It didn't take long for Jolanda Neff to establish herself at the forefront of the women’s cross country field. She burst onto the World Cup scene and very quickly finding herself racing shoulder to shoulder and spraying champagne with the sport’s best. Her performances were so strong in the under 23 category that the UCI granted her permission to race up with the elites in not only the World Cups (which isn't uncommon) but the illustrious World Championships for good measure. In doing so, she made history and becoming the youngest World Cup overall winner ever across both the men’s and women’s fields. The fact she’s been able to carry that form on ever since is just as remarkable.
Jolanda is coming off the back of an eventful twelve months or so. An intense season-long title battle with Kate Courtney was sandwiched by a big team change to Trek at the start of the season and ended with a possibly career-ending crash that, thankfully, she has just about recovered from. 2019 was in fact the first season that Jolanda failed to take home a World Cup win (by a matter of tenths may I add), but her seemingly bulletproof consistency nearly saw her take home the World Cup overall anyway.
With Coronavirus hitting the pause button on the race season, athletes have found themselves not at a loose end as such, but with perhaps a little more time to reflect on not only the season to come (whenever that maybe be) but the seasons past. Jolanda gave us a few hours of her time to share her thoughts, feelings, and stories about everything from picking up a bike for the first time right through to that World Cup final in La Bresse in 2018.
Going back to the start, how did you first start riding bikes and then later get introduced to racing?
My family was always very active. My dad was racing professionally on the road when he was in his twenties. When we were born, my brother, sister and I, he kept riding bikes and we just happened to be taken to the races. That was in the 90s and he wasn’t racing professionally on the road anymore, so he did mountain bike races and our parents took us to those races. That is also how I did my first race when I was six years old because we happened to be there anyway!
Where we lived, my mum and my dad started a group for kids to go riding, they just started from scratch. They asked some of the kids if they wanted to come along on the ride and it just got more and more and more. It traveled by word of mouth and, after a couple of years, we were more than forty kids riding every week. My parents were the coaches and we went riding together, it was just a lot of fun. On the weekends we would go camping at the races with the other kids and do the races. To me, it was always so much fun with the group and we had a really really good time together! I always loved it, whenever I was in school I was always dreaming of going riding again with the other kids.
When did it become more than fun, when did it become more serious and competitive?
It still is fun to me now, that’s what I always want to keep! It’s a good question because a lot of people ask me that, when was the turning point? I feel like there was no turning point and I don’t want to have a turning point! To me, and maybe it’s different to other kids, when I was little I never saw myself becoming a professional athlete or professional rider. It was a hobby and it was completely clear to me that I would go to university, that I would have a normal job.
I went to the school that would take you to university, in Switzerland that is four years of school. Still, I thought, "yeah, I’ll go to uni". I’d already agreed with a friend to live together and I had already signed up for university. Then in 2012, that was my first year in U23. With XC it’s different to DH regarding the U23 class. Juniors is just two years together and before that it is in categories of 2 years, U17, U15 and all that. Always 2 years. Then in U23 it’s like a jump of 4 years. Suddenly you are racing people that you have never raced before and it’s a lot more competitive.
In my first year of U23 I had quite a good year and I won the Swiss championships, European championships, and also the World Championships. I was racing these people who were four years older than me, for example Annie Last was four years older than me and she did the Olympics in that year, 2012 in London. So we were racing together in World Champs and I won World Champs.
That year was very defining for what I did afterwards in my life. I wanted to go to uni but I had such a good year, then Giant offered me a pro contract. The Giant Pro XC Team it was called, they were the number one team in the World at that moment and they offered me to turn pro. At the same time, there is a program in Switzerland called the sports army where you basically join the army program for four months during winter, you live there every day and do the training together, they offered me a spot to join that program in that same winter. I had these two opportunities and that was the first time in my life where I had to decide, do I want to do sports or school?
I guess your parents were pretty supportive of that?
My parents never pressured me into doing anything, even sport. They loved sport and were always active and out in nature, but for example, my brother is really into music, he was in a metal band with his friends and played the electric guitar and they were doing concerts. He always trained with us and did the races but wasn’t that competitive, my sister too. She followed her education and now works in the hospital laboratory, she’s testing coronavirus currently!
I really, really wanted to do it so badly and they were like, "if you want to do it and if this is your biggest wish then go for it". I think it was perfect what my parents did. They aren’t those hyper-ambitious parents who buy all the nice stuff, I never had the latest bike as a kid. All the other kids would have the latest, coolest stuff and even two bikes, I had one bike and my sister had ridden it for three years already and I took her old bike! I think that was a good approach because we didn’t have all the fanciest stuff so I think that was a good thing.
How has cross country become so big in Switzerland?
It’s insane. I was thinking about it the other day. Compared to downhill especially, no one knows what downhill is and cross-country got so big. I’m sure it’s just because there was success from day one onwards. At this moment Switzerland has more than 120 medals in cross country championships. 120! I think in Mont-Sainte-Anne at World Champs there was a kid from Great Britain in the juniors, they were saying he was the first-ever British winner in any XC class. Switzerland has like 100 of those people! It’s insane.
