Jolanda Neff is the greatest mountain biker of her generation
In the lead-up, young French sensation Loana Lecomte won every UCI World Cup this year, and world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot’s form was improving ominously. All was going according to plan. But when it comes to the Olympics, all bets are off and anything can happen. In Tokyo 2020’s case though, it was hardly a random series of events with a surprise winner. In fact, it all played into the hands of the pure, dyed-in-the-wool mountain bikers.
South African Nick Floris designed a progressive and highly technical Izu course – after all, at the test event in 2019 Ferrand-Prevot was a DNF, reigning Olympic champion Jenny Rissveds crashed and American Kate Courtney went down in practice (and Neff won, incidentally). To add to that, tropical storm Nepartak hit, the night before the big day, resulting in heavy rainfall on the course. This lead to the organizers shortening the race by a lap and making some last-minute course adjustments, including a re-routed rock garden. Former world champion Courtney said, “It’s tough to underscore how much it changed. They were making changes to the course up until the moment we started.” Add a heavy dose of mud and slippery roots and the Swiss riders were licking their lips.
The highly rehearsed, practiced, controlled, conditioned, numbers-driven Type A contenders were unsettled. From lap 1 it was clear that the conditions suited the adaptable mountain bikers who like to race on instinct. The former cross country and marathon world champion demonstrated she’s truly the real deal as she applied her otherworldly finesse and picked her lines on the fly, including averting disaster on the same drop-off that was the undoing of Mathieu van der Poel.
It was a case of skills before watts – Neff rode the race without a cycle computer (no distance, heart rate readouts or power values) which is unthinkable in today’s age of data. This was not a specific decision for Tokyo. She claims she only began using a power meter this year, largely to optimize her build-up in a limited time. She’d been plagued with setbacks, breaking her hand in a fall at the Leogang World Cup just weeks before and of course that massive crash in December 2019 when she suffered a ruptured spleen and collapsed lung. As they say, ‘the winner is always right’ and at Tokyo 2020 the winner focused only on the task at hand – the track ahead. The fewer distractions the better. Pure and simple.
The Swiss are doing something right
It’s unfair to say that any top-tier rider on the UCI World Cup circuit is ‘not a pure mountain biker’. Take the French for instance. Lecomte has had a perfect World Cup season and Ferrand-Prevot is a multiple cross country and marathon world champion (not to mention the French DH scene that seems to be a bottomless source of star riders). But the Swiss showed something special in Tokyo. From what we know of it, their program is smart, rigorous, well-funded and most importantly, long-range. Two examples spring to mind.
They teach them young. Youngsters of seven or eight years old first learn skills to earn points, before they’re required to do any kind of racing. The more we think about it, the more it makes sense – pitting a group of kids of varying stages of development against each other is as ludicrous as it is lazy. The Swiss keep it fun and therefore are able to keep them in the program for longer, rather than boring, demoralizing or even injuring them.
They cross-train but not just in the gym. We’ve marveled for years at Nino Schurter’s grueling cross-training videos, as have his rivals (many of whom replicated them). But it seems the Swiss were thinking beyond that. All four Swiss medallists (four out of six!) participated in high-level road stage races this year, with Neff finishing 4th on GC at the Tour de Suisse and silver medallist Mathias Flückiger holding his own against the best roadies in the world at Tour de Romandie. It’s unusual to see mountain bikers competing on the road but there’s no other discipline that builds an athlete’s endurance engine like road racing. Clearly, it paid off. Now we wait to see the next crop of Swiss talent…
Pidcock joins the superstar clique
Tadej Pogacar, Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert, Julian Alaphilippe… there’s barely room in our heads for another mega hitter. At just 21, after a successful CX season in this last winter, he went on to impress on the road scene at Strade Bianche, Amstel Gold Race and De Brabantse Pijl and at the World Cups in Albstadt and Nove Mesto. Then, in early June, he was knocked off his bike and broke his collarbone. With seven weeks to go, he did what every champion does – crack on.
