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Jolanda Neff led a Swiss sweep of medals in the women’s cross-country mountain bike race, a historic feat that has not happened in any cycling event in the modern Olympics. Sina Frei took silver and Linda Indergand earned bronze to complete the all-Swiss podium in Tokyo on Tuesday.
You have to go back 1904 for the last clean sweep, when American men did so on the track in events that were discontinued after 1908. With Mathias Flueckiger’s silver in the men’s race the previous day, Switzerland took four of a possible six medals in cross-country mountain biking. Typhoon Nepartak deposited heavy rain on the bone-dry course overnight, leading to a one lap shortening of the race (to five from six, plus the start loop) and some hasty changes to the course.
A rock garden was re-routed and a ramp installed on the drop that Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands) crashed over the day before. The circuit length dropped to 3.85 kilometres from 4.1 kilometres.
France’s Loana Lecomte came into the race as the overwhelming favourite, unbeaten for the season on the World Cup circuit coming into the Games. Other favourites – based on the World Cup – included defending Olympic champion Jenny Rissveds (Sweden), world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prévot (France) and Rebecca McConnell (Australia).
They would all falter in the conditions, with Lecomte finishing sixth, Ferrand-Prévot 10th, Rissveds 14th (after suffering a flat tire) and McConnell 28th. Neff was not on the potential medalist list because she seemed to still be recovering from a serious crash in late 2019, when she ruptured her spleen and suffered a collapsed lung. As she began to show signs of her previous form this season, she then broken her hand at the final round of the World Cup leading into the Games, only six weeks ago. However, while the newly muddy conditions seemed to put everyone else in difficulty, Neff shone. Well known for her exceptional technical skills, Neff rarely put a foot wrong. Where others slipped, crashed and had to run, Neff rode with aplomb.
“Someone said to me that whoever wins this race is going to be a worthy champion because you’re going to have to know how to ride your mountain bike – you need skills, you need everything,” said Neff. “I’m just so incredibly happy to win on this track on this day.” The start of the race looked familiar, with Lecomte in the lead, and Ferrand-Prévot and Rissveds not far behind at the end of the start loop. However, it quickly changed as the riders hit the first lap; Neff moved to the front and only Ferrand-Prévot could follow her. Then, coming into a short fast descent followed by a cobbled uphill, Ferrand-Prévot crashed while Neff floated.
If a rider hit the climb right they could roll over the top with their momentum – Neff did this and Ferrand-Prévot came to a stop just before the top and fell sideways into the tape, ending her chances for gold. Evie Richards (Great Britain) moved into second with the other two Swiss riders, followed by Lecomte. But Neff was clear and wouldn’t be seen again. Nineteen seconds in front at the end of lap 1, she would finish over a minute ahead of second place. Ferrand-Prévot came back to the two Swiss chasers on the second lap and looked to be dropping them as the race entered the third lap. However, she then faded dramatically on the main Wasabi climb, falling to seventh behind a chase group of Lecomte, Richards and Anne Tauber (Netherlands), who were 45 seconds behind Frei and Indergand, and nearly two minutes behind Neff. Further back, the 19-year-old newcomer from Hungary, Kata Blanka Vas, was having a remarkable ride through the field from starting on the last row. A silver medalist at last year’s Under-23 mountain bike World Championships, Blanka Vas also has silver and bronze medals in the U23 Cyclo-cross Worlds, and just signed with the SD Worx UCI WorldTeam on the road. She would eventually finish fourth and, if the race was a lap longer, might have been in the medals. By lap 4, the Swiss looked to be pretty much in control of the medals, with the only unknown being whether Frei or Indergand would take silver. Frei was climbing stronger, but Indergand kept coming back on the flatter sections. Unfortunately for her, the final 500 metres included a steep climb to the finishing straight and she was not able to stay with her compatriot. All three Swiss riders hugged at the finish line, stunned by the magnitude of their accomplishment.