But on the other hand, Great Britain is world-class and dominant for years in downhill and Switzerland doesn’t even have a single medal in any class. It’s funny. I don’t even know why. We have bike parks for downhill and to train in but I guess on the other side, if one thing gets going then it’s in the media and people follow it then other people will want to do it, I guess it’s inspiring. It must be the same thing in the UK with downhill.
You progressed up through the ranks pretty quickly and came into elites with a bang.
After that 2012 season, when I won the Championships, I decided I wanted to move up to the elite class. 2013 was my first season racing elite World Cups and that would have only been my second year in the U23 class. Most people do 4 years in U23 or maybe move up one year early, but not 3 years early.
So in 2013, I did elite World Cups for the first time and I finished sixth overall. It was funny, my best result was 7th place in Andorra and Mont Sainte Anne but I finished 6th in the overall because I had a lot of consistent results throughout the season but never better than 7th! I won the U23 World Championships at the end of the year in South Africa. Then in 2014, which was my third year U23 and my second year racing elite World Cup, that’s the year when I won the first World Cup of the year and then won Mont Sainte Anne and then I won Meribel in France and I won the overall. Most people at that age didn’t race elite but I won the overall, that’s when I became the youngest person to ever win the World Cup overall. No man or woman had done it younger. That was really cool for me!
Do you think there was a particular reason why you were so well prepared at such a young age?
I guess just because I wanted it so bad, I just wanted to go for it. I guess something that always helped me was my technique, especially when you think about it six years ago, the bikes and components weren’t as advanced as they are now. I think skills were even more important. When you have a 29er full suspension bike with a dropper post, you can pretty much roll over everything but when you have a 26” hardtail with no dropper there is a big difference in how fast you can go. I think that was something that always helped me. We have a lot of technical hiking trails in Switzerland where I grew up and where I train so I think that always helped me. But you also need the endurance and you also need the speed up the hill. In the end, you can make differences in the downhill but still the biggest part of the race is up the hill, I’d say 80%. It all comes together.
Looking at your race history over 2014 and 2015 there’s a lot of 1st places to your name… How did you get onto such a good run and build so much momentum over those two seasons?
It was so so good! When I joined that Giant team, in 2013 and 2014 that was like the best team ever. I felt so at home, we were just like one family. We had such a good team and with Leo Van Zeeland, he is a Dutch guy, like seventy years old, white hair but he has been in the sport for years. He was the Dutch National coach for years and years, he took care of Bart Brenjens when Bart won the Olympics already. He has his heart in the right spot and he really sees the character of people and can really form a team. We had such an amazing team going on that year. There were five full-time riders on the team, Maja Włoszczowska from Poland, Emil Lindgren, Fabian Giger, and Michel Van der Heijden. So it was three guys, the two of us, and Leo and we had a good physio, it was a really really good team.
It’s funny because in those two years, every one of us had their best seasons. Michel won the U23 World Championships in the same year I did, Fabian was second at Europeans and was number 1 in the UCI’s World Rankings. Maja was second in quite a few World Cups and Emil also had his best season. We all just had a really good time and to me, that made such a difference, it helped me so much. I had such a great year in 2014, I won the overall in elites and the U23 World Championships for the third time in a row. Then coming into 2015 which was my last year in U23, since I’d won it already 3 times the UCI gave me permission to race with the elites in not only the World Cups but also the World Championships, that was something new, something they hadn’t done before or after. Usually you can move up in the World Cups, that is a normal rule, when you are top five as a woman or top ten as a guy you can move up but not in World Championships. They gave me that special permission and that was really cool, European Championships was then my first championship with the elite in 2015, I won that race and also won the World Cup again that same year.
Then, going into World Championships I thought, yeah I’ll do the best training camp ever and I went to St. Moritz in the Swiss Alps to do high altitude training and I was there for three weeks. It could have worked out if I’d just been there training and healthy but two weeks before I had a really bad concussion in Mont Sainte Anne at the World Cup, I was just in bed for a full week, not riding my bike, not walking, not doing anything.
Then we raced in Windham one week later, I hadn’t seen the track, I pretty much got up that morning and did one lap of the track and then raced. I was just in bed for the whole week. I flew home and went on this training camp for three weeks and trained as hard as I could and my body was just not recovered yet. I got a really bad lung infection and was producing funny colourful stuff whenever I was breathing, it was really really bad. I went to Andorra, which was at high altitude, which is why I’d done the training camp, my doctor did an examination and my doctor said you have the lungs of a seventy-year-old right now. I was bad. I still wanted to do the race no matter what it cost because I was just hoping for a miracle. I finished in 9th place, which was not what I’d done the rest of the season but my body was completely finished. The rest of the year was good, but just not World Champs!
You’ve had quite a few team changes over the years...
