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All eyes were on the French and Americans before the start of the Olympic Games women’s cross-country mountain bike event, yet it was hard to overlook Jolanda Neff from Switzerland as being a favorite for a podium, too.
Neff rode a near-perfect race to take the gold. Her teammates Sina Frei and Linda Indergand led a Swiss charge, sweeping up silver and bronze, respectively, to lead an all-Swiss podium.
With rain dampening the course, the course was slightly modified — officials replaced the ramp at the Sakura Drop where Mathieu van der Poel crashed the day prior — and shortened by a lap to address safety concerns.
French riders Pauline Ferrand-Prévot and Loana Lecomte saw their Olympic medal dreams slip away after crashes and mechanical issues, while Team USA’s Kate Courtney, Haley Batten, and Erin Huck had challenging races after a slow start.
Here’s what the stars said after the Tokyo 2020 women’s cross country mountain bike race.
Haley Batten (United States): 9th, at 4:27
Like her teammates, Haley Batten struggled at the start, and by the time she found her legs, the race was away from her grasp.
The added technical challenges posed by the wet course, combined with the modified distance made the shorter race unforgiving of technical and tactical missteps.
Fighting for finishing position at the Olympic Games, Batten managed to get her wheels across the line ahead of the favored Ferrand-Prévot by some five seconds.
“Some of the climbs had some really steep corners that, after this rain, were really slick. I think it was hard to know if I should get off and run, or if I should try and ride it,” Batten said. “That was definitely the trickiest trying to stay in the zone in your flow, but also trying to give as much as you can, but sometimes the course just throws a curveball.”
Kate Courtney (United States): 15th, at 6:33
Kate Courtney, 25, was one of many favorites for a podium finish prior to the start of the race.
With the last-minute weather-induced changes to the course, Courtney’s technical abilities were taxed. She recognized the significance of the race and credited her competition with adapting and handling the challenging conditions.
The 2018 UCI world champion in cross-country mountain bike discipline was not a factor at the front of the Olympic cross-country event, instead battling for position in the middle of the field.
“It’s tough to understand how much it changed. They were making changes to the course up until the moment we started. I really respect the riders, Jolanda [Neff] is one of the best technical riders in the field. She’s someone who probably benefited from the conditions and is really able to be adaptable and manage those,” Courtney said. “It wasn’t my best race, but I think there’s no other event where you cross the line in a less than ideal position, and still feel really honored and humbled to be here representing your country and representing your family, and for me, it’s just been really an honor to be here in the first place.”
Jolanda Neff (Switzerland): 1st
Neff went into the 2021 Olympics with minimal training, having broke her hand at the Leogang World Cup in early June.
The Swiss star took control of the race halfway through the first lap, and rode a technically superior race, never putting a foot down.
Once clear of the rest of the field, she had only to execute and ride a clean line to victory.
“It was a challenge. In the last two laps I was trying not to think and to keep riding because I knew how big my advantage was, and I tried to keep it clean and safe in the downhill,” Neff said. “I had a really good pace where I could still focus and keep a clear mind and ride at a good speed in the uphill. I’m incredibly happy that I could do it, that I could ride a perfect race from start to finish. It was the way I like to race the most, when I’m just on my own and can do my own thing.
“I don’t have to worry about other people pushing me off the track or breaking in bad moments,” Neff added.
Commenting on the challenges brought by the rain, and the limited time to preview the updated course, Neff said these additional technical tests played into the Swiss’ strengths.
“The rain helped us a lot because the last few days in training the track was the same every day and this morning we had so much rain, and it changed completely. We had new lines, the rock garden was closed, we had different downhills, and we only had one hour on the track to learn the new lines.
“Not every other team was riding on the track, some were walking it and some were not there at all. We all took our bikes, we rode the track and learned everything and that was a big part in today’s race. It plays together with the whole preparations,” said Neff. “We have practiced a lot of skills but also to learn a new track quickly.”
“I just hope that I don’t wake up one moment and it’s just a dream. It was my goal for today to enjoy it and have fun out there and I did have fun out there. I found a good rhythm, I could ride all the technical sections perfectly well and I could find a good rhythm in the uphill. It was such a good race and an incredible result for the whole team,” Neff said after her dominating win.
Sina Frei (Switzerland): 2nd, at 1:11
After favorite Ferrand-Prévot crashed on the first lap and used a lot of matches to recover to the front of the chase, it was up to Frei and teammate Linda Indergand to track attacks by the French former world champion. Frei marked moves by “PFP” and strategically attacked when the technical course suited her, dropping the French.
In the final two laps, Frie battled with her teammate, ultimately out-climbing her on the final lap.
“I’m super, super happy, I can’t believe it. All the hard work paid off today,” said Frei. “It was super cool, Linda and I could work together, and we could push each other and I’m super happy. Three Swiss on the podium, it couldn’t be better, we’re so happy,” Frei said. “I have no words. I’m super, super emotional and I’m so happy about that.”
“I’m really proud, and I still can’t believe what happened today, but you can always dream and of course it was a big dream of mine. Now, to stay on the podium with two other Swiss girls is just amazing, and I think that the conditions today were on our side. We did a short practice before the race, we had the right tire choices and I think it paid off.”
Linda Indergand (Switzerland): 3rd, at 1:19
Like compatriot Frei, Indergand had a technically sound race while her team captain was head on the trail. Helping to control the race when attacks came, Indergand was also instrumental in lifting the pace on the flatter segments, to endure attacks would fade on the technical, climby parts.
While Indergand could put more power on the pedals, she was not quite at the front of the chase on the final climb, barely loosing teammate Frei’s wheel in the final 500m uphill battle to the line.
“It’s really nice to be on the podium. I think we had a really big advantage because our technical skills trainer was here, and we had the best lines for sure, and we all knew that we could ride our bikes properly. So when the rain came in the morning, we were all excited to race and it worked out, which is great,” Indergand said.
“It’s always a good advantage if you can ride with a teammate. We could always help each other and have a good speed there to hold back the others, so it was really nice to ride with Sina to motivate each other.
“In the end, everyone wants to be in front of the others and today Sina and Jolanda were stronger than me, but I’m really not disappointed about this medal, I’m just really happy to stand on the podium with them,” said the bronze medalist.