Tough Day For U.S. Women In Olympic Mountain Biking, Christopher Blevins 14th in Men’s Competition
by Peggy Shinn
Haley Batten competes during the women's cross-country race at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 27, 2021 in Izu, Japan..
TOKYO — Walking the 2020 Olympic mountain bike course last week under blue skies, Kate Courtney tweeted, “This mountain bike course is just as beautiful as I remember it.”
But after the remnants of a typhoon blew through on Monday night, with rain finally stopping around 11 a.m. Japan time, the course — in Izu, about two hours south of Tokyo — was a different animal altogether.
Heavy rain left the many rock gardens and technical sections, plus 500 feet of climbing in each of the five laps, very slick. And the women were only given one hour to practice on the wet course before the race started.
In her first year as an elite mountain biker, Haley Batten scored the best finish for the American trio of riders, finishing ninth — almost four-and-a-half minutes behind Olympic gold medalist Jolanda Neff who led a Swiss podium sweep.
“That was definitely the trickiest, trying to stay in the zone in your flow, but also trying to give as much as you can, but sometimes the course just throws a curveball,” said Batten. “That was the hardest part.”
But Batten, who commented earlier this week that she loved the Olympic mountain bike course, was happy with her race.
“Honestly I love the course, and I love the chaos,” she said, “so I had a lot of fun out there.”
Batten — a 22-year-old who scored her first world cup podiums this spring — is coached by three-time Olympic time trial gold medalist Kristin Armstrong. To find a reason behind previous inconsistent results, Batten underwent allergy testing recently to help address a breathing problem. She also moved from the cold, wet climate of British Columbia to Santa Cruz, California, where a moderate climate provided more consistent training.
Former world and overall world cup champion Kate Courtney crossed the line in 15th place, over six-and-a-half minutes off the lead. Erin Huck was lapped by Neff and pulled from the course.
From the start, Batten, Courtney, and Huck seemed to struggle with the muddy, slippery course.
As the group of 38 riders hit the first rocky, technical section in the start loop, the Americans were caught in a traffic jam as riders ahead of them either fell off their bikes or got off to walk the section. Courtney was in 15th place, Batten in 16th by the end of the start loop, 24 seconds off the lead.
From there, it was a game of catch-up on a humid day with temperatures in the 80s. In places on the 3.85-kilometer main loop, the course resembled a cyclocross race, with racers dismounting and running up the steep, slippery hills.
“It was hard to know if I should get off and run, or if I should try and ride [the steep corners], and some of the little rocks just threw you off,” said Batten. “They're so steep, so when you're trying to just give your all and dig in and then all of a sudden you just slide out, and you're just trying to stay on your bike.”
Neff, who thrives in muddy conditions, went off the front early and maintained her lead, while her Swiss teammates, Sina Frei and Linda Indergand worked together to stay in medal contention. Frei ended up with silver, Indergand bronze.
"Someone said to me that whoever wins this race is going to be a worthy champion because you're going to have to know how to ride your mountain bike — you need skills, you need everything,” said Neff after her winning race.
Although the 2020 Olympic mountain bike race did not go the Americans’ way, Batten knows she has a bright future in mountain biking.
“Early this season I surprised myself with my ability to race for the podium,” she said. “That definitely motivated me and gave me a glimpse of what I'm capable of.”
Christopher Blevins competes during the men's cross-country race at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 26, 2021 in Izu, Japan..
In the men’s mountain bike race on Monday, Christopher Blevins also battled through a tough start loop. But the chaos in that loop kept him from gassing himself. From there, he rode consistently, moving up through the field on seven loops of the 4.1-kilometer course.
Blevins crossed the finish line in 14th — the second best finish for an American male mountain biker at the Olympic Games behind Todd Wells’s tenth place at the 2012 London Games.
His time of 1:28:19 was just under three minutes behind 2020 Olympic gold medalist Thomas Pidcock from Great Britain. Mathias Fleuckiger from Switzerland took the silver medal and David Valero Serrano from Spain the bronze.
At 23, Blevins is a young rider who is just starting to show his potential internationally. Raised in the mountain biking Mecca of Durango, Colorado, Blevins grew up watching Wells, another Durango-ite, along with all the other famous mountain bikers who live and train in the town. Blevins was riding a bike by age 2 and three years later, was competing in BMX.
But a bad crash in BMX when he was 10 led Blevins to mountain biking, and he soon won his first national championship as a junior. After the 2016 Olympic Games, Blevins set his sights on qualifying for the Tokyo Games.
On the world cup this past spring, he scored three top-20 finishes and was named to the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team.
In his first Olympic mountain bike race, Blevins started in the third row, so was slowed by the chaos of the start loop. With 38 riders trying to get through the technical rock gardens, Blevins fell 30 seconds back and into 32nd place.
From there, he took what he called “micro-moments” to move by riders ahead of him.
“There are all these kinds of micro-moments [in a mountain bike race] where you can take advantage,” Blevins explained, “and I just tried to keep my eyes up and be patient and not try to waste energy.”
“I moved up quicker than I expected after that start loop," he added.
On the Sakura Drop — a big rock drop on the backside of the steep, technical course — race favorite Mathieu van der Poel crashed, then got up and kept riding. When Blevins spotted the Dutch rider’s orange jersey, “it gave me a little bit of motivation to have him in my sights.”
Moving into the top 15 in the last half of the race, Blevins rode with a group of four other riders, then crossed the finish line in 14th place.
“I can't say enough about what this experience has meant to me and how much love and support I've heard from back home,” said Blevins. “That's been so inspiring and motivating for this moment, but also for the future of my involvement in the sport. I hope that, actually I know, that in three years, the U.S. will be in a strong position with myself, hopefully, and a bunch of young riders coming up. So, let's get two spots or more on the start line and be fighting for a medal.”
Then he added, “It’s only three years away for Paris [Olympic Games].”
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit TeamUSA.org/Tokyo2020 to view the medal table, results and competition schedule.