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Sports

Neff leads Swiss sweep of medals in women’s mountain biking

IZU, Japan (AP) — Jolanda Neff won the women’s mountain bike race at the Tokyo Olympics on Tuesday, leading a Swiss sweep of the medal stand while capping a long comeback from a career-threatening crash in the North Carolina mountains.

Sina Frei and Linda Indergand tried to chase down their countrywoman but never had a chance. They were left battling among themselves, at one point riding side by side, before Frei pulled ahead to take silver and left Indergand with bronze.

Neff took the lead when world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot crashed on a slippery section of rocks on the first loop in the mountains southwest of Tokyo.

She soon built her advantage to more than a minute over a field that included France’s Loana Lecomte, the winner of every World Cup race this season, and reigning Olympic champ Jenny Rissveds.

Neff has long been among the best in the world, the winner of six world championships across different distances and events.

But her chances of winning gold at the Tokyo Games was put in peril in December 2019, when Neff crashed on an unfamiliar stretch of forested trail during a training ride near Asheville, North Carolina.

Neff’s spleen ruptured and she nearly had it removed, but surgeons used a special procedure called embolization to save it. Along with internal bleeding, Neff also fractured her ribs, collapsed her lung and spent several days in the hospital.

Her comeback hit another root when she broke her hand just last month.

Yet nobody was Neff’s equal Tuesday on one of the hardest courses in Olympic history.

Unlike the men’s race, which took place on a hard-packed layout baked by days of searing sun, the women were greeted by a greasy, mud-splattered mess courtesy of steady early showers cast off approaching Typhoon Nepartek.

The rubble-strewn downhill section that caused Dutch star Mathieu van der Poehl to go catapulting over his handlebars on Saturday had become even more harrowing.

The sharp inclines and technical descents were covered in slime. Even the wet tarmac caused tires to spin during a race demanding total focus for more than 20 kilometers.

Despite subtle tweaks in an effort to make the course safer, riders bunched together were still forced to dismount at the first rocky uphill. They looked like mountaineers summiting Mt. Fuji as they scrambled to the top.

Neff and Ferrand-Prevot found themselves neck and neck for the lead on the first of seven loops when the Frenchwoman slipped going up a steep, rocky ramp.

Not only did Ferrand-Prevot have to dive off her bike, the rig skittered down the rocks and she had to clamber after it, losing five spots and nearly 30 seconds to the race leader.

The advantage Neff gained over second place by the crash only grew as the laps wore on.

Without any pressure behind her, the 28-year-old multidiscipline star was able to choose whatever route she wanted. She easily soared over jumps, picked her way through rock gardens and took her time on the most treacherous sections.

Meanwhile, the 22-year-old Lecomte continued to have trouble. She had to dismount several times over tough climbs, then the winner of the first four World Cup events of the season dropped her chain over some rocks.

Ferrand-Prevot didn’t give up after her early spill, at one point passing Frei and Indergand for second place. But the energy she expended to make up ground cost her and Ferrand-Prevot soon gave her medal spot right back to the Swiss.

Lecomte wound up sixth and Ferrand-Prevot faded to 10th in a disappointing day for the French.

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More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2020-tokyo-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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