Thomas Frischknecht rides like he’s in a rush. Tucked behind him, sometimes all I can see is the black and yellow blur of his Scott-SRAM kit as he whips his road bike around a corner at full tilt, hops a curb, and then skillfully maneuvers a sandy section of road construction with such ease that you’d think the newly-minted 50-year-old was the latest cyclocross wunderkind.
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The word “rush” doesn’t seem to be in Frischknecht’s vocabulary, nor is it a state of mind he typically inhabits. Maybe it’s because he’s recently returned from a four-day, 800-kilometer bikepacking trip in Tuscany, where “Frischi” — as he’s universally known — owns a stake in a hotel and a vineyard. We’re on the Swiss legend’s home roads after all, a tangle of suburban streets and one-lane shortcuts through farm country that will ultimately lead us from his home in Feldbach, a village on the eastern banks of Lake Zurich, to the foothills of the Alps. It’s a lumpy landscape of undulating roads that Frischi has been training on since he was lighting up the Grundig World Cup mountain bike circuit back in the sport’s heady heyday.
“I moved here 30 years ago,” he tells me over coffee shortly after my arrival. We’re sitting on a stone bench in the front yard of his home, a 300-year-old farmhouse with a steeply pitched roof and a stucco façade. Below us, the placid blue water of Lake Zurich stands in contrast to the gathering grey clouds overhead, and beyond the opposite shoreline the Alps of Schwyz and Glarus rise up, their peaks crooked across the skyline and capped here and there by white slabs of glacier. “When I first saw this view I told myself that I wanted to climb every mountain across the horizon,” Firschi tells me between sips of espresso.
By Frischi’s estimates, he’s managed to scale about 85 percent of the peaks in front of us — some by bike, most on foot. He points to them with his finger, tan forearm flexing and beaded bracelets dangling from his wrist, as he traces a line across the horizon, ticking off the name of each peak. He’s proudest of his most recent accomplishment: the 8,000ft Mürtschenstock, a peak whose needle-like summit can only be reached by scaling a class 4b rock wall.
“It’s the first summer in 30 years that I’ve really been around,” he says, brushing back his shaggy brown hair and squinting a set of eyes that are boyish in their blue-grey glow, webbed at the corners by the slightest of crow’s feet. Like everyone else, COVID-19 has grounded Frischi, forcing him to stay more or less local rather than travel the world as the manager of Scott-SRAM, where he mentors the likes of Nino Schurter, Kate Courtney, and even his son Andri. “After I retired in 2008, I went straight into a management role,” he says. “By that fall, I was already at training camp with the rest of the team. The only difference was that I no longer had the pressure of racing.”
Pressure was never an issue for the remarkably consistent rider whose 20-year career saw him take victories in mountain bike, cyclocross, and even road races. His is a highlight reel that’s become lore among mountain bike fans: the shy, skinny Swiss kid plucked from the cyclocross circuit by American bike builder Tom Ritchey, who hosted him at his NorCal house; the three overall World Cup titles; the silver medal in the inaugural mountain bike race at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics; and finally the late-career renaissance, capped by two world marathon mountain bike titles in 2003 and 2005. The former is something he’s most proud of, as is evidenced by the small black and gold wooden plaque memorializing the victory that hangs outside the Frischknecht family home.
“I beat Bart [Brentjens] in a sprint,” Frischi recalls as we kit up and then head for the shed to grab his bike. He selects his new Scott Addict road bike, rather than the gravel bike he’s been riding. I glance around the place. It’s wallpapered with posters from his career, most of them from his Team Ritchey days, back when he dominated the circuit in the 90s. There are Oakley and No Fear advertisements, and glossy pages from mountain bike magazines. I take them all in, feeling the images transport me back to the days when I was an awkward kid drunk on mountain bike racing, traveling the East Coast with my father to watch my heroes race at legendary World Cup courses at Mount Snow, Bromont, and Mont-Sainte-Anne. These are the relics that transformed me into a Frischknecht fan some 30 years ago. I remember first seeing Frischi in the mud of Mount Snow, Vermont.
