Jolanda Neff wins Olympic MTB gold in all-Swiss podium

Neff got away on lap 1 of five and wasn't seen again.

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Jolanda Neff (Switzerland) has ridden to a commanding victory in the women’s cross country mountain bike race at the Tokyo Olympics.

The 28-year-old took control on the first of five full laps, ultimately opening a gap that no-one was able to close. Long-time rival and reigning world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot (France) had led with Neff for part of the opening lap, but the Frenchwoman took a tumble late in lap 1 and then faded out of medal contention after battling her way back to second place.

Instead it was Neff’s compatriots Sina Frei (silver) and Linda Indergand (bronze) that rode to the minor medals, completing a podium sweep for the Swiss team – a first in an Olympic MTB race.

How it happened

Inclement weather prompted several changes to the course for Tuesday’s race, notably a shortening of the race from six full laps to five, and the re-installation of the “training ramp” off the Sakura Drop – the spot where Mathieu van der Poel’s gold medal tilt ended a day before.

Pre-race favourite Loane Lecomte (France) – winner of all four World Cup XC races this season – was first to hit the front as the field began to split on the start loop. By the end of that start loop, Lecomte and Laura Stigger (Austria) had opened a small gap, but they wouldn’t lead for long.

The first of five full laps saw long-time rivals Ferrand-Prevot and Neff join forces at the front as all riders battled to navigate the technical and at-times slippery course. On an uphill rock garden in the back half of the opening lap, Ferrand-Prevot and Neff took different lines but when those lines converged, Ferrand-Prevot was thrown off balance and tumbled down the embankment. With that, Neff was leading on her own and on her way to opening a sizeable lead.

By the end of the first lap Neff was leading by 19 seconds ahead of Evie Richards (Great Britain). Behind her, a further four seconds adrift, rode Lacomte and the Swiss duo of Frei and Indergand. Ferrand-Prevot was down in sixth place, another eight seconds behind.

As a composed Neff continued to build her lead through lap 2, Ferrand-Prevot, the reigning world champion, worked her way back through the field to regain second place. By the end of lap 2 Neff was leading by 46 seconds ahead of Ferrand-Prevot, with Frei and Indergand still together in third and fourth, 10 seconds further back.

Ferrand-Prevot appeared laboured through lap 3 and was soon caught and then passed by Frei and Indergand. Ahead, Neff continued to build on her lead. By the end of lap 3, the 2017 world champion led by 1:09 ahead of Frei, with Indergand in third at 1:15. Ferrand-Prevot had slipped to seventh place, 1:56 behind Neff. 

At the start of the final lap Neff was in complete control and had a lead of 1:26 over Indergand and Frei. That lead would contract slightly by the finish, with Neff taking gold 1:11 ahead of Frei and 1:19 ahead of Indergand. In fourth place, after starting on the final row of the grid, was 19-year-old rising star Kata Blanka Vas (Hungary), finishing ahead of Anne Terpstra (Netherlands), Lecomte, and Richards. Ferrand-Prevot ultimately finished 10th, 4:32 behind Neff.

Sina Frei (left), Jolanda Neff (centre), and Linda Indergand (right) after sweeping the podium.

Neff’s win comes roughly six weeks after breaking her hand in the Leogang World Cup, a race in which she still managed to finish fourth. In late 2019 Neff crashed heavily while training in North Carolina, suffering a ruptured spleen, collapsed lung, and broken rib. There were initial concerns that she might never race again, but after a months-long recovery returned to racing at the highest level.


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