Seven questions with Tokyo Olympic gold medalist Jolanda Neff

The sometimes-cyclocross racer talks about raucous crowds, planning, and the much-discussed Olympic crash of Pauline Ferrand Prevot.

Photo: Greg Kaplan

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Jolanda Neff was golden in the mountain bike race at the Tokyo Olympic Games. The 28-year-old, who has also been the Swiss national road champion on the road, dabbles in cyclocross in her off-season.

Neff said she finds balancing the different racing seasons a challenge, and while she prioritizes mountain bike as her primary discipline, she still “dreams of doing more ’cross.”

VeloNews caught up with the Trek Factory rider the day after she won the Trek CX Cup — which she won for the second consecutive time — and the day before she raced in the UCI Cyclocross World Cup Waterloo.

VeloNews: What does it take to race almost all year round — mountain bike and ’cross?

Jolanda Neff: If you can just show up at the race and you know everything is ready, everything is organized, you don’t have to worry about booking a hotel, booking flights, organizing [equipment], registering for a race, and all of that — like if you have a pro team that runs that for you, then I think you can do it all.

Any race you do helps, you know? Any race you do makes you stronger, and if you race the whole year round, you are tested at a very high level. I think it comes down to having a good organization of your team.

I have a really really good setup with Trek, and I do have the possibility to do some road racing, ‘cross, mountain biking. It hasn’t always been like that for me. So now I am on a much much better-supported level I have everything I could wish for.

VN: Do you think there are any similarities between ’cross and mountain bike races in the feel and the environment? What’s your approach?

JN: I mean, I’m nowhere near being a favorite. There’s Lucinda [Brand] and she’s the world champion and Marianne [Vos] who is a legend — like seven-time world champion. But in mountain biking, I really love to be like a favorite and do come in strong and to get the win. To me that’s like the biggest accomplishment you can do — if you can handle the pressure and you deliver when it counts — when the people come to watch. It’s an amazing feeling, and it’s the best thing you can do.

VN: You don’t see yourself in the same league as them?

JN: They are both such established ’cross riders. I’m at a point where I don’t care that much about the outcome of these races. I’m here to have fun. If I win, amazing, perfect! If I don’t, I’m here to have a good time.

Neff won the 2019 Trek CX Cup the last time it was staged. In 2021, she defended her title. (Photo: Greg Kaplan)

VN: Do you want to do more cyclocross races?

JN: I do enjoy ‘cross a lot and I think it’s so cool and it has always been my dream to do more ’cross — but it’s so hard to fit it in.

So I’ve tried it twice to start [the ‘cross season] in December and then that was just not a lot of fun because every single race you start off the back, because you have no points [Racer starting position is determined by points accumulated. –Ed]. And by the time the world championships comes around, you can move up a little bit, but then the season is over. Starting at the World Cup of cyclocross in the back row is already a big disadvantage.

VN: What’s been your best experience racing ’cross?

JN: I’ve done the world championships a couple of times in ’cross, and I think the best one I did was when Sanne Cant won for the last time, in Denmark. I was sixth or so. I wasn’t with the lead group. I was also starting far back, and I caught up with the lead group and then I had like a little slide-out and I lost them again.

I do enjoy ‘cross, but what I would love to do, once, I would love to do a full season where I can actually collect points and start off the first row. I think I would enjoy it much much more.

VN: What are the most notable differences between fans and feel at American races vs races in Europe?
JN: Well, we all got like an exemption, but only the athletes and the like, immediate staff members got one, so there was not a single European spectator at the mountain bike and cyclocross races in the United States. The whole crowd was 100 percent American, and I think it was so it was amazing! It was so wild, and such good vibes. The Americans — they are just here for a good time, they cheer for everyone! They are enjoying themselves no matter what. Even if you’re the last rider they’re like, ‘Good job! Doing great!’ They want to have a good time and they enjoy the bike race as a whole.

I think in ‘cross, maybe it’s different? That’s where you also have the beer tents, and they enjoy themselves and they come to watch no matter what like yeah they want to see a good spectate like a good fight, but they’re still having a good time, you know? But in mountain biking in Europe or, especially in Switzerland, that people are just, yeah… if you don’t win, they’re like…

VN: Have you spoken with Pauline Ferrand Prevot since the Olympics?

JN: We haven’t talked. I heard she said she had injuries, and that I caused her to crash. While I was two meters away at the point where she crashed [in the Olympic race]. But with our Swiss team, we had three riders and the technical coach, and we’ve tried those two lines in training, and exiting at the same time, and you could perfectly well exit out the same time when you were still two meters apart from each other.

And I know that she never rode the track with her teammate [Loana Lecomte]. They were both like doing their own thing — never riding together — so I guess she never tried to ride this double line with someone else. And then she was surprised when I passed her, and she crashed.

But then to blame it on me — making her crash. I felt that was a very low level.

An American in France

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