I moved team after 2014. Giant pretty much stopped their whole cross-country program. I went to this small Swiss company, it was called Stöckli. They have a lot of medals in World Cup alpine and downhill skiing but they were new to mountain biking and they just wanted to produce mountain bikes. They started that and I was on that team for one year in 2015 and it was not working well, the team wasn’t functioning. Then they dismissed every single person on the team and took on a whole new staff, everyone was new for 2016.
Honestly, I was not a fan of that move because it was a big year, it was an Olympic year. You want to work with people that you first of all know, you know everything works, the bike works, everything is fine, especially in an Olympic year. I thought it’d be better to wait one more year but they wanted to do it. So it was a completely new setup again, pretty much in two years it was almost like I’d changed teams twice. After the Olympics in 2016, I had a contract for three years, they told us it’s over, we are not even producing mountain bikes anymore. So the whole team stopped. It was pretty crazy.
I was looking for a new team and I ended up joining my friend Maja again, just because I knew her and I knew we’d have a good time, things would work and I didn’t really care about money at all at that moment. I was talking to some bigger teams and I had some good offers but I just wanted to have something that I knew would work and would keep going so that’s why I joined Maja’s team, which was Kross, a Polish brand. It was a smaller team, a smaller brand, not very well known but I was just super happy to go there. I stayed there for two years, 2017 and 2018. I had two really good seasons, I won World Championships in 2017 and won the overall in 2018, Europeans, I won three World Cups in 2018 and I was really happy, the team was cool and everything was good.
At the end of 2018 I decided to change teams again but that was the first time it was really me deciding to change team, before it had always been the team just stopping and I didn’t have another option. I started speaking to Trek and they had this really exciting project with the new bike, the Supercaliber that was coming. Also, I kind of wanted to find something long term as I knew the team of Maja, it was her baby and it lives with her. She is a mega, mega superstar in Poland, one year she was the most googled person in Poland. Everyone knows her! She has two Olympic medals, she has two silver medals, one from Beijing in 2008 and in Rio. Over more than ten years she has constantly been in the media and she even does reality TV shows, it's insane. I love her and I love to hang out with her but I also knew that team was only living because of her, the moment she stops racing that team is probably going to be in a different spot. I still love to do stuff with her, we still talk a lot and ride together and all that but when Trek came up to me and told me about their new project, and I knew this was gonna be a long term thing, I saw the time to get a solid base that I knew was going to continue.
You’ve managed to remain pretty consistent at the top of the sport, do you think there is a particular reason for that?
Last year was my first year when I didn’t win a World Cup round. For five years I won at least one World Cup every year and last year was the first time I didn’t. For me, that was disappointing for sure, but on the other side when I look at everything that went on in the background and all the stuff I was dealing with, I am super happy with how I managed the season especially with how consistent I still managed to be. I was second at World Champs, I was second in the World Cup overall and no other rider was even on both podiums. I won Europeans, I still won two short track World Cups and I was on the podium at almost every World Cup, when I had a flat tire I wasn’t, but all the others I always was. I was happy with how consistent I was. Even what I told you about 2013, all my life I think I’ve always been consistent and sometimes ended up in a better position in the overall than my results, which almost happened last year as well, almost, not quite! Some races for sure were pretty disappointing but I also think there are a lot of positives to take for me from last season and I’m really happy with how I managed things. I’m excited to go into this season, even if that last winter was completely different to what I had expected and this season turns out to be completely different to what anyone expected as well! We are facing a completely new situation and a completely different scenario. I still feel super happy to ride my bike and I’m excited for when the races start again.
You’ve definitely got your own unique riding style, where did that technical prowess and bike handling skill develop from?
For sure from riding the trails around home. We don’t really have any built biking trails that we could train on, all the trails I ever ride at home are hiking trails and they are very, very tight, steep, technical, slippery, rocky, rooty, muddy, and a lot of the time wet, so just very technical! Most of the time whenever I ride at home I ride my mountain bike and on every training session I’m on a technical trail like this, I’ve been doing it from an early age which helps as well. You just learn much easier and it’s so much more fun as a kid, that’s what I always tried to do in my training, to keep it fun and to have fun on my bike. That’s my number one training goal.
I’m not that crazy into numbers, my training is definitely not as planned to the smallest detail as a lot of other people, but to me my number one training goal is to keep it fun. I think that’s when I’m learning the most, when I’m pushing the hardest, to me that’s how it should be. You see a lot of people come up and they win a lot of big races in one year and then the next year they are gone completely, that’s not just one person there are so many people who do that. For me, yeah you can push yourself over the limit and you can train like a maniac, but it’s only going to last one year. I feel like I am having a lot of fun on my bike now and I’m still here and I’ve been here for years.
Do you think over the last few years there has been more realisation from racers at how important bike handling and downhill technique is?
