The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 women's mountain bike race saw a historic 1, 2, 3 for the Swiss team, with Jolanda Neff claiming her country’s first women’s Olympic mountain bike gold medal and leading the way for a historic podium clean sweep.
It was victory for Neff in 1:15:26 on a testing new course at Izu City. Over the 5-lap race she beat Sina Frei by 1:11 with Linda Indergand collecting the bronze medal a further 8’ behind.
In 28 degrees heat with high humidity, the race started with 38 riders on time at 15:00 local time at Izu Mountain Bike Park, 150km south-east of Tokyo. The course had received rain earlier in the day, bringing new challenges for traction, and a different character to that the men raced on the previous day.
On the 1.3km start loop there were good getaways for many of the fancied competitors including Sina Frei, Pauline Ferrand-Prévot (FRA), Jolanda Neff, Laura Stigger (AUT), Loana Lecomte (FRA) and Linda Indergand.
Rebecca McConnell (AUS) and Kate Courtney (USA) were amongst those with slower starts and were hampered by the bottlenecks at the two-lane Amagi Pass, before the American pushed towards the top 10 at the start of the first full lap and the Australian slipped back. Great Britain’s Evie Richards got off well, vying with Kata Blanka Vas of Hungary, the youngest rider in the race aged 19, who blasted forward from her back-row start and was one of many riders taking an early small slip as they got to grips with what the surface offered.
Neff and Ferrand-Prévot pushed ahead on the first of five 3.85km laps before the French UCI World Champion slipped into the ropes while chasing for the short line up a rock garden and dropped back as she remounted.
The 2017 UCI World Champion Neff broke away solo and it was Richards – perhaps inspired by fellow British Tom Pidcock’s ride to victory the previous day – who emerged to initially lead the chase.
By the end of lap 1, Neff – who recovered from breaking her hand at the Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup at Leogang in June – led by 19 seconds from the 24-year-old Briton with Lecomte and Frei together at 23’ and Indergand making it three Swiss riders in the top five as they sped down the tarmac start/finish straight.
On the second lap the Swiss took the first three positions, with 28-year-old Neff’s advantage steadily growing out to more than 40 seconds. Ferrand-Prévot was powering herself back into contention in second position, moving away from former double Under 23 UCI World Champion Frei. It was not such good fortune for her compatriot Lecomte, the winner of all four UCI World Cup rounds so far in 2021, who had a mechanical, dropping her chain and dropping positions. Richards was drifting back towards the Dutch duo of Anne Terpstra and Anne Tauber working as a unit.
By mid-distance Neff, who won the test event on the 4,100m Izu mountain bike course in October 2019, was maintaining a metronomic pace and stretched her advantage to just over 1 minute, finding the grassy edges of the course for every bit of traction and degree of efficiency. As Stigger and Japan’s Miho Imai withdrew, by the end of lap 3 the Swiss 1-2-3 had formed, with Frei (2nd in the 2019 test event) in silver medal position.
Richards, Lecomte, Tauber, Terpstra and Ferrand-Prévot had formed a talent-packed chase group almost 2 minutes back, before the French multi-discipline former UCI World Champion (for road, mountain bike cross-country, mountain bike marathon, cyclo-cross) suffered and pushed to hold on to a top-10 spot.
As the bell sounded at the end of lap 4 the two Swiss riders continued to work together, 1:27 behind their national champion to ensure that they could maintain all the podium positions. Lecomte headed Terpstra at 2’15”, with the Hungarian Vas holding an impressive 6th and looking strong after her 33rd-place start. The attrition continued to take its toll, with the adrenaline helping the riders through the final strength-sapping 3.85km. Neff’s victory never looked in doubt, and the podium sweep was confirmed.
Vas finished an amazing 4th , with Terpstra 5th, Lecomte 6th and Ferrand-Prévot 10th. The 2016 Olympic Champion Jenny Rissveds (SWE) came in 14th just ahead of 2018 UCI World Champion Kate Courtney and Catharine Pendrel (CAN), bronze medalist in Rio 2016, finishing her fourth Olympics in 18th place.
But the day belonged to the Swiss riders, with Neff proving the best, by some distance, in Japan. She went into this race with 74 wins, but the 75th will surely taste the sweetest.