It was a muggy day in June, 1992, and that afternoon — just before the start of the men’s race —a heavy rainstorm rolled through the Green Mountains, reducing Mount Snow’s infamously technical course to a soupy river of muck. I stood on the dark sidelines of the singletrack with my mouth agape as I watched Frischi put his cyclocross pedigree to good use by deftly picking through sloppy conditions that were virtually unrideable for the rest of the field. It was a common image in those days: Frischi’s smooth style as he came into view through a thicket of trees, the blue overall World Cup leader’s jersey hanging loosely from his wiry frame, a pair of Oakley Mumbos shielding half of his otherwise dirt-speckled face, the rigid red, white, and blue Ritchey undulating underneath him, a gold chain bobbing from around his neck, an earring catching the flash of camera bulbs, and then — poof! — like something magically conjured from the mud, a mix of Swiss precision and California cool, he was gone, disappearing into the trees, down the trail, en route to another seemingly effortless victory.
It’s because of these memories that I identify Frischi’s main rivals as fellow legends and pioneers like John Tomac and Ned Overend, but he’s quick to correct me.
“No, it was Bart,” he says, throwing one leg over his bike. “If you look at the length of my career, I raced Bart for the longest.”
It was also Brentjens who got the better of him on several big occasions, most notably the Atlanta Olympics. Beating the decorated Dutchman at the 2003 marathon worlds remains perhaps Frischi’s sweetest victory. In the 1990s, Frischi garnered the reputation of second best when it came to the major one-day events. By 2003, he already had six silver medals across mountain bike and cyclocross world championships to his name (his second place at the 1996 world mountain bike championships would be upgraded to first after Jérôme Chiotti confessed to doping, though not in time to give Frischi the pleasure of racing in rainbow stripes the following season); it was a string of second places that caused some to suggest that he — like his father, a three-time silver medalist at the world cyclocross championships — carried a curse.
“After I finished second in Munich [in the 1997 world cyclocross championships], they had me on the SRF1 [Switzerland’s national broadcaster] sports show, which is called Sportpanorama, and the host, this guy named Beni Thurheer, a real legend here in Switzerland, he asked me why I finish second all the time,” Frischi recalls with a laugh, his face touched with only the faintest traces of resentment. “I almost told him why, the real answer, but I didn’t have any proof, and I didn’t want to sound bitter or come off like a sore loser. I really had to bite my tongue.”
The proof that Frischi alludes to, or lack thereof, has to do with doping. EPO infiltrated the ranks of professional road cycling in the 1990s, and it’s widely believed that the blood booster hit the mountain bike circuit soon after, with a wave of previously unknown European riders surging to the top of the sport from one season to the next.
Like most of his contemporaries, the Tomacs and Overends who were soon forced out of professional mountain biking due to its sudden rocket-fueled pace, Frischi suspected this new crop of rivals to be doped. But it’s something — blame it on his Swiss modesty, his zen-like approach to life — that he’s remained silent on until now.
“Maybe that’s why you’re here,” he says with a wry smile as we push off from his driveway and down the steep hill that leads to his house. “Maybe that’s why you contacted me out of the blue. Maybe now is the time to no longer protect those other riders.”
Frischi finds our meeting fortuitous. Only hours before I’d gotten in touch, suggesting this ride and interview, an old friend of Frischi’s from Oakley had forwarded him a blog written by retired pro racer George Visser. Visser’s blog had already caused a stir in the mountain-bike community. In his post, Visser recounts the vibe of those halcyon days in the early 1990s, replete with his fanboy devotion to Overend and Tomac, his training rides with Steve Tilford, and the jarring thrill of descending singletrack on a hardtail equipped with 26-inch wheels. Visser also discusses doping at length.
Like many of his contemporaries, Visser was struck by how fast the races had become in the early 90s, the pace often dictated by a new crop of virtually unknown European riders. Visser befriended one of these riders, a prominent racer from The Netherlands, and writes about his relationship with the talented athlete. In Visser’s retelling, one night he sees the rider in question in a hotel room alongside medical instruments and a vast array of pharmaceuticals.