Yeah definitely. A couple of years ago it wasn’t even a thing to have a skills coach, but now a lot of teams have their own proper skills coach. In the Swiss team, we have a skills coach and we do skill sessions throughout the winter and we have training camps just for skills, the focus has definitely shifted and it definitely came into the consciousness of everyone around the World and with all the teams, how much time you can win in the downhill. The bikes have advanced massively in every aspect and the tracks have changed a lot. Bike handling is very important, I think it’s definitely still an ongoing development from teams and coaches to realise how important it is.
Would you say that is one of your biggest strengths?
I think it helps a lot to have skills, for everyone! I think a very important part is the mental thing. To be ready on any day for anything. I definitely love racing and I think that is what has always made it so much fun, that’s why I love to go to the races and hang out, I also love to meet the other riders and people and have a good time at the races. I think that helps a lot to be in a good position and to be in a good place in your head. That is what you need as well. Bike handling for sure helps but I think the most important muscle for mountain biking is what you have between your ears.
You were talking about the team moves earlier, do you think a lot of people don’t realise just how much energy a team swap or bad atmosphere takes out of a racer?
100%. I’m convinced it is one of the most important things to have a stable environment and a stable group of people around you. I think you need a lot of luck as well to find that perfect group of people. To me, the prime example is the male mountain bikers of Switzerland. There are so many who are incredibly strong. To qualify for World Champs on the National Team of Switzerland is one of the hardest things because there are so many good racers. So many of them are incredibly strong endurance wise, incredibly skilled on the downhills. They are all so strong and on such a good level but a lot of them were unlucky with their teams.
Like Fabian Giger, he was number one in the World, on a great team and was on such a run and then the team just collapsed. He was left without a team and he had to start from zero again and build up his group of people. Look at BMC now, they stopped their mountain bike team last year, there were a couple of Swiss guys on there as well and they just had to start all over again. There are countless examples of teams that have just stopped and riders having to change teams.
The only rider who never had to change teams was Nino. I am so convinced that is part of his success. He was very lucky in a way, for sure he put in a lot of work to ensure he had good people around him, but there is also luck involved. Giant was the biggest brand in the World, you would never expect them to stop their team, it could just have easily been Scott that said, "okay we are going to stop our team." To me, I am convinced.
Nino has been on the same team for fifteen years or something, the same team. He never had to waste any energy in changing his setup, he has the same training camps every year in the same spot, he is working with the same people. But for sure he has worked hard to keep that running. I am convinced that is a huge part of success, to have the same team and same group of people around you. I think for girls this is much, much harder. There are simply fewer spots for girls on teams. Most teams have maybe one girl, but five guys. For pure girls teams there is only Ghost, and most of their riders are U23 riders as it’s cheaper. Spots for girls on World Cup teams, there are simply not a lot. To have a professional group of people working for the same thing, and to have a team that keeps going is so hard to have that.
Even people who are on a team, sometimes they don’t feel good in that team. Sometimes there are not the right people, sometimes it doesn’t work. Especially for a girl to be on the same team for a while, I think that is hard to find. I really, really hope that I have found that with Trek now. That was one of the reasons for me why I took that opportunity and the team change. I really believe in their project and I believe that they want to keep going, it’s a brand that I share the same values with and that I can see myself working with for a long time. I really hope we can have a partnership that is beneficial for them as well and that they see this as something that we can keep going and build on. You need to have a solid team around you.
Injuries… You’ve had a couple over the years. You did your collarbone in 2018 was it?
That was in January 2018 I broke it, then one year later in February 2019 I had to remove the plate. It happened in January and then we had the first World Cup that year in March in South Africa, which was only six weeks later. I really wanted to do it as I knew if I wanted to have a chance in the overall that I need to do every race, you can not afford to skip a race. I really, really wanted to do it even though I didn’t really ride off-road before it. It wasn’t really planned that I’d go there but then one week before it we were at a team camp in Spain in Valencia. There was a race in Spain the week before and we happened to be there and I was like, "I want to do it, I want to try. Let me try this race and if we feel good then I want to go to South Africa as I’ve been training the whole winter." Physically I felt good, I just couldn’t ride off-road. I did the race and I won it, and then I was like okay let’s go to South Africa.
I flew the next day, but I hadn’t been off-road before, the race was the first time and it was just ninety minutes but I was in so much discomfort and so much pain in that week before the World Cup just from that race. I didn’t see that coming, it really really hurt on my collarbone. Then that race in South Africa was super painful as well. It just got worse and worse throughout the race. I finished in sixth place. The overall was super tight that year and I was fighting for every point. In the end, the whole season was topped off by that crazy race in La Bresse, the World Cup final. If I’d never done South Africa then we would never have been in that situation. I won the overall so it was really necessary that I went to South Africa. In the end it was good that I did it!
