Olympic champion uses North Carolina Grand Prix to get rush of cyclocross near training grounds.
Reigning cross-country mountain bike Olympic Champion Jolanda Neff (Trek Factory Racing) is making the most of her time back in the US to get reacquainted with her bikes, both cyclocross and MTB. She made the trip Saturday from training in western North Carolina to nearby Hendersonville, where she won a UCI C2 ‘cross race.
After battling across six laps against Caroline Mani to win the North Carolina Grand Prix, she made short work of her post-ride medal ceremony and media interviews to travel less than 75km to the upstate of South Carolina to compete Sunday in Cranksgiving Enduro.
The weekend of competitions were just a way for Neff to return from “hibernation” and enjoy time on the bike again, after a layoff from early September where she finished her World Cup season in Val di Sole, Italy with a bronze medal in the cross-country race and a fourth place in the short track.
“I haven’t really pedalled my bike much lately,” she said after her cyclocross victory in North Carolina. “I love cyclocross. I always have so much fun doing it, I wish I could do it more. It’s always a bit the question of travelling and then scheduling, and it all clashes.
“So I’m happy this race is here because it is close to where I stay right now. Having ‘cross in the neighbourhood is so much fun.”
The ‘neighbourhood’ is Pisgah National Forest in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina. Blanketed with fallen leaves in autumn from the hardwood trees, the bike trails are vast, challenging and are surrounded by an abundance of local races, including the North Carolina Cyclo-Cross Series.
However, this area of the US may not have all fond memories of riding for the Swiss star. Back in 2019, Neff was forced off the bike for many months from injuries sustained in a high-speed crash on a training ride. She required surgery for a ruptured spleen and a partially collapsed lung was also among the more serious injuries.
The timing prior to the Tokyo Olympic Games was dreadful, but the COVID-19 global pandemic hit and the Games were delayed until 2021. Neff was able to make a full recovery and win gold to make it a fairytale ending.
This season she has had a string of success in World Cups which began in Snowshoe, West Virginia in early August with a pair of fifth places in the cross-country events. She then scored double wins at the UCI World Cup in Mont-Sainte-Anne in Canada before and a pair of medals at the World Championships.
“I was super happy to get pedalling in. The spectators are really supportive, so I really enjoyed it,” she said about racing ‘cross in Hendersonville Saturday.
The North Carolina race, in its 18 edition as a UCI sanctioned cyclocross weekend, matched the Tokyo Olympic Games MTB gold medalist against the hottest rider on the US cyclocross circuit this season, Mani (Alpha Bicycle Co-Groove Silverthorne). The French rider, who resides in Colorado, wrapped up the US Cyclocross Series title for elite women two weeks ago with eight podiums in the eight total races, four of those wins.
“I just wanted to have a good race for myself, I just wanted to go hard and wake my body up from, basically, hibernation,” Neff said.
“The first couple of laps we did with a few riders. There was a tricky section, where you go around a turn and there is an uphill. I made a small mistake. Mani was in front of me and I lost her wheel. After that, I thought ‘OK, I should stop sleeping and wake up’ and just go to the front and do it. That is when I decided OK, I need to go faster.”
And faster she went for a cyclocross win a little more than a minute ahead of Mani.