Visser told me the memory is “stamped in my brain” when I phoned him to discuss the blog. In the months following the blog’s publishing, Visser was contacted by an attorney representing the rider, who told him the rider intended to file suit if he didn’t remove the accusation. Visser told me he weighed his options and decided to remove the blog, rather than enter into a costly legal battle. The blog post has been replaced by an explanation by Visser for its removal. “I don’t have the time, the energy, nor the motivation to go down that bumpy road,” Visser writes after citing the legal threat.
Visser’s blog, and its aftermath, thus, are relics of Frischi’s heyday, a reminder of the era’s maddening unknowns that riders faced at every race. Stories swirled and speculation ran rampant about cheating, but the lack of admissions or of a reliable test for EPO and other doping methods led those racers who competed clean — riders like Frischi — to live within a cloud of uncertainty. Some riders quit out of frustration, while others pushed on. Even today, Visser’s account is unresolvable, just another anecdote in a larger story that only riders of that era will truly understand.
Forging a legacy in uncertain times
Visser’s blog post is a window into Frischi’s era of uncertainty, yet Frischi shrugs off my questions about it as we roll out onto the smooth tarmac. Our pace becomes less frenetic. We settle into a rhythm and a conversation. Frischi is as natural a storyteller as he is a cyclist, and as the miles tick by and the gradient gently slopes upward through farm fields and tall pine trees, he regales me with stories from his racing days — how friend and former teammate Henrik Djernis peaked for his hat trick of world championship titles by almost exclusively training indoors on the rollers; the disappointment his own father expressed when Frischi opted for a career in mountain biking — “freaks” as they were thought of in Switzerland at the time — rather than accept a pro road contract with Paul Köchli’s Helvetia team.
Of course Frischi proved his father wrong, and the man finally came around on his son’s decision to race fat tires when the boy took silver in Atlanta.
And yet, despite all the success, it isn’t a mountain bike or even cyclocross race that Frischi ranks as the highlight of his career.
“The Olympic road race,” he tells me, his voice suddenly giddy over the wind, his face breaking into a big grin as he stands on the pedals and the bike sways from side to side beneath him. “That was my greatest moment.”
It’s a quirky anecdote that few American fans know. While in Atlanta as a mountain biker for the ’96 Games, Frischi got wind that a knee injury had knocked Tony Rominger from the Swiss team’s road race roster, and that Laurent Dufaux — still recovering on the beaches of the Côte d’Azur after finishing fourth in that year’s Tour de France, as well as smarting from being left off the Olympic team in the first place — refused to fly over and fill in. To Frischi, he was the only other logical option.
“The Swiss coach said no,” he recalls. “He told me I was there for the mountain bike race; that that was my focus.”
Frischi let it go, until a few days later, when he rolled across the finish line at Georgia International Horse Park as men’s mountain biking’s first Olympic silver medalist.
“I looked at the Swiss coach and shouted, ‘How about now?!’” Frischi laughs, shaking his head at his youthful exuberance. “It was the first thing I said to anyone after winning the silver medal.”
The next morning, wide-eyed and sleep deprived, Frischi stood astride an old Ritchey cyclocross bike as a member of the five-man Swiss road team. According to plan, he spent the first 100 kilometers in the break, before getting swallowed up by the field. After he’d put in the initial work, the idea was for him to drop out, but he was having too much fun. The adrenaline coursed through him, the cyclocross bike — thanks to its high bottom bracket — made it easy to pedal through the circuit’s countless corners, and every few minutes one of his heroes pulled up alongside to offer congratulations on his recent Olympic medal.
The Olympic road race. That was my greatest moment.
“Felicidades,” Frischi says to me, furrowing his brow and imitating the deep baritone of none other than Miguel Indurain, who — despite being denied his sixth Tour de France win only one month prior — remained the peloton’s undisputed patron.
By the end of the day, Frischi came across the line and high fived teammate Pascal Richard, unaware that only four minutes earlier Richard had sprinted to Olympic gold. A photographer captured the image of the two teammates — one a veteran roadie, the other a 26-year-old mountain biker — and by the following morning it graced the front page of virtually every Swiss newspaper.
