After a five-year build up, it's hard to believe that the cross-country mountain bike races at the Tokyo Olympics are over. The technical course, changing conditions, and strong field made for a race that had everyone holding their breath right up until the final stretch. Now, the gorgeous Olympic-edition bikes
will become mere mementos of a tremendous day and the athletes will set their sights on Paris 2024 in just three years. Here are some of the things we noticed from the sidelines. 1. Switzerland is dominating cross-country mountain biking.
In the years leading up to the Olympics, the Swiss mountain bike team proved to be in a class of its own. Switzerland was the only country to qualify the maximum of three athletes in both the women's and men's categories and have six athletes competing on the Izu MTB Course. Success leading up to the Olympics and success at the Olympics are two entirely different things however, and what's most impressive is that four of the six Swiss competitors are returning home with Olympic medals.
A day after Mathias Fleuckiger took silver in the men's race, Jolanda Neff, Sina Frei and Linda Indergand secured the first-ever Olympic podium sweep by one country in the discipline's history.
Swiss men have twice swept the Olympic podium in 1936 in gymnastics and in 1925 in pommel horse, but Neff, Frei, and Indergand are the first Swiss women ever to sweep an Olympic podium and this is only the seventh sweep of the women's podium in Olympic history. Switzerland now has a total of ten Olympic mountain biking medals, four more than second-placed France, which has six medals.
Looking back, the only time there wasn't a Swiss rider on the mountain bike podium in the event's Olympic history was in Athens in 2004, with Thomas Frischknecht, Christoph Sauser, Barbara Blatter, and Nino Schurter medalling in 1996, 2000, 2008, 2012, and 2016.2. Being an Olympic favourite isn't easy.
After winning a surprise Olympic medal ahead of fellow countrywoman and favourite Alison Sydor in 2004 in Athens, Marie Helene Premont came into the 2008 Games in Beijing as the strong favourite herself. She was leading the World Cup series standings by 447 points over fellow Canadian Catharine Pendrel, had won two events that year and reached the podium in all seven World Cup races. However, she told CBC in an interview
, she stayed up late at night worrying about a mechanical or something she couldn't control happening. She ended up DNFing in Beijing.
In 2012, it was Catharine Pendrel who went to the Olympics as the favourite, as the 2011 World Champion and leading the World Cup standings. She finished 9th. Four years later, she wasn't expected to podium, but without the pressure she pulled off a bronze despite crashing very early in the race and having to play catch up.
As for Jolanda Neff, she may have won the Test Event back in 2019
, but she didn't come into the Tokyo Olympics as a big favourite after her life-threatening crash in January of 2020
and breaking her hand mid-June
and that may have been a good thing. Coming into the last Olympics in Rio, having won both the 2014 and 2015 overall titles, with six individual World Cup race wins to her name in the previous two seasons and one win to her name in 2016, she was a favourite. 23 years old at the time, she finished a disappointing 6th in Rio.
This season, it was 21-year-old Loana Lecomte that came into the race as the favourite after winning all four of the World Cup events coming into the Olympics. Fellow countrywoman Pauline Ferrand Prevot was another favourite, saying that she didn't care about any of the previous races this season, she was just focused on peaking for the Olympics. Some wondered whether Lecomte peaked too early in the season in order to make the French Olympic team, while Ferrand Prevot had the luxury to peak at exactly the right moment having won the World Championships in 2019 and 2020 to secure her spot on the French Olympic team. While both riders took their chances at the front of the pack, they raced with the frantic energy of favourites gunning for medals, with mistakes in the technical sections and slip-ups on the climbs that we haven't seen so far this season from the usually calm riders.
Mathieu van der Poel also came into the race as a heavy favourite, after winning a stage of the Tour de France and then publicly stating he was leaving the event to win gold in Tokyo. Whether he had the legs or not in Monday's race, we won't ever be able to tell, but he was unable to follow up on his promises. He has stated that he'll continue racing mountain bikes
until the next Olympics however, so we'll see if he can redeem himself in just three years in Paris 2024.3. Last-minute course changes are never a good idea.
"She was in front of me and we were going at a good decent speed and then she pulled her brakes super hard and I couldn’t do anything," said Neff. "I couldn’t brake and I ended up jumping with no speed at all. I was super lucky that I didn’t crash. It was such a stupid move of hers because it’s really dangerous for the people behind." Neff then rode away from the World Champion to take gold.4. All bets are off at the Olympics.
