(Jolanda Neff Taking GOLD)
(USAC Press Release)
TOKYO – A rainy sky greeted the Izu peninsula on the morning of the Women’s Cross-Country Mountain Bike race. The riders raced 1 start loop and then 5 laps of the course, a change that came the day of the event, accommodating for the weather. The weather broke three hours before racing, creating constantly changing conditions for riders as parts of the course dried out while others remained slick and wet.
Appearing for Team USA was Haley Batten (Park City, Utah; Trinity Racing), Kate Courtney (Kentfield, Calif.; SCOTT-SRAM Factory Racing), and Erin Huck (Estes Park, Colo.; SCOTT-Stages). The trio faced the 20.55-kilometer race with 35 other riders representing 28 other countries.
The changing conditions were felt by the entire field. Batten discussed the challenging course conditions. “Some of the climbs had some really steep corners that, after this rain, we’re really slick. I think it was hard to know if I should get off and run, or if I should try and ride it. Some of the little rocks just threw you off. They’re so steep, so when you’re trying to just give your all and dig in and then all of a sudden you just slide out and you’re just trying to stay on your bike,” said Batten. “That was definitely the trickiest trying to stay in the zone in your flow, but also trying to give as much as you can, but sometimes the course just throws a curveball.”
Courtney also spoke to the changes saying, “It’s tough to understand how much it changed. They were making changes to the course up until the moment we started. I really respect the riders, Jolanda [Neff] is one of the best technical riders in the field. She’s someone who probably benefited from the conditions and is really able to be adaptable and manage those.”
At the end of the 1.3-kilometer start loop, Loana Lecomte (FRA) and Laura Stigger (AUT) came through in the lead with a 13-second gap on the rest of the field. But the course would be challenging for most riders. Jolanda Neff (SUI) found her pace by the start of the second lap and would begin to dominate the race as it progressed. Batten and Courtney settled into the top half of the field, keeping pace on the unrelenting course, coming through consistently in the top-15. In the last two laps, Batten pushed her speed and moved from twelfth to ninth.
The race was not without its challenges for Batten, saying, “The start loop was super challenging. This course, there’s minimal passing, and you’re just stuck where you are for a bit. It’s so technical and there’s so much single track that it’s hard to get by people. I think what kind of happened to me was that I got stuck in a spot and settled in at that pace.” But finding a second later in the race she was able to push through and advance. “Once people just started to pop after the effort that they put in early on, I felt that my body still felt really strong. That’s where I just started making my moves,” she said. “I could still ride super technically smooth. I was slowly just gaining on people. Then I was like, ‘Alright two to go. It’s the Olympics and I’m just going to give everything I have.’ I just went all in those two laps. I think I was so in the zone, and I didn’t want to have any regrets, so I left it all out there.”
Neff maintained her lead through the remainder of the race, pushing her gap over the next group to one minute and eleven seconds by the finish. Fellow countrywomen Sina Frei and Linda Indergand were the next groups of finishers, claiming a podium sweep for Switzerland. Batten was the top American to finish, coming in ninth in a time of 1:20:13.
Batten was emotional explaining what this process has meant to her. “I really have no words to explain the Olympics. I think coming in, you know it’s your dream, but I think living out something that you only really dream of and it’s in your mind since I was a young kid and to be here and to live every day of that was just incredible. I have no words to explain it. It’s amazing,” she said.
Courtney was the next finisher in fifteenth with a time of 1:22:19. Courtney said, “It wasn’t my best race, but I think there’s no other event where you cross the line in a less than ideal position, and still feel really honored and humbled to be here representing your country and representing your family, and for me, it’s just been really an honor to be here in the first place.”
Huck would remain constant through the race, averaging a 17-minute lap, finishing in 31st. Talking about her first Olympic experience, Huck said, “This was my first Olympic experience. It lived up to the hype of an Olympic course, with a pretty amazing field of competitors. It was awesome to be here.”
The last of the road events, the time trial, takes the course at the Fuji International Speedway. Starting first for Team USA is two-time Olympian Amber Neben (Irvine, Calif.; Cogeas Mettler Look Pro Cycling), who will begin at 11:57 am JST / 10:57 pm EDT. Next up for the U.S. will be the 2019 Time Trial World Champion Chloé Dygert (Brownsburg, Ind.; CANYON/SRAM). She will start her race at 12:04 pm JST / 11:04 pm EDT. On the Men’s side, Lawson Craddock (Houston; EF Education – Nippo) begins in the first wave of riders, rolling out at 2:16 pm JST / 1:16 am EDT. The last American to start will be Sunday’s Road Race standout, Brandon McNulty (Phoenix; UAE Team Emirates). He starts at 3:55 pm JST / 2:55 am EDT. You can follow the live timing here for the women and here for the men.