Perfectionism tempered by positivity
After refueling for water at a fountain in the middle of a small village, Frischi leads me up the Ghöch Pass, a stair-stepper with extended pitches of eight percent. This is where Frischi performed the bulk of his intervals back in the day, when time between races allowed him to put in more hours on the road bike.
“I would let the road decide,” he tells me, explaining that the duration of his intervals were erratic, and always determined by the length of the pitch in front of him rather than any prescribed amount of time. “Sometimes they were two minutes, sometimes five. I never did hill repeats the way Andri does now.”
Today’s training methods aren’t foreign to a man who runs arguably the most successful cross-country team on the current World Cup circuit, but they can certainly feel heavily scientific, especially when considering that Frischi never relied on a power meter, nor has he signed up for Strava. Frischi tells me how his son rarely deviates from a training plan, even if that means logging a five-hour ride during the rain while taking a rest day when it’s gorgeous out. Or, how his protégé Nino Schurter will sometimes do three workouts in a single day.
“He jogs, then he hits the gym, and after lunch he goes for a ride,” he says.
World Cup cross-country races are a whole different beast today when compared to the races of the 90s and early 2000s. Contemporary races are 90 minutes, compared to the three-hour slogs Frischi and his cohort endured. Rather than grind up endless fire roads, today’s racers sprint up punchy ascents that require enormous bursts of power. Then, they speed down technical and rocky sections that test arms, legs, and machines.
Frischi is the first to admit that he often overtrained during his career, logging big weeks on the bike, often disappearing into the mountains to ride long Alpine passes at high altitude. But he is no luddite when it comes to the sport’s innovations, be it training techniques or the technical aspects of the bike.
“We had [the Scott Spark] ready to go for Tokyo,” he says, referring to the world-beating dual-suspension rig that Schurter and Kate Courtney will be riding — barring further COVID-19 complications — at next summer’s Olympics in Japan. “But now we have even more time to get it dialed in.”
This attitude, I’ve come to learn in the few hours we’ve been talking, is typical Frischi: perfectionism tempered by positivity. Rather than dwell on the fact that the Olympics have been postponed, or that virtually the entire World Cup cross-country season has been scrapped, he views these setbacks as opportunities. It’s an attitude he immediately recognized in Kate Courtney when he signed her to Scott-SRAM just one month before she won the world championship title at Lenzerheide in 2018.
“She’s positive,” he says, then rattles off the young Californian’s attributes. “She’s a fast learner. She expects a lot from the team but she also expects a lot from herself.”
Over the two years they’ve been working together, Courtney has become something like a daughter. When she races in Europe she lives with him and his family, and last summer he took her to Massa Vecchia, his hotel in Tuscany, so that she could work on her technical skills on the surrounding trails, as well as acclimate to going hard in the type of heat that’s sure to challenge riders in Tokyo.
Last season, he was impressed by Courtney’s work ethic, which led to her taking the 2019 World Cup title, as well as the feel-good vibe the Stanford grad brings to the team, one typified by always thanking her mechanics and leading thoughtful, spirited discourse at the dinner table.
“It’s good to have a woman on the team,” Frischi says with a laugh. “Otherwise it’s just a bunch of guys making stupid jokes all the time.”
As we climb higher, the road winding upwards, the steep farm fields falling away at either side, I ask what it’s like to work with Schurter, a guy who’s knocked Frischi off the pedestal by now.
“Nino is the best ever,” Frischi says, his voice serious and devoid of all ego. “It’s an honor for me.”
Titles won and lost in the era of EPO
With the Ghöch Pass in our legs we stop at the road’s summit, where an Italian restaurant is perched above the hillside. Judging by the jovial greeting from the restaurant’s chef and staff, Frischi is a regular here. We sit and an outdoor table with a westward view that today is obscured by the clouds.
“I don’t know what you want but I’m having a beer,” Frischi says, pulling off his helmet and his Oakleys — a pair of Kokoro Sutros with Jackson Pollock-worthy flicks of purple, pink, and white.
