Jolanda Neff will cap off a short but successful cyclo-cross season at the final round of the World Cup in Hoogerheide on Sunday before heading to the World Championships on February 2 in Denmark. Many view the mountain bike specialist as an outside favourite to win the world title, however, in an interview with Cyclingnews, Neff said her primary goal is to make it to the finish line in one piece.
"Last year I wanted to do the World Championships, too, and I didn't even make it to the start line," said Neff, who was forced to end her cyclo-cross season early last year after a crash at the Hoogerheide round of the World Cup.
"My number one goal is to make it to the start line in Denmark, and my number two goal is to make it to the finish line in one piece. I'd be really happy."
Neff, a former mountain bike world champion, is the newest member of the Trek Factory Racing off-road programme, where they have created a designated cyclo-cross team that also includes Ellen Noble and Evie Richards. She said joining Trek's programme has aligned perfectly with the start of the cyclo-cross season. She will also race for the mountain bike team and on the road with the UCI Women's Team Trek-Segafredo.
"I'm happy to have the support of Trek, which makes things a lot easier during the cyclo-cross season," Neff said. "They have four bikes ready for me, a mechanic, physio, the camper van, and that is so good for me to count on the support from Trek. They made this cyclo-cross programme for only women. It was great for me to join the Trek family and immediately start with cyclo-cross."
Neff started her short cyclo-cross campaign with back-to-back World Cups in Namur, where she placed 5th, and Zolder, where she was 26th, in December. She also won DVV verzekeringen trofee - GP Sven Nys, and EKZ CrossTour in January, along with the Swiss National Championships. She currently holds all three Swiss national titles in mountain bike, road and cyclo-cross.
"It was very special to win the Swiss title and to have the mountain bike and road titles, too," she said. "This is the first time that I have had all three at the same time."
Neff said that her biggest issue with racing a short cyclo-cross season is that she does not have enough points to start the races further ahead on the starting rows. Start positions are determined by the number of points a rider has accumulated over the last 12 months. She said that, at times, she has relied merely on luck to get her to the front of the field quickly after the races begin.
"I am so far back," Neff said. "All the other women collect points all year long. In Namur, I started on the fifth row, and in Zolder, three days later I was starting on the sixth row because more people were racing.
"It's hard to fight your way to the front because there are so many corners and it is so fast. That has always been my biggest issue racing cyclo-cross; that I need to work my way up to get a better start position.
"Looking ahead to Hoogerheide and the World Championships, I hope I have collected some good points to bring me further up in the starting order.
"It's hard to make predictions or goals for these two races because so much depends on how the race plays out, too. At the two World Cups that I have done already; in Zolder I stared in the sixth row, there was a huge pile-up, I was in dead last, and then I finished 26th. In Namur, I was in the fifth row, and my start was good, and I got through it all, and I finished in fifth. So, it makes a huge difference in how everything plays out."
Neff knows all too well about the unpredictable nature of cyclo-cross, and bike racing in general, after crashing at the Hoogerheide World Cup where she broke her elbow and right collarbone last year. That crash ended her hopes of participating in the World Championships in Valkenburg.
Looking toward the World Championships in Denmark, and luck aside, she also said the course doesn't suit her skills because it was designed to be relatively flat and fast.
"I already have a disadvantage in the starting positions, and the course does not favour my strengths," Neff said. "My strength is when a course is technical with a lot of ups and downs, hills and mud, so I really don't see myself as a contender for Worlds.
"I guess that I am someone with an outside chance, though."
You can follow Jolanda Neff's adventures during the cyclo-cross, road and mountain bike season by reading her blog on Cyclingnews during 2019.