Inside Jolanda's weekend at her home course, Vlad's scary crash and more
Lenzerheide was a high pressure arena at high altitude, testing the full depth of the Trek Factory Racing XC squad’s stamina and character at one of the biggest and most-watched World Cup events of the year. An atypically dry course was ripping fast, giving riders almost no time to gasp a breath of the thin Swiss air. But throughout an exhausting weekend, every member of the squad persevered in their own way.
Jolanda Neff was one of the most popular riders at the race, a defending Olympic champion competing in front of a massive home crowd. However, Lenzerheide has been a tough course for Neff in the past. In addition to the difficult conditions, Lenzerheide also means lots of press, sponsor obligations, and meet-and-greets with fans. Last year, she finished 25th in the Olympic-distance race.
On Sunday, Neff paced herself to sixth, her second best-ever XCO result in Lenzerheide, after a taking third in a blistering short track race on Friday.
“I’m really happy; I pushed as much as I could,” Neff said after the race. “In the last lap, I really tried to close down that gap to the top five, but then I came unclipped on the downhill and I almost ate it. [Laughs]. So then I told myself, ‘OK, just stay where you are and make sure you don’t get too crazy.'”
Fans lined nearly every part of a layered track that wound in on itself, creating a stadium-like atmosphere. Neff said that she could hear and feel the crowd as she raced. Many of the fans showed out just for her, sporting kits with her face and name on them.
“It’s so special to race here,” Neff said. “Like the whole track has fans, it’s not just the finish. People are everywhere, and they are so enthusiastic; it’s absolutely insane.
“Thanks so much to everyone who came out. It’s incredible.”
Vlad Dascalu and Anton Cooper were also proud of how they finished Sunday, though their results were quiet by their high standards. When we last saw them, they were being crowned the Best Men’s Team at a second straight World Cup in Leogang. But on Sunday, Dascalu finished 17th, ending a streak of five straight XCO podiums, and Cooper took 12th after two straight World Cup top 10s, including a podium in Nove Mesto.
But Dascalu’s performance in Lenzerheide was impressive when you consider the fall he took. Coming down a root-y descent, his back wheel seemed to get stuck high up on a banked turn and he went skidding down towards a tree. Dascalu bailed off his bike and managed to get up from the crash OK after taking the impact with his shoulder, but he found himself suddenly near the back of the pack on Lap 2 after riding in fifth place.
The crash also dislodged his chain and bent his chain guard, pinning the dropped chain to the frame. He needed the help of a fan just outside the course tape to get his chain back on and his bike operational again.
“It took me one lap to see if the bike was okay, if my body was feeling good. I recovered and focused on maybe trying to recover some positions,” Dascalu said.
Dascalu fell outside of the top 40, then spent his last four laps gradually picking his way through the crowd — he ended Lap 3 in 28th, Lap 4 in 23rd and Lap 5 in 18th. In sum, he raced his butt off even when he knew he wouldn’t be finishing anywhere near where he has become used to.
Dascalu said after the race: “I think these moments, when you have issues, that’s when you have to fight the most, just to prove to yourself that you can be in the race again.”
Cooper admitted after the race that he struggled with the early pace. After riding at the front of the pack through the start loop, he was in 17th place at the end of Lap 1, and 21st at the end of Lap 2. Cooper has struggled at altitude in the past. But like Dascalu, he didn’t accept an easy excuse to throttle back. At times, perhaps no more than five seconds separated 20th place from 10th in an incredibly tight mid-field battle. And over the back half of the race, Cooper found a rhythm that should give him a lot of carry-forward confidence.
“I hoped for more coming into Lenzerheide, but at the same time, it wasn’t too bad. I was quite happy with how I rode the last few laps,” Cooper said. “It surprised me in the first couple of laps that even though I was really suffering, that the race was still quite tight in the top 20. It’s one of those things where you can move up a lot of spots, but you can also lose a lot of spots really fast.”
Maddie Munro had one of the best start-to-finish races of any TFR rider of the day. She finished 10th for her first U23 women’s top 10 of the season, and her second best-ever World Cup finish since taking seventh in Snowshoe last year.
Munro has had a difficult season. She missed her World Cup season debut in Albstadt due to a concussion, then had a relatively disappointing 19th-place finish in Leogang. In Lenzerheide, she felt like she put herself back on track for her season goals.
“It was a super hard race, but I think for me, it was definitely one of my best races,” Munro said. “I felt like I was really pushing and digging deep, and picking people off as I was going through the race, and it was a really good course for me.
“I wanted to feel really good on my bike, to feel confident and smooth in my line choices and how I was racing. And I also wanted to get faster, to have a really strong first lap and then finish even stronger. I think I met those goals pretty well.”
Riley Amos hoped for the same run of form, but never felt he was at full strength during the men’s U23 race. It didn’t help that the race had been moved to the end of the day, meaning that the young riders had to ride later than they are used to on a chewed-up course. Still, Amos felt miffed that he couldn’t perform better. Just one of those days.
“It’s kind of a head scratcher,” Amos said. “Hopefully this was just a good opener for next week after spending some time up at real high altitude. Hopefully we can get the snap back again next week.
“Sometimes you have to wake the body up after a big month of training, and it remembers what to do next weekend a little better.”
Next weekend’s race at Vallnord in Andorra will be another big, physical test. It is at an even higher altitude than Lenzerheide, and the new track features lots of technicality, and one majorly long climb. All the riders are looking forward to the quick racing turnaround coming off a four-week layoff after Leogang. (Munro will miss the race to head back to the United States and prepare for Nationals the week after.)
Dascalu is particularly champing at the bit. Andorra will be practically a home race for him; he lives in the north of Spain.
“I think it’s a good track for me. It’s in front of my crowd. So yeah, I’m looking forward to that one,” Dascalu said. “I really like having one race after another, because you can quickly forget the last race and just be ready and focused for the next one.”
Lenzerheide may not have been TFR XC’s shiniest weekend from a results perspective, but the riders learned a lot about themselves, nothing more important than how to maintain optimism in a stressful environment. They’ve prepared themselves well for a gauntlet back half of the racing schedule. And if there’s anything this team knows, it’s how to close strong.