Our beverages arrive, glasses of local weissbier, followed by a thin crust pizza that’s more bruschetta than traditional pie. Neighboring diners sneak glances, a married couple politely introduce themselves. The chef returns with two plates of seared ahi tuna garnished with basil foam and a fried egg — on the house, of course. It all serves as a reminder that here in Switzerland, mountain bikers can be celebrities, even national heroes.
I know what races I won.
Between bites of food, I steer our conversation back to the topic of doping, or more specifically Visser’s blog post. How does he feel about the rider mentioned in the blog?
“I like him,” Frischi says. “He’s a nice guy.” The remark is genuine, without a whiff of sarcasm or bitterness. It’s the same attitude he takes toward Jérôme Chiotti, whose company on training rides Frischi always enjoyed, and whose apology he accepted in 2000 when the Frenchman publicly came clean to his friend about cheating him out of the world title in 1996.
Other names come up too, from convicted dopers like world champs Filip Meirhaeghe and Christophe Dupouey (the latter’s suicide a cautionary tale), to the suspicion that clouded the careers of other stars of the era. Frischi isn’t keen to go on record about hearsay, but finally, when pushed, he gives me a knowing smile.
“Let’s just say that I was robbed,” Frischi says, rattling off a long list of Olympic and world championship results that he believes he could have won, had the playing field been even.
Isn’t he mad, I want to know. Isn’t he bitter?
Frischi shakes his head. “I know what races I won,” he says, then reaches for another slice of pizza, folding it in two before taking a bite. As he often does, he begins a story to make his point. It was the early 2000s and — by Frischi’s standards — he was getting his “ass kicked” by this new breed of mountain bike racer. One August, while using his family holiday as a high altitude training camp to prepare for the worlds in Vail, Colorado, he seriously contemplated retirement.
Much like they do every summer, the Frischknechts had rented a cabin high up in the mountains above Switzerland’s Engadine Valley, and after dinner Frischi decided to go for a head-clearing ride before making his decision. The tourists who take the funicular up during the day to gawk at the alpine scenery were long gone, leaving the trails empty.
After ripping his favorite section of singletrack along the ridge, Frischi stopped to take in the view. Having spent some time there myself, it’s a scene I can picture: the snow-capped peaks, the soft, late-summer light and the silvery lakes, the broad valley whose beauty is so stunning it even caused that curmudgeon Friedrich Nietzsche to proclaim that the area saved his life. It cast a similar spell on Frischi, at least as far as his career was concerned.
“I sat there and said to myself, ‘I’m a mountain biker,’” he tells me. “I decided I would keep riding, keep training, keep racing, even if the results didn’t come. I just wanted to maintain my passion, my professional status so I could keep doing what I love.”
As we know by now, the results did come. An EPO test was introduced at the 2000 Olympics, and in subsequent years anti-doping methods got better. The sport wasn’t entirely clean, yet clean riders did win major mountain bike races.
Frischi was back among the best until he retired in 2008 with 15 world championship medals and 18 World Cup wins. Since then, his life has been all about mentoring the sport’s future stars at Scott-SRAM, and both brands recently signed two-year extensions as title sponsors of his mountain bike team.
“I’ve always had two-year contracts,” he says as we collect our things and head out. “That’s how I live my life: two years at a time.”
It’s a good philosophy judging by the man’s track record. And while these next two years will certainly be busy for Frischi — immediate goals include circumnavigating the U.S. travel ban in order to get Kate Courtney over to Europe this fall for the season’s few World Cup rounds — stress seems the furthest thing from his mind.
Indeed, our ride home feels fast yet somehow unhurried. The rain that has been threatening to fall all day will soak us before we reach Frischi’s front door, but for now he rides as if he can outrun it, leading me down the Ghöch Pass, nailing the apex of each switchback and sprinting back up to speed. Soon enough we’re out of the hills and back in suburbia. Left, right, left, right, farm road here, bike path there, Frischi always in the lead, darting this way and that. I try to keep up with this sprightly 50-year-old, this low-key legend, and as I draft him, it’s as if I am following Ferris Bueller during that movie’s famous climactic montage, the character cutting through people’s backyards, leaping over hedges, the carefree king of his own little world.