression never changes until the finish (when she breaks into a delighted, celebratory grin). Will she become an Olympic champion at 21? It seems possible, even likely.
Evie Richards, Great Britain (Trek Factory)
If you were to drop by the Instagram account of the ebullient 24-year-old Evie Richards, you would never guess that she’s a powerhouse cyclocross star who tore the legs off the defending world champion in her first elite short track race. No one was more surprised than Richards herself (just try and watch the interview without crying), but since that first win in Nove Mesto, she’s proved that she deserves her place at the front of the field.
So far, Richards has had the most success in short track events, where sheer power gives the advantage over endurance or technical skill—though she did pull off a silver in the Les Gets XC race. While she might not be a favorite for the brutally steep climbs in Tokyo, she’s one of the most exciting racers out there to watch—especially if it rains.
Kate Courtney, California (Scott-SRAM)
Kate Courtney, 25, is the woman who reignited American cross country racing. In 2018, she bested the legendary Annika Langvad, becoming the first American XC racer to win a World Championship in 17 years. Then she went on to win the 2019 World Cup overall—treating American fans to a full season of wins and podium finishes, and was the first American racer to land a bid to Tokyo, with her fifth-place finish at the 2019 World Champs. Courtney’s single-minded dedication to racing and training has pushed the entire field to new heights.
But in the Tokyo test event in 2019, Courtney went home with stitches, and she sustained a concussion (along with a DNF) in the 2020 World Championship race. After a promising start with two podium finishes in Albstadt, her 2021 season has been plagued by crashes, one of which resulted in a fractured ulna. She should still be considered the top American hope for a medal in Tokyo, but it will depend on pulling together a clean race. Read more from Kate in Tokyo here.
Haley Batten, Utah (Trinity Racing)
American fans got another rider to root for this spring when Haley Batten, 22, won the Nove Mesto World Cup short track, becoming one of just three Americans (including Kate Courtney and Chloe Woodruff) to take a World Cup short track win. Batten then went on to take second place finish in the Nove Mesto XC, which secured her an automatic spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
In her debut season as an elite, the young American has shown the composure and racecraft of a rider far beyond her years. But did Batten peak just to qualify for the Olympics? Or does she still have matches to burn? The only thing we know for sure is that she and Ferrand-Prévot are the only riders to have denied Lecomte a win in this year’s World Cup season, and that speaks volumes.
Erin Huck, Colorado (Scott Shimano Stans NoTubes BoironUSA)
Unlike many of the women on this list, five-time national champion (including 2021, a title earned just two weeks ago in Winter Park, Colorado) Erin Huck, 40, was not discovered at a young age and groomed to compete at the highest level—instead she balanced her training with a full-time engineering job, working her way up the results sheet on her days off.
Throughout 2018 and 2019, Huck had a handful of World Cup finishes just outside the top ten, and her best result was a 6th in the Mont Sainte-Anne short track in 2018. After a severe and complicated ankle injury at the Albstadt World Cup in 2019, she worked her way back to top-20 form in the 2021 World Cups, and is now the top-ranked American behind Batten and Courtney. Although Huck initially did not get selected from the U.S. Olympic Long Team to go to Tokyo, she got the nod after Chloe Woodruff resigned. It’ll take a career-defining day to see the podium in Tokyo, but for anyone who’s ever tried to support themselves while chasing big goals, Huck is the Olympic dream personified.
Jenny Rissveds, Sweden, Team 31:Outride
It may seem wrong to call the defending Olympic champion a “darkhorse” but Rissveds has had a challenging four years. After winning gold in Rio, the Swedish champion struggled with the politics and pressure of racing in 2017. In 2018, she announced that she’d be stepping back from the sport altogether (with the blessing of her Scott-SRAM team) to take care of her mental health.
Rissveds returned to the scene in 2019 on a team of her own, with the mission of using her platform as an athlete to defend childrens’ right to play. The time off clearly did her some good; she slowly progressed back through the ranks before an emotional win in Lenzerheide. Her riding style is subtle—she always looks relaxed, but she’s landed on enough podiums in the 2021 season to take the third spot in the overall World Cup rankings. Look for her hunting another Olympic medal in Tokyo.