And your current injury, that was a pretty scary one…
That was here, in North Carolina, in Pisgah. It was in December and I was in the forest with Joe Bowman, Luca wasn’t there but JoBo he helped me and it was really good that he was there. That was a big crash. Before I was like, "anything that happens, it’s fine. Skin will grow, bones will heal, no problem. Whatever happens, we will be fine". After that crash I was like, "ah wow… There’s actually more stuff in your body that can get hurt! Not just skin and bones." It was the first time that I had anything internally with organs involved and that definitely changed my perception a little bit and I realised what could happen. Luckily I was treated really well. I had two broken ribs, my lung was partially collapsed, my spleen was ruptured and that took three months to heal completely. This week is my first week where I’m officially allowed back on the trails. They told me from the beginning that it’d take my spleen three months to heal, those three months went very very well and I could recover really well, I didn’t get sick anymore which is a risk as the spleen is responsible for the immune system so that was very lucky! Everything went really well and smoothly, step by step, so this week is the first time that I can ride trails again and I’m enjoying it a lot!
You were told your spleen was dead though, weren’t you?
It was a bit of a confusing situation for me as I was in the hospital in the emergency room, they gave me all those pain killers and said, "We are going to do this emergency surgery on you where you can luckily keep your spleen, but it’s not going to work anymore." They told me they were going to put this plug in the main artery that brings the blood to the spleen that comes directly from the heart. That was really to stop the spleen from bleeding, because I’d already lost a lot of blood and it was already in my body and I couldn’t afford to lose anymore, so they just wanted to stop the bleeding.
Instead of having a huge scar and taking the spleen out with a massive surgery they said we can do this smaller surgery that stops the bleeding, the negative effect is that your spleen is going to be dead. It’s not going to work anymore but at least we don’t have to remove it. They did that, they told me that it's still going to be in my body but it wouldn’t live anymore and it doesn’t work anymore. Three weeks later I flew back to Switzerland and I had a CT scan. It’s really cool, on the screen you have a 3D scan of your whole body. We could see my spleen as it looked like there was still blood flowing into the spleen. From somewhere blood had come into my spleen which was a great sign.
The doctor who I talked to in the hospital, he does spleen surgery every day and he said this is a miracle and he has not seen that before. Usually, when you do that procedure the spleen is dead. He said maybe since I am young, active and healthy that maybe the body found another way. There is this smaller artery that comes from your stomach into your spleen and he said maybe that had been able to deliver enough blood to keep it alive. So, it really looked like there was blood flowing in there which would mean that it would be working. Then two weeks ago I had another blood test in March, which was three months later. In the blood they can see if you have what they call Howell–Jolly body, if you have that it means your spleen is not working. They tested my blood and they couldn't find these bodies so that means my spleen is definitely working!
Was there any point through that injury where you thought you might not race again?
I think when I was in hospital I wasn’t really thinking too much and I was just trying to survive I guess! They didn’t give me anything to eat or drink for twenty-four hours and I felt terrible, they gave me all these heavy drugs, painkillers and whatever. I felt completely destroyed, I just wanted to get through it. I had a full month where I couldn’t train, or even move, I wasn’t allowed to walk up a hill or to do anything that would raise my blood pressure was completely forbidden. No movement at all, just to make sure that plug they put in wouldn’t burst. I had a lot of time to think and to deal with the whole situation, no one really knew if I would be healthy again or if I would be able to race again, or even ride my bike. No one could tell me and I also didn’t know. I was just hoping I would be able to. I was just praying that everything would turn out good again and that I could go back to doing the things I loved to do.
When did you expect to be back racing? Would you have been back for Nove Mesto? (if it was happening!)
My plan was to fly back at the end of April and the first race I wanted to do was in Germany at the end of April, that was the first race I was thinking about doing, but obviously it got cancelled and it’s not happening anymore. I think it’s quite good for me this situation that is happening now as I don’t have any time pressure on when I have to be back. Even that race, I would really have had to use every single day for training to get ready to race again and it would always have been a challenge to be there and be ready. I would definitely have wanted to get back to racing as soon as I possibly could, every single day counted. This new situation now gives me more time to heal and just take my time to recover and do a proper solid build-up.
I don’t want to talk about it too much as I’m sure a lot of people are sick of hearing about it, but how are you coping with the whole coronavirus situation? Are you still able to train the same? Are you having to be extra careful because of your recovery?
Luckily we can still ride our bikes here, that is a huge plus. They closed down a National State forest but there is another one that is still open so we can still ride our bikes which is the number one thing. A lot of stuff is shut down but I think in my daily life I’m not the one who went out partying every night so it doesn’t really affect me! I was talking with Luca about it, we go out to get groceries and other than that we ride our bikes or ride dirt bikes, the only other thing is the gym and now we are not going to the public gym anymore, but we have stuff here in the house that we can use to workout so we can still do that. At this moment now I can still do my training and I’m not that affected. I am in contact with a lot of friends from Europe, from Italy, Spain, France, and Switzerland… The situation there, I mean in Italy they can’t even go out of the house anymore so it’s really crazy. I hope the situation will get better soon for the whole World.
Last week we heard about the Olympics getting delayed, what was your reaction to that news?
