Olympic mountain bike cross-country: glory awaits at Izu

The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 will offer us two exciting mountain bike races: first the men's cross-country on Monday 26 July (15:00 JST) then the women's cross-country starting exactly a day later. Since mountain bike cross-country became an official Olympic sport at the Atlanta 1996 Games the races have been hotly fought and the courses have developed technically. In Japan this year athletes will compete on a testing new course at Izu City, about 150km south-east of Tokyo, with views of Mt Fuji.

The 4,100m Izu mountain bike course has more than 150m of climbing on each circuit (7 to 9 laps, to be confirmed), including short punchy climbs, steep drops, technical rock garden sections and some big boulders. After a test event in October 2019 (won by Switzerland's Nino Schurter and Jolanda Neff), the consensus is that Izu is set to be harder than any previous Olympic courses, and the hot July weather may only add to the test.

Schurter’s swansong?

Reigning Olympic Champion Nino Schurter has experienced all three steps of the Olympic podium, building from the bronze medal in 2008 to silver in London 2012 and the top step last time in Rio. Five years later his star has continued to shine brightly across the sport, but, aged 35, time may be catching up with him…

The Swiss has equalled the great French rider Julien Absalon’s record of seven overall UCI World Cup titles, has 32 UCI World Cup race wins compared to the Frenchman’s 33, and has won eight UCI World Championships compared to Absalon’s five. He heads to Japan determined to equal Absalon’s unique XCO men’s Olympic gold double (Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008).

Schurter’s greatest ally may also be his biggest threat – fellow Swiss Mathias Flückiger climbed hard to win the recent rounds of the Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in Leogang (AUT) and Les Gets (FRA), taking the XCO leader's jersey. Switzerland is the highest ranked nation in qualification for Tokyo 2020. In late May Fluckiger became Swiss national champion, putting a minute into Schurter.

Cross-discipline challengers

A raft of international talent aims to write a different history; notably Mathieu Van der Poel, wanting to become the first Dutch XCO Olympic Champion since Bart Brentjens in Atlanta 1996. The four-time cyclo-cross UCI World Champion has also held the national title in road and XCO, and switched out success in 2019 XCO World Cup to concentrate on UCI WorldTour ambitions, with a stage win and a stint in the yellow jersey at the Tour de France as an audacious preparation for Olympic mountain biking.

Another rider who has grabbed headlines by moving from cyclo-cross  to road and mountain bike is Great Britain’s Tom Pidcock. After winning the XCO at this year’s Nové Město na Moravě (CZE) round of the Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup, he broke his collarbone in training and has been racing back to fitness. Will his recovery be quick enough?

The French duo of UCI World Champion Jordan Sarrou and 27-year-old Frenchman Victor Koretzky - UCI XCO World Cup winner at Albstadt (GER) – are a powerful combination. Also look out for Ondřej Cink (CZE), 2nd at the last two UCI World Cups, and Italy’s (2nd ranked qualifying) trio including Luca Braidot.

Leading the charge for a first non-European men’s Olympic Champion is Henrique Avancini, who took his first UCI World Cup win at Nové Město in 2020. Alongside the Brazilian will be 2018 U23 UCI World Champion Alan Hatherly (RSA) who would love to match his bronze at the last Commonwealth Games; 2012 Junior UCI World Champion Anton Cooper (NZL), and Japan’s Kohei Yamamoto.

Rissveds’ return

Two podiums in the last two UCI World Cup rounds represent a fantastic return to form for the Swede, Jenny Rissveds, whose racing has had ups and downs since the high point of Olympic victory in Rio 2016. Her first UCI World Cup win in Lenzerheide (SUI) in 2019 signalled a major step forwards on her journey to Tokyo. If Rissveds were to retain her title it would echo Italy’s Paola Pezzo (Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000).

French momentum

Young French rider Loana Lecomte looks unstoppable, winning all four UCI World Cup rounds this year. But will the Izu course suit her? Can the more experienced Pauline Ferrand-Prévot peak perfectly to work with – or overhaul – her compatriot? These two remarkable athletes, who between them have won all seven UCI World Cup rounds since September 2019, give France a good chance of replicating Julie Bresset’s London 2012 victory.

Jolanda Neff showed her return from injury by winning the recent Swiss national championships. The 2017 UCI World Champion won the test event on the Izu course. Her compatriot Sina Frei took second that day, and third in this May’s Swiss nationals, where Linda Indergand finished fourth. The gold medalist may well come from this trio representing the highest placed nation in qualification.

The Dutch duo of Anne Terpstra and Anne Tauber would like to think otherwise. And amongst the pack’s younger riders, Great Britain’s Evie Richards and Austria’s Laura Stigger each want to make their mark.

Haley Batten (USA - 2nd highest qualifying nation) is a non-European favourite, with two UCI World Cup podiums this year, alongside her compatriot Kate Courtney, the 2018 World Champion and 2019 UCI World Cup series winner. Haley Smith and 2016 bronze medalist Catharine Pendrel represent Canada; and there are high hopes for Australia’s Rebecca McConnell, drawing on her experience from Rio and podiums in the last two seasons’ UCI World Cup as well as at the 2020 UCI World Championships.