Jolanda Neff led a clean sweep of the podium for Switzerland in the women’s mountain bike race at the Tokyo Olympics, soloing home ahead of Sina Frei and Linda Indergand. It was a remarkable victory for Neff, who made a long and arduous recovery a serious crash late in 2019.
The Swiss rider admitted afterwards that the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics due to the coronavirus pandemic had played out in her favour. After suffering a ruptured spleen and collapsed lung in a crash in North Carolina in December 2019, Neff would have struggled to reach her best level by last summer.
Neff’s Olympic preparations suffered a further setback just six weeks ago, when she broke her hand en route to fourth place at the Leogang World Cup. Like men’s gold medallist Tom Pidcock, Neff brushed off that setback to claim a resounding triumph in Tokyo.
“In 2020, of course, it was not just my crash it was also the year of corona. That changed a lot of things,” Neff said on Tuesday. “It was quite good for me that the Games got postponed. It just gave me more time to recover and get back to full strength. But I did miss racing a lot and it was a long, long time.”
Neff’s hand injury meant that she was restricted during her final preparations for the Tokyo Olympics, but she was reassured by her experience when testing the course this week. “Riding the track here was the first time I jumped again,” she said. “In the end, I always had a good feeling about this track here, especially from the test event and I just wanted to enjoy the race today.”
Neff led from the start of Tuesday’s race, though she faced early competition from long-time rival Pauline Ferrand-Prévot (France). The Frenchwoman was side-by-side with Neff when she crashed on an uphill rock garden on the opening lap, effectively ending her challenge.
“Jolanda Neff went left, I went right. We were going at the same speed and we arrived at the same time, I said to myself, ‘If she doesn't brake or if I don't brake, we'll hit each other,’ so I braked. There were rocks, it was slippery, and I slid off,” said Ferrand-Prévot, who came home in 9th. “The title was decided there. Afterwards, I don't know if I would have beaten her, but in any case the medal was decided there.”
Neff took a different view of the incident during her post-race press conference, and she criticised Ferrand-Prévot for her riding style on the descending ramp shortly before the crash.
“Just before that part where she crashed, 20 seconds before, there was the big jump. 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,” Neff said. “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.
“I don’t know if she knew I was right there behind, but after that, I just thought, ‘I have to get away from her.’ It’s scary because you never know what she’s going to do.
“It’s not the first time she does something like that, I’m just glad I wasn’t near her anymore, I was glad I was riding on my own and safe.”
After Ferrand-Prévot’s crash, Neff extended her advantage and with two laps remaining, it was already clear that the Olympic title would be hers so long as she stayed aboard her bike.
“I admit that on the last two laps I was trying not to think and just keep riding, because I knew how big my advantage was. I just tried to keep it safe on the downhills,” said Neff.
“I’m so happy it worked out for us. We all did an amazing race. If someone said beforehand we were going to do one-two-three, I don’t think anyone would have believed it. It’s pretty amazing for the whole team.”
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