My Dad said in January when the first news was in the media that there was a new virus blah blah blah… the first thing he said was ah, they’ll have to cancel the Olympics. I was always like what? Really? Are you sure about that? He said that since the very first day. I always had hope and kept training and it was kind of a shock that they cancelled it but at the same moment it was really at a point where it would be so irresponsible to have them. It was really urgently needed to give all the athletes from all over the World clarity, it was honestly the only possible decision to postpone them. It would be a joke to have them. It would be such a risk. I really feel like it’s the only option they had and it’s great that they finally announced it because so many athletes are in an extreme situation with families and friends around them really fighting for lives. It was getting ridiculous. It was also not representing the spirit of the Olympics to push this through, the spirit is unity and the spirit of sport. Once this whole situation is over, once we can have the Olympics it’s going to be amazing and it’s going to be a great celebration, but at the right time.
You were in Rio, how does that experience compare to the likes of the World Cups and World Champs?
The Olympics is a completely different thing to racing World Cups or World Champs or anything like that because for all those races you are travelling and working together with people you know, you know the organisation and you know how everything is going to go. The Olympics is just completely different. I was very excited for Tokyo and looking forward to going there, it’s funny because the last race I did was the test event in Tokyo. That was really my last race last October. I loved the track, I felt so good on that track, I won the test race. I was just really excited for this summer to go back there and race on that track again. I guess it’s just gonna be next year, I’m super excited for the Olympics, it’s a very unique experience. I can’t wait to share it with people that I’ve been working with together on the national team. We have some really good people on that team at the moment and it will be good to do it together with them. It’ll be a good experience. I guess for me at the moment and for everyone at the moment we need to be flexible and we need different goals. I hope we can still race this year and hopefully in August which is kind of the next month where there are uncancelled races. I don’t know but I’m hoping we get to race this year, I’m not sure when though. It would be nice if we get to!
Is that a big goal for you in the future? I guess a gold medal is all that’s missing for you at the moment…
Yeah, well, everyone can always say the Olympics is my goal, the gold medal is my goal. I feel like a lot of people just want to get attention by saying that because pretty much anyone can say that. You could be saying ah, my goal is the gold medal you know… and it’d be totally legit, anyone can say that and anyone can mean that, but it’s something else to do it, I think. I don’t want to be the one throwing stuff out there like ah this is my amazing life goal. Also in that time after my crash I kind of realised what is important to me and I love to ride my bike, and even now we don’t have the Olympics coming up, the thing I love to do the most is ride my bike and to be out in nature.
At the same time, I love to race and I love the big races, it is also true that for every athlete, no matter where you are from or what your sport is, the Olympics is the biggest platform. Definitely it is a goal for me and it gets me very excited. It is also a big motivation to work on all the little details and to step up your game. It is a very exciting thing to train for.
Would there be anything you’d like to see the UCI doing differently in regards to the running and organisation of the cross country events?
Oh yeah, I would love to have more World Cups. It would be so much better. We could easily have 15 World Cups or more… It’s cool to have double events together with downhill as it just brings more attention to both races. The people who come for downhill, they also get a glimpse of cross country, the whole thing is just bigger and it has a better atmosphere. It’s just different, I think for the spectators who come there and see the pits it’s very exciting when there is a double event. If you look at MotoGP, they have what twenty races, F1 has like twenty races, Alpine and Downhill skiing, they have like thirty races. If you look at soccer look at how many games they have throughout the year… I think for mountain biking at the moment for the person who is not into the sport it’s very hard to explain to them how all the races work, and the UCI ranking, then you have HC races, and class 1, and class 2 and then you have the Italian Cup, the Swiss Cup, the French Cup, then you have European Champs, the Commonwealth games, and this and that ba bla bla… I think it would make it so much simpler to just have the World Cup, you have fifteen races, double to what we have now, fifteen races throughout the year. For example it could just be every second weekend there is a World Cup somewhere in the World. Or maybe it’s a double weekend and then two weeks with nothing… then another double back to back weekend. I think it would be great for the whole sport to have more World Cups. I guess the number one reason why this has not happened yet is money. That is my guess. It costs money, I don’t really know from what end but I would love to see more World Cups in the future.
In my opinion the women’s cross country field is perhaps the most competitive and exciting to watch of any mountain bike discipline. What’s that like to be a part of?
It’s cool. It’s exciting. When you look at men’s cross country it’s pretty much the same winners for the last ten years before Van der Poel won a race it, and now it’s just Van der Poel and Nino pretty much, but before that for nearly ten years it was just Absalon, Schurter, or Kulhavy, now Van der Poel joined them, but it's still a very small group of people, and Fluckiger also won some races.