The last time Spain's David Valero Serrano got a medal at a World Cup race was back in May of 2017 in Nové Mesto, but after a late surge in the men's race, he passed three-time Olympic medallist Nino Schurter and went on to win the bronze medal. At the last Olympics, his compatriot Carlos Coloma Nicolás pulled off a similar feat to take the bronze medal for Spain despite not visiting the World Cup podium leading up to the Games. In fact, Spain has four Olympic medals in mountain biking, making them the third-most winning nation in the Olympics behind Switzerland and France.
Linda Indergand is another rider that likely no one would have pegged for a medal today. She finished an impressive second in the first Short Track of the
year in Albstadt and sixth in Nové Mesto in May, which secured her spot on the Swiss team, but she also hasn't won a World Cup medal in the longer distance recently. Get this: Like Valero, she also won her last World Cup XCO medal in Nové Mesto in 2017. It makes sense that the two athletes that enjoy the technical nature of the Nové Mesto course would excel on the technical Izu MTB Course.
Another huge factor at play at the Olympics is that the field is so small, there are only 38 riders in each race. The initial rock garden still managed to cause chaos and had riders losing time right off the start, but the smaller field means that it's easier to make your way through the field if you start near the back. It also means that riders who usually finish top-20 are suddenly breaking into the top ranks as riders from stronger nations have to cut to-ranked riders from their Olympic teams.
We also have to mention that the athletes that qualify for the Olympics early are extremely lucky. For many athletes, just qualifying for the Olympics is a very stressful, difficult process in and of itself and most riders don't know for certain whether they'll make their national team until mere weeks before the main event. Many athletes from stronger nations have to focus on peaking for an early season World Cup in order to qualify. The race for the Swiss, US and French women's teams was fierce. Linda Indergand was able to build on her early season form and finish in the medals, but Haley Batten clearly peaked for an incredible first half of the season
, finishing in the medals in both Albstadt and Nové Mesto, to make it on to the US Olympic team. Although a 9th place in her first Olympics is something to be extremely proud of, it's interesting to think what would happen if the selection process was done differently and all athletes attending could peak for the main event. 5. Injuries weeks before the Games didn't slow down Jolanda Neff or Tom Pidcock.
Jolanda Neff finished fourth in Leogang, but said after the race that she broke her hand
in an off-camera crash in the final laps. The injury was a mere six weeks before she won Olympic gold and she didn't ride her mountain bike until she got to Tokyo.
The week before, Tom Pidcock broke his collarbone
in a training crash. He was back on the mountain bike quickly, starting the Les Gets World Cup a month after surgery, but had a crash in the Short Track on Friday and a DNF in the main cross-country event.
It's possible that the injuries allowed these two to press the reset button just weeks ahead of the Olympics, escape the media spotlight and pressure, and just focus on their races. Of course, it's worth mentioning that Kate Courtney broke her ulna
around the same time as Neff and Pidcock, and finished in 15th, so it isn't all about the injuries.6. Great for the sport of mountain biking to be so early in the Games.
We're only a couple of days into the Tokyo Olympics and already the mountain bike events are over and done with. That being said, it's likely good for the sport to be held so early since the first medals of the Games usually receive the most publicity in the mainstream media. With Tom Pidcock winning Great Britain's second medal, mountain biking has been splashed on the front page of every mainstream British media outlet there is.
Jolanda Neff won Switzerland's first gold medal of the Tokyo Olympics and the Swiss women's historic sweep will undoubtedly push mountain biking into the mainstream media once again and shine a spotlight on the sport. The publicity that the Olympics draw to smaller sports like cycling plays a huge part in its popularity in the country as well as the funding that is allocated to the national team. We have reason to believe that Switzerland will continue their winning ways in future Olympics. Other fun facts:
• Although four of the six medallists in mountain biking from Rio 2016, Nino Schurter, Jenny Rissveds, Maja Wloszczowska, and Catharine Pendrel, qualified and competed again, not one of them made it back to the podium this time around.
• This was Catharine Pendrel's fourth and final Olympic Games and she competed just five months after giving birth to her daughter Dara
• It's also worth mentioning that the top two men, Tom Pidcock and Mathias Flueckiger, didn't even take part in the Test Event, so no one really had any idea whether the course would suit them or not. As for the women, Jolanda Neff won the Test Event and Sina Frei came second. Linda Indergand finished sixth, but behind fellow Swiss rider Alessandra Keller.
• Kata Blanka Vas from Hungary finished fourth in her first Olympic appearance. She's just 19 years old.