The cross country mountain biking was next up for fans of all things cycling, and whilst it took us away from the roads and onto very different terrain, there were still some familiar faces for road cycling purists to look out for among the elite group of 38 riders who lined up for the men’s race.
Mathieu van der Poel, arguably the top multi-disciplinarian in the world right now, had spoken all season about how the Olympics were his primary goal, yet coming from an exemplary ride at the Tour de France, where he wore the yellow jersey for six days, it was easy to forget for a moment that off-road, whether it be in cyclocross or on a mountain bike, was MVDP’s comfort zone.
Tom Pidcock is a few years behind van der Poel in terms of experience, but he isn’t lacking in talent, and took his first cross country win back in Nove Mesto in May. Pidcock won the 2020 Baby Giro and has wins in cyclocross World Cup events too, so seems destined to follow in the footsteps of the formidable Dutchman. He came into the race with a question mark over his form, having sustained collarbone injuries in a training accident in June, and he crashed out of the most recent XCO race in Les Gets, but the man from Yorkshire was focused on the ultimate goal: Olympic gold, in a race that he almost didn’t qualify for.
Alongside the multi-discipline riders were the mountain bike specialists, and in form going in to the race were Switzerland’s Matthis Flueckiger, and the Czech Republic’s Ondrej Cink, who took first and second place respectively in the treacherous conditions at Les Gets. Defending champion Swiss Nico Schurter and France’s Jordan Sarrou and Victor Koretsky were among the other strong contenders who would battle it out for a medal.
For the women, the French brought two strong favourites in Loana Lecomte, unbeaten in cross country all season, and world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, and the reigning Olympic champion, Swede Jenny Rissveds, returned to defend her title.
The men’s race set off in typically manic fashion, with the riders kicking up dust in their wake in the dry conditions as they headed out onto the start loop and into the first feature of the day, a steep rocky segment which caused a bottleneck for those not quick enough to make it to the front. Dutchman Milan Vader led a strung-out line of riders across the Izu Peninsula paddy fields and into the trees, where a tricky root within the tricky route caused a natural gap as France’s Jordan Sarrou lost momentum and held up the rest of the chasers.
The front group contained van der Poel, Flueckiger, Schurter, New Zealand’s Anton Cooper and Brazil’s Henrique Avancini, along with Pidcock, who had made up almost 20 places to sneak into the elite selection, and with enough breathing space to the next group on the course, they were able to carve out a lead as they headed round the first, shortened loop before hitting the full lap.
The womens’ race the following day looked very different; overnight rain caused deteriorating conditions on the course, and a shortening of the overall distance. The mud would cause trouble for the women throughout with a number of crashes and slipping occurring, and the bottleneck experienced by the men on the start loop obstacle had an even more dramatic effect in the early stages of the women’s with a handful of riders quickly pulling out a lead, led by Austrian Laura Stigger and including both French riders, defending champion Rissveds, two Swiss and Brit Evie Richards.
As they entered the first full lap though, the boggy conditions in the trees made life difficult for the ladies and they were forced to dismount to navigate some of the steeper sections, and two riders were able to take control at the front of the race: Ferrand-Prévot and Swiss Jolanda Neff. This dual leadership would not hold, however, as Ferrand-Prévot suffered a bizarre crash, losing her back wheel and ending up in the fence, allowing Neff to ride clear.
For the men, the race was barely ten minutes old when, coming over a big boulder drop, Mathieu van der Poel went over his bars and crashed heavily. It was clear almost immediately that his day was over; he appeared to be in some pain and although he later got back on his bike, he was picked up by the cameras a full minute behind the leading group and in some discomfort. A great shame for the man and for the race, which would have been richer if he had been able to participate.
Avancini led the race which was strung out across the course as they completed the first full lap, with no discernible gaps at the sharp end of the race. Going into the second lap, the two Swiss riders took over at the front for a while, and the gap separating the top ten stretched out to 17 seconds. New Zealand’s Anton Cooper and Pidcock leap-frogged Avancini to move into 3rd and 4th spots behind Flueckiger and Schurter. On the third lap the two Swiss pushed hard, stretching out a gap and looking strong. Pidcock, Cooper and France’s Victor Koretsky made up the top five who began to look as though they would be difficult to topple.
The following day, the race organisers took the decision to reinstall the ramp on the drop where van der Poel came unstuck, perhaps wise given the conditions, and as the race pushed on, Neff’s lead grew, as her superior bike-handling and lone status meant she was able to pace herself and avoid the pitfalls of sitting in the wheels of other riders in treacherous conditions. By the end of the first lap, she had already opened out a significant gap of 46 seconds over Ferrand-Prévot, who in turn had a few seconds on the Swiss pair of Frei and Indergand.
As the men’s race progressed, Pidcock was able to jump the Swiss riders to take the lead. With Cooper hanging on in fourth, and the gaps to the chasers growing ever wider, the medals were in the hands of the leaders so long as they could remain upright and avoid any mechanicals. Pidcock and Flueckiger gapped Schurter and Cooper and on lap 4, Pidcock put in a dig to stretch out a lead. By the end of lap 4, he had a measurable gap at the front, and although Flueckiger fought to stay in touch, the pain was visible on his face, a stark contrast to Pidcock who appeared composed and in control.
Both races now had a solo leader, and the remaining laps played out according to the script, without incident or accident for either Pidcock or Neff, who had the luxury of being able to ease off a little in places, pick their lines carefully and ensure they made it safely round the course. Behind Neff, Sina Frei and Linda Indergand were similarly comfortable in the silver and bronze medal positions, and this order was maintained all the way to the finish line, securing an entirely Swiss podium, Jolanda Neff with a standout ride to finish almost a minute and a half clear. 19 year old Kata Blanka Vas of Hungary rode herself into a creditable 4th place behind the three countrywomen, and for Great Britain, Evie Richards claimed an excellent 7th spot.
Pidcock did not have the same advantage in terms of time, yet the win was never in doubt, the young man from Leeds calm and self-assured as he took Great Britain’s first ever gold medal in mountain biking. All this despite the doubt over his qualification, which was not confirmed until May at Nove Mesto, and was never in his hands, as he relied upon Romanian Dascalu to achieve a high enough placement to gift Great Britain their qualification spot.
Flueckiger took silver and David Valero Serrano from Spain put on a late surge to snatch bronze from defending champion Schurter.
Following the race, Mathieu van der Poel posted a photograph of the jump when he crashed out, with a wooden ramp leading off of it. It transpired that he had not been aware the ramp had been removed; this explained his technique entering the jump, as he planned to land and roll down the ramp. A grave error of miscommunication for a Dutch team already suffering from the results of poor comms following the women’s road race.
The Swiss had an historic Games, taking four out of the six medals available.