Jolanda Neff explains why team dynamics matter in an individual sport
Trek Factory Racing had a banner season in cross country mountain biking. Jolanda Neff and Evie Richards provided the most visible highlights, the former winning Olympic gold in Tokyo, the latter a World Championship in Val di Sole. But across the roster there were breakouts and career milestones.
Just a short list:
- Anton Cooper won his first World Cup medal since 2017 as part of his first-ever double-podium weekend, and went on to finish No. 8 in the men’s elite overall.
- Riley Amos rode his first U23 World Cup campaign while riding in a joint TFR and Bear Development Team program, and won silver and gold medals in back-to-back races on his way to finishing sixth overall.
- Maddie Munro opened the season with a silver in the U23 women’s event at the American Continental Championships, and ended the season with seventh place at the World Cup in Snowshoe.
- Hattie Harnden took fifth in Nove Mesto among the U23 women, and mixed in XC starts with a full elite Enduro World Series campaign in which she won two races and finished fourth overall.
The top-down success is the culmination of a concentrated years-long effort to make Trek’s in-house mountain biking teams the best in the world.
It’s worth emphasizing that Trek Factory Racing began as an experiment. Mountain biking is a largely individual sport, and one that can feel lonely. TFR was founded on the idea that a unifying sponsor could create a team culture that would push individuals to perform beyond their solo capabilities.
The concept wasn’t guaranteed to work. Above all, success meant buy-in from everyone involved, especially the athletes. For example, when Jolanda Neff signed with the team in 2018, she wasn’t just a top-shelf athlete coming off a world championship, she also believed that a strong team dynamic could make her even faster.
“It has always, always been important to have a good team around me,” Neff says. “By good team, I mean good people, but also other great athletes who really want to reach the top and who are pushing for it and pushing the boundaries.”
Before she came to Trek, Neff was teammates with Polish XC star Maja Wloszczowska, who taught her what it meant to be a good teammate. Wloszczowska was 10 years older than Neff, and took a proactive role in mentoring the young Swiss rider.
“She always shared everything with me and she gave me advice with everything I did, very honest advice,” Neff says. “We both had success. To me that was always the embodiment of a team. You can all have success, you can all be great and you support each other. It doesn’t do you any harm if you support your teammates.”
Neff was determined to pay the lesson forward.
“When I came to Trek, that was also always my goal, to have a team where everyone can be great and everyone feels great about themselves,” Neff says. “There should never be a one man or one woman show. I never liked that approach.”
As long as Neff has been with Trek, she has seen the kinship grow among the riders, but especially in the last two years. One of the biggest improvements was the addition of a team chef, which allowed the riders to share a house and living areas at races, and eat their meals together. That simple change has forged even tighter bonds.
“It feels like a family,” Neff says. “We’re in a house, we have food, everyone is together with the mechanics, with the physios, the teammates — like the whole team.”
Those relationships extend to the course. Maybe not in direct competition; for example, Neff and Richards are both driven to win, which means trying to beat one another on race day. But in the case of two elite teammates competing for the same medals, the success of one also reflects positively on the other, and sets a standard that everyone is excited to strive for.
“It’s just a good vibe with everyone. And then of course with Evie having so much success, everyone is stoked,” Neff says. “We’re having a great time together, we can go on adventures, it’s perfect.”
Having teammates also provides a tactical benefit. Multiple heads are better than one when it comes to determining the best way to attack every race.
“Like in Snowshoe, Maddie asked me, ‘How would you approach the race? What should I do?’ And I gave her a lot of ideas and tips,” Neff says. “I think she appreciated that. And that made me very happy. I love to help and I love to share knowledge.”
Likewise, Neff’s teammates aided her already top-flight performance.
“In Lenzerheide, I did a lap with Riley on the track, and I also did a lap with Anton, and they both could show me a couple lines and how to ride,” Neff says. “I think that’s so cool. Everyone can learn from each other and you get better together, and I think that makes it.”
Neff says that the supportive atmosphere that TFR has fostered is unique within competitive mountain biking, and that it works because it extends to the top of the company. As she explains this, she is sitting in the Trek Race Shop at Trek Headquarters in Waterloo ahead of the opening round of the cyclocross World Cup. She feels close not just with her teammates, coaches and mechanics, but with people who she works with tangentially like marketing, product design and Trek leadership.
“It’s like an extended family. It comes together. To me it’s so much fun to work with people who are passionate,” Neff says. “Never in another team have I known anyone who works at the company. It was always like the company is somewhere in the universe, and you don’t ever meet anyone. Here there’s such a connection and I really, really appreciate that.”
Neff was a great rider before she came to Trek, but she feels the team has only made her stronger. This season produced an unmatched highlight in an Olympic gold, and Neff was able to appreciate it even more as one of many accomplishments among her teammates.
In particular, Neff took immense satisfaction in watching Richards shock the field in Val di Sole and ride away with a World Championship. The result solidified TFR as a powerhouse program, and made Neff feel like she was part of something so much bigger than herself.
“It was just great for the whole team, for the atmosphere,” Neff says. “We were winning the races, and everyone was so happy and so stoked.”
Neff can’t wait to see what the future holds for the team. She believes all her teammates are ready to take their riding to another level, especially the young riders like Amos and Munro. Their camaraderie is only growing, and with it, so is their speed.
“I think especially going into next year, I think we have such a good team at the start,” Neff says. “Everyone is supporting each other and to me that elevates everyone’s belief in themselves and the success of the whole team.”