Arriving in Tokyo, there were still some unknowns, especially the state of his collar bone. Also, his start position was less than ideal. But within half a lap he was on the wheel of van der Poel, right before the Dutchman got an unpleasant surprise at the now infamous drop-off. As an aside: Pidcock confirmed that he was aware of the removal of the ramp prior to the race and so did van der Poel’s manager. So we’re asking the question, ‘Was the British rider and his entourage just that bit better prepared?’
He’s quoted as saying, “I’m born for mountain bike racing.” But the thing is, he would’ve had a real shot at gold in the road race too. Given the random, uncontrollable dynamics of that discipline, he made the pragmatic decision to go off-road for a better shot at glory. Paris may be different, which makes him a de facto favourite, unless Tadej, Mathieu, Wout or Julian has anything to do with it.
Nino’s reign (read dictatorship) may be over
Nino Schurter is considered by most as a GOAT, even by his current rivals. He’s been world cross country champion a record eight times, taken the UCI World Cup overall title seven times, he’s won the Absa Cape Epic and the Swiss Epic and has a full collection of Olympic medals. Sure, Jaroslav Kulhavy has won a greater range of titles (adding the marathon world title to his name) and Julien Absalon has one more Olympic gold medal than Schurter and he’s won one more World Cup (33). But no rider has dominated the scene so comprehensively for so long.
During the 2020 and 2021 seasons’ build-up to the Tokyo Games though we saw a different, fallible Schurter. The racing was far more ‘open’ than in previous years – a far cry from his insatiable 2017 unbeaten World Cup streak. We saw new challengers put him to the sword, with Sam Gaze breaking that run in 2018 in Stellenbosch, and the likes of Mathieu van der Poel, Matthias Flückiger, Jordan Sarrou, Victor Koretzky and Tom Pidcock beating him latterly. He seemed to be jousting and jostling with the mortals in the field, rather than imperiously ruling the pace.
We put that down to him focusing on specific priorities (Tokyo) but as the date drew closer, fans found themselves waiting, in vain, for the upswing. On the Izu course startline he did indeed look lean and focused and even in the early part of the race he seemed to be in contention, ready to pounce for gold. But when Pidcock slipped past him, it looked like he would have to settle for silver. Flückiger later drifted off the front and there was one medal left on the tray. Near the end, David Valero surged and the spell was broken. Schurter is mortal after all. Fourth at the Games could be termed as a lifetime achievement for most, but the Swiss was faced with his worst performance ever at the Olympics.
There’s no deep hidden reason as to why. No rider has more experience in preparing for a big day. No rider has the BMT. No rider has the skills. No other course is as demanding, suiting his skills. His decline from the stratosphere is inevitable. As the supertalents of the two-wheeled sport (van der Poel and Tom Pidcock) are on the rise, Schurter’s age is catching up. And although the era of his outright dominance has come to an end, he still fights as if he’s still got everything to prove, continuing to thrill fans. He’s always won with humility and lost magnanimously – the grace and class of a true GOAT.
Tech choices were pivotal
The decision of a top-level cross country racer to fit a dropper post involves weighing up advantage vs compromise – manoeuvrable vs light. Considering the progressive and technical nature of Floris’ Tokyo 2020 course, with the and over-the-back-wheel drop-offs, it should have been an obvious choice. The top five women all had them, Lecompte notably not. In the men, gold, silver and bronze had them. Fourth-placed Koretztky, also French, did not. On the hot topic of tyres – Evie Richards showed great promise for another GB medal early on, “… it was slippery at the start, and I had muds [tyres] on so I probably had better tyres at that point, but maybe that got harder as the race went on and the rocks got shiny. Maybe I chose the wrong tyres and it really made me struggle in the second half of the race.” Seventh is still a remarkable achievement considering the quality of the field. Pidcock was reported to be using prototypes from Continental. Just saying.
| WORDS: Staff writer | IMAGES: UCI & Facebook |