On Monday and Tuesday, mountain biking medals will be awarded for the seventh time at the Olympic Games. Both the women’s and men’s fields will have 38 riders from 29 nations competing.
The 4.1-kilometre circuit (plus a 1.3-kilometre start loop) is located near the city of Izu, approximately 150 kilometres from Tokyo, along with the velodrome and the BMX Racing track.
The course was designed and built by South African expert Nick Flores, who also built the 2012 and 2016 Olympic courses and the Pietermaritzburg (South Africa) World Championship and World Cup course.
His courses feature technical drop offs and rock gardens, tight twisty turns and steep climbs. Izu has five climbs per lap, with over 150 metres of elevation gain.
Canada’s Catharine Pendrel, a two-time world champion who is attending her fourth Games and won a bronze medal in Rio, said after the test event: “I think it’s a really good course; I think it’s pretty unique. I wouldn’t say it’s like any World Cup [course] on the circuit, but Les Gets had some very similar rock features. It was a course I had a lot of fun preparing on, and we’ve put a lot of effort into being ready and knowing the course.”
On Friday, she had her first ride on the course since the test event in 2019, and commented: “It was really good. I was expecting to be more nervous because it is a challenging course, but I felt really comfortable right away and able to dial it in already.
“The features are pretty much all the same [from the test event]; they might have made some parts a bit safer. But biggest difference is that the climbs have aged – what used to be cobbled climbs are now rocks coming out of the soil. The climbs are pretty loose and hard for traction, but otherwise very similar [to before].”
There is one overwhelming favourite for the women’s race: Loana Lecomte of France. The first-year elite rider – winner of the U23 world title last year – is undefeated on the World Cup circuit this year, winning all four events by significant margins.
Incredibly, she has led every lap of every race this year. She has ridden her competitors off her wheel on the climbs and can descend through the technical stuff with the best of them.
Having said that, anything can happen on a given day, and there are other riders ready to step up if Lecomte falters. Among those is the defending Olympic Champion, Jenny Rissveds of Sweden, who finished second in the last two World Cups.
Other medal favourites include reigning world champion and Lecomte’s compatriot Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, who has been top-5 in every World Cup this year, and Australian champion Rebecca McConnell, with two top-5 finishes this season.
Up-and-coming American star Haley Batten had a strong start to the season, with top-3 performance in the first two World Cups, but faltered in the last two. Her teammate Kate Courtney is an unknown quantity – she missed Round 3 of the World Cup recovering from a broken arm suffered in a crash in Round 2 and struggled in Round 4, but if she is fully recovered will be in the medal hunt.
Switzerland’s Jolanda Neff would also be a usual medal favourite, but she is still recovering from a broken hand. Evie Richards of Great Britain could surprise after a third place result in the final round of the World Cup before the Games.
This may be the most exciting men’s mountain bike race in history. There are three riders that can be argued as co-favourites: Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands), Tom Pidcock (Great Britain) and Mathias Flückiger (Switzerland).
Van der Poel only did the first two World Cups, winning both Short Tracks and finishing second in one XCO before heading off to the Tour de France.
Pidcock won the second round and grabbed an Olympic spot for Great Britain with his surge in the final qualifying events.
Flückiger has finally come out from behind the enormous Swiss shadow of defending Olympic champion Nino Schurter to become the dominant rider of the season, heading into the Games with wins in the last two World Cups and the leader’s jersey.
Another to watch for a podium appearance is Ondrej Cink (Czech Republic), possibly the best climber on the circuit right now but hampered by his lesser technical skills. Reigning world champion Jordan Sarrou (France) has two top-5s in the World Cup, and South African Alan Hatherly has been extremely consistent this season, finishing fourth in the last World Cup.
Two names are unknowns: defending champion Schurter – who has not shown his usual dominance at the World Cups this season after a second place in the first round – and Brazil’s Henrique Avancini, who opted to skip the last two rounds of the World Cup to train at home.
Neither of these riders can be counted out of medal potential.