From skier to MTB queen: Why Loana Lecomte rides into Tokyo 2020 as gold medal favourite

The 21-year-old French rider took the women's MTB cross-country World Cup by storm, taking three consecutive wins this season. Her main strength? 'My youthfulness and innocence,' she told Olympics.com in an exclusive interview ahead of the Games in 2021.

By Alessandro Poggi and Guillaume Depasse

What a difference a year can make.

Had the Tokyo 2020 Olympics taken place last year as originally scheduled, cycling's Mountain Bike (MTB) rising star Loana Lecomte wouldn't have been on a plane for Japan.

Twelve months later, the French rider will not only make her Olympic debut at the Games, but - after dominating the cross-country World Cup circuit in the first half of 2021 - she's also considered one of the favourites for gold in the women's race taking place on 27 July.

"I don't feel like I am the favourite, because I'm going to discover the Olympics for the first time," she told Olympics.com in an exclusive interview.

"I'll approach them with less pressure, but I am not going [to Tokyo] just for the experience, I'll go there to get a good result."

Lecomte crossing the line in first position at the World Cup event in Nove Mesto. Credit: UCI / Michal Ceverny 

Chasing four wins in a row

Facing a fairly competitive field, featuring the likes of world champions Pauline Ferrand-Prevot of France, Kate Courtney of the USA, and Switzerland's Jolanda Neff, Lecomte's rise has been simply impressive.

In September 2020, the 21-year-old won the first senior World Cup event she had ever entered, at Nove Mesto, Czech Republic. An achievement that was followed by a third place on the same course a couple of weeks later.

This season, the reigning U23 World and European champion has been almost unstoppable, claiming all three World Cup stages so far (Albstadt, Nove Mesto again, and Leogang - On the Austrian course she also won the short track race). In doing so, she became the first woman to take three World Cup victories in a row since Athens 2004 Olympic champion Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesja of Norway in 2006.

"I never predicted to do that! I take each race as a time trial, trying to have a regular pace at each lap and giving it all from the start to the finish."

Lecomte is used to winning races in a dominant way: she powers away from the field in the first few laps, gradually increasing her lead, and crosses the line solo.

"I don't have a real race strategy: I just focus on my pace and I'll do my race without thinking of the others."

She can make it four out of four this weekend on the home course of Les Gets, the last World Cup event before Tokyo:

"It's just one hour away from [my hometown] Annecy, so it feels like racing at home," Loana said.

"I haven't raced there since 2019, but I know the course well. I'll take it as a preparation race [for the Tokyo Games], however winning there remains a goal of mine. I prepared with my coach [Phillippe Chanteau] to get in shape for the event."

Loana Lecomte is reigning U23 world champion. Credit: Maxime Visuals/Maxime Vanheye.

Lecomte rising fast

The French rider's meteoric rise was reflected by her jump from no. 64 to the top of the world rankings in less than three years.

Loana raced 23 international races at U23 level and her best result was a third place. Since moving to the elite ranks, she has managed to win four World Cup races out of five, finishing on the podium in the other. How does she explain such a sharp improvement?

"It's true, if you look at my results, my development looks a bit unusual," she admitted.

"I think I need to thank my coach [French Cycling Federation's MTB Coordinator Chanteau]: he was able to control my development not to make me improve too quickly. He gradually raised the volume and intensity of my training so that I could be ready for the elite category."

The MTB queen with an alpine skiing background

Lecomte grew up in Haute-Savoie, in Southeastern France, like two-time alpine skiing World champion Tessa Worley.

"I was a great fan of her. When I was a kid, I followed her mainly for her results, but even now I find her very inspiring for her personality."

The Aviernoz native spent her childhood skiing at the Les Carroz-d'Araches resort, before taking up cycling as a complementary sport over the summer.

"I wanted to please my grandpa, who's passionate about cycling, and I joined the MTB club in Les Carroz.

"I did skiing and MTB cycling for eight years, then I had to make a choice, and I chose mountain bike, because I was a bit fed up with skiing and I already started winning MTB races," the 21-year-old revealed.

As an alpine skier, Lecomte competed at national level: 'I adored both the Super-G and the slalom, even if they are completely different!"

The experience on the snow helped the 1.62m-tall explosive rider to develop a natural feeling for the technical descents.

"The fact that I love speed means that I am not scared during a descent and I learned to disconnect my brain when I need."

"Technically speaking, she is the fastest in the world." - Yvan Clolus, manager of the French MTB Team on Lecomte

Inspired by Olympic champion Bresset

Since the sport made its debut at the Games in 1996, France has been the most successful nation, with four gold medals.

Lecomte's teammate at Massi, Julie Bresset, was the last French MTB rider to top the Olympic podium, at London 2012.

"It's also because of her that I chose MTB," she remembers.

"When I saw her win in 2012 it was very emotional for me, I cried and told my dad: 'This is what I want to do.'"

"Julie is a very nice person, I admire her, and we get along very well, and I feel lucky to be in the same team as her."

What advice did Lecomte receive from her teammate?

"She shares a lot of her experiences, good or bad, and we talk a lot. She helps me so I can preserve myself.

"She told me to enjoy the present moment, not to put unnecessary pressure on me, and have fun on my bike."

Pauline Ferrand Prevot (L) and  Loana Lecomte (C) share the podium in Albstadt, Germany. (Photo by Christian Kaspar-Bartke/Getty Images)
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Ferrand-Prevot: From idol to rival

Lecomte took one of the two Olympic spots earned by France for the women's team

In Tokyo, she will be joined by multiple world champion (road, MTB, cyclo-cross) Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, who's chasing the only title still missing from her trophy cabinet.

"When I was a junior, I was a big fan of her, I also had a poster in my bedroom, and I still admire her."

"Sometimes I tell myself, 'it's crazy that I can share my room with my idols!"

So how is their relationship now? How they will work together in Tokyo?

"We get along well, and in the team there's a very good atmosphere, also with the guys. Of course she's a rival because we both race for the same goal, the victory, but she's also a teammate in the French team.

"I think this could work for both of us, knowing that we can help each other."

Loana Lecomte of France competes in Women's race during the Cycling - Mountain Bike Tokyo 2020 Test Event on October 06, 2019 in Izu, Shizuoka, Japan. (Photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images)
Picture by 2019 Getty Images

Tokyo mission for Loana Lecomte

Before her 'exploit' in 2020, Loana had raced the Tokyo 2020 Test Event. She finished eighth, 3 minutes and 41 seconds behind the winner Jolanda Neff.

The young Frenchwoman seems to like the technical 4km-long course in Izu City, and come 27 July will approach it with different ambitions.

"When I raced it in 2019, it was one of the most spectacular MTB courses [that I had ever experienced]. It's quite demanding, you need to be explosive, you don't have time to take a breather and I like this type of effort. Plus the fact that it's very technical really suits me!"

In order to quickly adapt to the Japanese climate, the World No. 1 is also training three times a week in a special steam room that replicates the sticky summer conditions of the Shizuoka prefecture (where the humidity can touch 90% at the end of July), while - after the French national Championships this July - she might test herself in the challenging training course that reproduces the profile of the Izu MTB Course, set up in the Boulouris Performance Centre nearby Frejus.

Asked what will be her main strength going to the Games, she told us:

"I think my youthfulness, my innocence: I'll go [to Tokyo] without any pressure, I'll be there to discover a new experience.

"I'll take it as a regular World Cup race, I'll give my best so I can't regret anything at the end."

Picture credit: FFC/Patrick Pichon

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