Tokyo Olympic Games women's XCO mountain bike race preview

Frances Pauline Ferrand Prevot competes in the XCO race
(Image credit: CARL DE SOUZA/AFP via Getty Images)

On Tuesday, it's the women's turn to take on the Tokyo Olympic Games mountain bike race. The race is the most important of the season, since the Olympics come around once every four years, and the Games transcend the relatively niche sport of mountain biking. 

The women racers will have already seen the men's race the day prior, so they will have an idea of how the course is riding in the race environment. The course, located near Izu, is more technical than past Olympics and will make for exciting racing. 

So far this season, the women's field on the World Cup circuit has seen more singularity compared to the men. Loana Lecomte has swept all four of the XCO races, but the Frenchwoman has plenty of worthy competition like World Champion Pauline Ferrand-Prévot and defending Olympic Champion Jenny Rissveds. 

Unstoppable Lecomte

The World Cup season so far has been defined by Loana Lecomte. The 22-year-old from France has won all four of the XCO races on the calendar, plus one of the short track races. She's also won other lower-level events, including the French national championships. 

Lecomte's preferred way of winning is going off the front on the attack. Out of all four of her World Cup victories, her winning margin has never been less than 51 seconds. However, her rivals will be watching her like a hawk and certainly trying to follow any attacks. 

The racer's dominance does raise the question of if her fitness has peaked too early. Every racer has a bad day eventually, but all of the racer's fitness levels will be even higher compared to the last World Cup in Les Gets. Tokyo could be Lecomte's race to lose. 

Loana Lecomte wins in Les Gets

Loana Lecomte wins in Les Gets (Image credit: UCI)

World Champion seeks gold

Pauline Ferrand-Prévot is well acquainted with the rainbow stripes. The Frenchwoman has won world titles in road, cyclo-cross, and mountain biking. But one cycling accomplishment that she's missing is an Olympic medal. 

After an admittedly disappointing performance at the Rio Games - she finished 24th in the road race and didn't finish the XCO race - Ferrand-Prévot signed with the Absolute Absalon–BMC team to focus solely on mountain biking. 

The reigning World Champion has been riding in the top five at the World Cups, with her best result of second-place coming at the first round in Albstadt. In Nove Mesto, she crashed in the short track, which sent her to the hospital for checks, but she still came fourth in the XCO. At the last round in Les Gets she placed fourth as well. 

The multi-talented cyclist will be vying with her French countrywoman Lecomte for the top spot.

Rissveds is back 

In the past five years, the Swedish Rissveds has ridden the highs and lows that elite athletes so often face. After winning gold in Rio de Janeiro, Rissveds struggled with an eating disorder and depression. She made a comeback in 2019, winning a World Cup in Lenzerheid, Switzerland. 

This season, Rissveds has come into form at the last two World Cups, with two second-place finishes. That shows promising form ahead of the biggest race of the year. The Swede knows the demands of an Olympic race, and now she looks like one of the most likely athletes to be at the front of the pack. 

Kate Courtney in Albstadt

Kate Courtney in Albstadt (Image credit: Scott-SRAM)

Americans have a strong bid

It's no secret that American women have put in better performances than their male counterparts in XCO racing the past few years. That's evident in the country's team for Tokyo - three American women qualified for the mountain bike race compared to just one man. 

One of the biggest names in the sport has been Kate Courtney. The Californian won the 2018 World Championships and followed that up with winning the 2019 World Cup overall competition. Courtney hasn't seen as much dominance this year, though. She broke her arm in Nove Mesto but was still able to train on her road bike. 

We know that Courtney can perform well under high-pressure situations, such as when she overtook Annika Langvad on the final lap of the 2018 World Championships on her way to victory. That will serve her well on course in Tokyo. 

Haley Batten is a few years younger than Courtney, but she was a revelation of the first block of European World Cup racing this year. Batten debuted in Albstadt with a third-place finish that was complemented by a short track victory and second-place XCO finish in Nove Mesto. 

Both riders are products of the NICA youth cycling program in the United States that organizes cross-country mountain bike racing for high school students across the country. 

The other contenders

Evie Richards has been knocking on the door of XCO success this year. She was fifth in Nove Mesto and then third in Les Gets. Both of those races saw rain and mud, so the British rider could be one to watch if the Tokyo course gets slippery. 

Rebecca McConnell is constantly toward the front of races. She was fifth at the last World Cup in Les Gets, and the 29-year-old Australian has a bevy of elite racing experience. She was 25th at the London Games and pulled out of the race in Rio because of back pain. 

The Swiss are one of the strongest mountain biking nations, and Jolanda Neff can't be ruled off the podium. In late 2019, she suffered a career-threatening crash but recovered well and was looking fast this season. She did break her hand last month but is back to riding her mountain bike. In 2019, she won the test event in Tokyo, so she's familiar with how the track rides. 

Another interesting storyline is Catharine Pendral, who gave birth to her daughter in January, and was back to riding in the top-25 of World Cups three months later. She'll be at the Olympics representing Canada and plans to retire from elite-level racing after this year.

Racers have been practicing on the course since Friday, with many posting videos of the course's climbs and rock gardens on social media. After the 2019 test event, multiple riders said it's the hardest Olympic course they've ridden, which means it's also probably harder than the majority of World Cup courses. 

With steep climbs and gnarly descents, the course will suit a well-rounded rider who is comfortable hitting rocks and drops while they are still recovering from the climbs. 

An interesting dynamic created by the smaller field size at the Olympics. A World Cup will see upwards of 100 women taking the start. However, the Olympics is whittled down to only the most elite athletes. For Tokyo, there are just 38 racers in the field, which means that position on the start grid isn't as critical. 

The women's race begins at 3:00 pm local time in Tokyo on Tuesday, July 27. The Games will be broadcast by NBC in the United States, BBC in the UK, CBC in Canada, and Eurosport in Europe. 

Ryan Simonovich

Ryan Simonovich has been riding and racing for nearly a decade. He got his start as a cross-country mountain bike racer in California, where he cultivated his love for riding all types of bikes. Ryan eventually gravitated toward enduro and downhill racing but has also been found in the occasional road and cyclo-cross events. Today, he regularly rides the trails of Durango, Colorado, and is aiming to make a career out of chronicling the sport of cycling. 

Rides: Santa Cruz Hightower, Specialized Tarmac SL4