It is changing a little bit but it’s a completely different world to what we have in women’s cross country. There are so many people who could win on any day and there are so many young riders coming up and at the same time I feel like there are not a lot of consistent winners. Sometime people will come, win a race and they disappear for three years and then come back. Then other people will come for one year and then disappear completely. I feel like there are a lot of factors that have an influence in women’s cross country. Something that I mentioned before, that it’s pretty hard to make a living from it and to just find a spot on a team. A lot of teams have a maximum of one girl and they don’t even support more. For example, I think it’s great, we are three girls on Trek with full factory support to focus on the races. I would hope more brands get inspired by that and step their game up and do that. I always think as a girl just to make it to the start line is such a win already. To be there and to have your bike and be ready, for example for a guy to get to that start line it is much much easier. Then in the races you have the differences, but just as a girl to even make it there is already an achievement. I think there are a lot of different factors that play into why there are so many different winners in women’s cross country and I think that for spectators it must be really exciting to watch as you never know what to expect. Hopefully it gets more people involved in the sport and inspires more people to take up mountain biking themselves and follow the races.
You briefly mentioned it already but La Bresse 2018… Relive that if you can! You got two flats and still fought back to win not only the race but the overall as well. What’s it like looking back on that now?
It’s crazy. That race recap on Youtube has more than a million views. It was an insane race. Not only the race itself but there was so much at play. It was all about the overall, it all came down to that very, very last race. Going into the last lap there were four girls together and it could really turn anyway. The suspense was next level. I had two flat tires which was crazy, before that my last flat tire in a race was Nove Mesto in 2013, that was five years ago and it was one flat tire. I’d never had one since and then I had two in the same race! It was insane. It was the craziest race ever, the last lap was something else. There were four of us going into that last lap together and it could have gone anyway. To win that was pretty special. Even when I had a flat the first time I was convinced that was it, it’s over. Goodbye overall, that’s it. I just kept riding and suddenly I could see all the girls again and I could catch back up. Then I had another flat tire and I was like this is definitely it, no way, it’s not possible anymore. Then when I caught up to all the girls again, I just thought that was insane already. Pretty much when I caught them again it was just full on. Everyone was going for it and nobody was giving anything away for free. It was pretty special because it was my last race of that season and I was racing for Kross and to finish off that whole World Cup season with the team felt so nice. It was just an insane race.
Then there was World Champs in Lenzerheide that year, that must’ve been pretty special racing Worlds at home in front of such a big crowd?
It always is and I feel like every year more and more people are coming. Anyone in Switzerland who follows mountain biking is coming there, it’s insane. I guess it’s a bit like Fort William for downhill. It’s very special for me. I’ve never really done that well in Lenzerheide since they’ve had the World Cup there I have never won it. It’s basically the only stop on the World Cup that I haven’t won yet, all the others I’ve won at least once. I always think to myself is it the track? The track isn’t ideal for my strengths I would say. I love something like Mont Sainte Anne, I won that World Cup three times and to me it’s just an amazing track. It’s straight up the hill, really technical down the hill and you get up to high speed, it’s really full-on racing and I love that stuff. In Lenzerheide there isn’t really a downhill where you get up to speed, there is one downhill at the start where you go a bit faster but other than that it is like rolling hills. Part of me is like ah it’s not the perfect track for me, part of me is like ah it’s because of everything around it… it’s such a challenge to stick to your plan with the team with so many people there, a lot of people I know. My whole cycling club is there so when I see someone from my club that I ride together with all the time of course I’m not just gonna roll past, I’m gonna stop and say hi and talk to them. My grandmother is there, my friends from school are there and so many people I know really personally and maybe haven’t seen them in a while, if I see them of course I’m going to stop and talk to them. The whole day plan is just different.
Then there’s a lot of people who I don’t know but who are like oh here’s Jolanda! Let’s take a photo with her! When I’m rolling from the pits to the track it takes me I don’t even know, I stopped counting the time… Every two metres I stop for a photo and as soon as I take a photo then fifty more who want one. Even to move around and do my stuff it is almost impossible, either I have to be crazy rude which I hate to do because I love it that people come out and I love that mountain biking has a following and I love it when people come and watch. I was a little kid too, I went to the races and wanted to take photos with Julie Bresset you know? I was a fan and when Julie would take a photo with me when I was a little girl it was like the best day of my life! I dreamed of meeting Gunn-Rita and all that stuff. I know how these kids feel and when they ask for a photo I don’t want to say no! I want to make them happy! It’s just so hard for me to stick to any plans. Also the race is kind of at high altitude at 1500 metres so that is something that I kind of forget, I just ride as if it was a normal race but then when you go too hard you really pay for it. It’s a race that I haven’t figured out 100% yet. In 2014 it was the Swiss Cup and I won it, Gunn-Rita was racing as well and she was winning World Cups back then and that’s the only time I had a good race there. It is one of the races that I would still like to solve the riddle on how to win and how to tackle it. In 2018 I think I did a good race, especially taking that all into account, I finished in fourth place. Of course World Championships at home and finishing in fourth place is probably the worst it gets!
You did a downhill race in Tennessee last winter… How did you find that? Is it something you’d fancy doing more of?
