Sometimes you need the ‘perfect chaos’ to have the ‘perfect race’.
Mountain Bike (MTB) cross-country star Jolanda Neff had to overcome many setbacks before clinching Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020 in 2021: the Swiss rider suffered a life-threatening training crash at the end of 2019 and broke her left hand just weeks ahead of the Olympic race last year. Add to that a tropical storm affecting the Izu course hours before the start, and the preparation for potentially the biggest event in her career couldn’t have been more disrupted.
But the 2017 world champion didn’t get scared, and instead embraced the challenges: “There was so much chaos going on, in a way. And to me it was the perfect chaos because the more things are happening and the crazier it gets and the more, you know, I get going or the more it gets so exciting and challenging,” Neff revealed in an exclusive interview with Olympics.com at the start of the 2022 UCI World Cup season.
“I think if a lot of things are not happening, it gets too boring for me and I suffer from being bored. I think in the end it was the perfect chaos and this is what made it possible for me to have such a good race because I was just there going with the flow, just taking it as it came. And yeah, I was really enjoying myself and I think that made this race so special.”
On 27 July 2021, the four-time European gold medallist rode to a commanding victory as she led the Switzerland team to an historic podium sweep, with team-mates Sina Frei and Linda Indergand taking silver and bronze respectively.
“It rained during the night and in the morning, so that changed the conditions completely and it put the whole race on another level. You had to really have good skills,” she recalls.
“You had to be able to learn the track in a short time in the morning before the race. And yeah, with the Swiss team, we really did that perfectly well. We all felt good and we all were there with the right mindset. And I would say this is what made the big difference and what put all three of us on the podium because we were ready for that and we had practised that then. Yeah, we were really embracing the challenge and I think this is what made the difference.”
(L-R) Sina Frei, Jolanda Neff and Linda Indergand of Team Switzerland celebrates winning a silver, gold and Bronze medals on arrival during the Women’s Cross-country race on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Izu Mountain Bike Course on July 27, 2021 in Izu, Shizuoka, Japan.
Picture by 2021 Getty Images
MTB is a discipline that involves high technical and tactical skills, but Neff highlights how following your feelings is equally important.
She even had a sticker on her bike saying: ‘Fire and Ice.’
“You need fire and you need ice,” the three-time overall World Cup champion in cross-country said.
“You need the rational side and be cool as ice, but you also need the emotional side and have all the fire in you. Because when you really are fighting for something and you really need to suffer and go deep, you need to do it with emotion and with fire. Otherwise, nothing is coming out.”
“So your whole heart needs to go into that and you need all the fire. And at the same time, you also need the ice in some parts of the race. You know, where you need to be cool. You need to just be in the good position and analyse it, and know what you’re doing. So it’s really the mix of the two that makes a good race. You need both just at the right point, at the right time.”
The 29-year-old also opened up on her relationship with adrenaline and risk, and explains why she enjoys riding so much.
“I think most of the time I ride under control, you know, of course sometimes you need to find the limit. But yeah, most of the time I would say I’m really under control. And I’ve been racing my bike since I was six years old and riding my bike for even longer. And, you know, it’s something that I do all the time. So I feel, yeah, like I did it all step by step. You know, I didn’t go to this level from one day to the other, but this was years and years, ” the St. Gallen native said.
“I’m having a lot of fun with it and I really enjoy the technical part of our sport and the technical side, the skill side. I think this is what makes it unique. I would be bored if I was a road racer and we wouldn’t have the fun part that it’s something I really cherish and enjoy.”
Neff also likes practising on enduro bikes during her off-season but doesn’t feel like a daredevil:
“I would say it’s almost like brushing your teeth for you,” she chuckles.
“It’s something I do every single day. Every day I’m on my mountain bike. So you do it all the time. And when you master a section, when you do it, it’s such a good feeling, you know? It’s the flow, it’s the endorphins, it’s the happiness.
“I can recommend to go on a mountain bike and, you know, you can start step by step in the beginning. It will give you joy even to jump a small jump. And then with the time when you go to the bigger jump, this will give you even more joy. To me, it’s like a source of happiness. It makes my day and it makes me feel full of energy and alive and happy. So, yeah, to me it’s, it’s the best feeling.”
Neff also explains why ‘Stay wild moon child’ is the motto she chose for her Instagram page.
“It’s like, just ‘keep it fun’, you know, no matter how much you have won in the past or how much you haven’t won, just keep the flow, have fun. Yes, stay wild,” she said.
“Stay wild moon child because child is like somebody young. So there is this famous saying that goes, ‘we don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.’ So you should just always keep playing and you will stay young in your heart.”
The 12-time Swiss champion shares a lot of her personality on social media: what’s the most important message she wants to send out to her fans?
“I guess just go outside and do sports,” she said.
“To me, this is like one important message, just to move. It makes you happy. It makes you healthy. You can do it together with friends. I think this is my main message. And also, like, don’t be too serious about, you know, whatever training or whatever. You don’t always need to follow some numbers. To me, the most important thing is really to enjoy yourself, to have fun with it.
“You know, to come home with a big smile on your face. And yeah, if I can inspire people to do that, you know, to ride your bike and have fun with it. I think that would already be all I would ever wish for.”