It was really funny. I did it on my Slash, I do have a Session but it’s in Switzerland but I had the Slash in the States. I was up there in the start hut and the girl next to me said, "ah, you’re racing single crown", I was like, "what’s that"? Then later I found out she was talking about the fork. I had fun, it was really, really cool to do that. I obviously hadn’t done it before and it was so full-on for 4 minutes. You couldn’t escape! In a cross country race when you want to take it a bit easier you just go a bit slower, but on a downhill race if you are tired you can’t take it easier, it doesn’t help to go slower. It was just so intense. I remember the next day we went riding here in Pisgah, Luca and I at home, just a normal pedal spin on our normal cross country bikes and I was destroyed. I could not ride my normal bike what I do every day. I was like, "wow, this is a lot harder than I thought!" I think it was really good for me to do that and to experience how intense and how hard it is, it really takes it out of you. It’s so hard on your body. I really had fun doing it and it was great but the preparation that goes into it is a lot. You need so much stuff, maybe it’s because I’ve never done it and I didn’t really realise or I didn’t really know but it is much more demanding than I thought!
You race flat out for an hour and a half! How’re four minutes hard?!
It’s insane. The whole day before the race we did practice, and you spend the whole day on that shuttle bus and it goes up the road and then you race down again and then you have to wait again, it takes up seven hours, the whole day!
Yeah but you don’t have to ride up the hill… It’s magic!
Yeah, it’s true! But the days before my race I do an easy one hour spin and then lay on my bed for the rest of the day. That practice, there’s no moment when you’re really resting, even when you’re not riding. I was thinking I’d actually love to pedal, it would be so nice just to a pedal a little bit. All the time you’re full-on racing or sitting in that truck. It was demanding but a great experience, I had a lot of fun.
Is there much racing advice you and Luca can offer each other between the two disciplines?
It’s not like I could advise him on anything for downhill! We talk a lot about races and training, and I like to talk to him about that but it’s not like we are talking bikes the whole time. Pretty much the whole time when we are here at home that’s not even a topic. We are enjoying life, we are riding dirt bikes, we are doing fun stuff, playing basketball or whatever. Sure, after the race we talk about the race and we also talk about training and stuff and we help each other with whatever we can but it’s not like when we are at home it’s that much of a topic. Here is really a chilled out place far away from the races and I think that is a good thing. When we are at the races I’m very happy to talk to him or to have him there as he just knows what is going on and I think it is nice to support each other and talk about it. I went to a lot of races last year, I watched a lot of his races whenever I could and he watched my races, I think that is cool.
If you give your younger self a bit of advice that you’ve learnt over the years what would it be?
I’m really happy that I’m having fun with it and that I kept it fun, so I’d for sure say keep it fun. But if I could give myself some advice then it would be to make sure to find a team that you can stay with at a younger age, but I also think that is difficult and hard and you don’t really know what is going to happen with your team. Every time I signed for a team I was like ah I’m sure this is going to be it. In the end you don’t really know and I think that is something I’d wish for a young rider, to find a good group of people that you can trust and that you can have fun with and you like to work with. That would maybe be one advice. I am very happy with where I am team-wise, national team wise, with my personal situation. I am very very happy where I am right now. I’m having fun riding my bike and the fact that I’m still having fun is already an achievement. I am happy with where I am, how does it go again, “a thorn of experience is worth a whole wilderness of warnings”. Whatever got me here it had to happen and I’m very happy with where I am right now.
Looking into the future, what are you wanting to achieve in the upcoming seasons?
I have a couple of goals. One goal is to feel at home in the team. That team I have now, to work closely with them. Alvaro is meant to be my mechanic for this year so I’m very much looking forward to working with him and building a good relationship with him. I also have Silja as my physio at the races, also in the national team and in the Trek team. So to keep working on that good relationship that I have with her. At home I feel like I’m in a good place with good people. One of my goals was to make it a solid team of people that I work with and to feel at home with where I am. Another goal was to get my bike setup dialled. I think we have an amazing bike, I love to ride it and wanted to invest a little time to work on the details, know exactly how much tire pressure I want to ride, what tire I want to ride in different conditions, get the suspension setup dialled in and just to make sure my bike is ready and perfect for any condition. That was one of my other goals and something I want to do whenever we get the opportunity to work with people to do that.
Fitness wise or training wise I still feel like there are new discoveries that I make every week about what works for me, what doesn’t work, what’s good training to do. My Dad is my coach and I’ve been working with him all my life pretty much! He is also the person I ride with the most. I’m very happy with that and I want to keep developing that. We still have a lot of ideas that we want to test in training and we want to try. I still feel very excited to try and discover new things. That is also one of my goals, to polish that and to keep improving things with that. Also with Luca, now I’m in the US and I have a good setup here, I have my Slash here, I have my cross bike here, my mountain bike here, it took me some time to get that whole setup together. Back at home, I have my Session, my cross country bike, my road bike… So just to have the whole setup dialled in. Also that we have a simple travel plan, so we are not doing two weeks here, two weeks there, more like a couple of months in one spot!