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A conversation with Swiss cyclocross racer Valentin Scherz

From Switzerland to Belgium via the United States

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Valentin Scherz is back home in Switzerland and on the mend after racing most of the U.S. `cross season and overcoming a difficult transition back to the European circuit.

Valentin Scherz made good use of his time in the U.S.| Ethan A. Glading photo
Valentin Scherz made good use of his time in the U.S.| Ethan A. Glading photo

Two weeks ago, the 20-year-old wrapped up his second consecutive `cross season in the States with several wins under his belt riding for Cyfac-Champion System. He’d done much the same in 2009, spending the fall living with a host family in Philadelphia and competing in the Mid-Atlantic Cyclocross series as well as other races on the East Coast.

Scherz has been at various times over the past two seasons the world’s top-ranked U23 `crosser, racking up UCI points in the States before heading back to Europe, where he’s faced tougher competition battling against the world’s best. Scherz’s results this year include a second consecutive overall win in the Mid-Atlantic Cyclocross series, victories in the UCI-rated Whirlybird Cyclocross, HPCX and Beacon Cyclocross, as well as a dominant repeat win at StatenCX, all in addition to several podiums and top 10s.

With his second U.S. `cross season now behind him and the rest of his European season ahead of him, Scherz spoke with VeloNews contributor Daniel McMahon this weekend about his time racing in the U.S., readjusting to European-style `cross, and setting his sights on the world championships.

Q. How has your transition back to racing in Europe been going?

A. Quite difficult actually! I flew back two weeks ago on a Monday from Philadelphia to Geneva, on Tuesday I had a little time with my family and to rest, on Wednesday I built my bikes and went to an osteopath who checked my back. Then I left on Thursday for Belgium to do the first U23 world cup race of the year, in Koksijde.

Q. Koksijde looked brutal, at least on TV.

A. It was a really difficult course, with a series of short, sandy hills. I had two worries going into the race: riding on my just-built bikes and the effects of the jet lag. My goal was to reach the top 16, because that would allow me to start in the same position in the next world cup, or at least to reach top 25 to qualify for the world championship.

What I was not expecting was my back killing me during the race. I often have pains in my back but the pain was so strong that I couldn’t push on the pedals really hard. I finished a really disappointing 36th—far, far away from the best and, I believe, far from my level. Now I’m trying to recover and to get ready for the next races.

Q. What are the differences between racing `cross in the U.S. and Europe?

A. The biggest difference is just me. It’s difficult to stay in good shape after traveling, the time change, plus now with this back issue. I feel like what did change between the successful first part of the season I had in the U.S. and my coming back to Europe is just my level. But I’m working hard to cancel this difference.

Then there’s the weather. Here in Switzerland it’s been snowing every two days for about two weeks, where it was sunny and nice for three months in the Philly area. It doesn’t help my training, but it’s part of our sport. And remember, we had really bad weather last year in the Mid-Atlantic.

Also, aggressiveness between the riders is different. You still have a nice “fair play” in the U.S., most of the time at least. In Europe, there are more bad moves during the race. Everything is allowed as long as you keep your hands on the bar. But I can deal with that. In Europe—and even more in the world cups—you can’t cruise. No, there is always somebody attacking you, trying to pass you just before or even sometimes in the turns, and you have to fight with the guys around you, even if you’re 30th. In the U.S., groups behind the leaders work together to move forward, at least till two or three laps to go.

Q. What do European riders think of the level of `cross in the U.S.?

A. It’s sad to say, but the U.S. level doesn’t have a really good reputation. But I think it will change quickly because Euro riders are coming to the U.S. and not always winning, and U.S. riders like Johnson are doing well in Europe.

Valentin Scherz is aiming for a spot at worlds. | Anthony Skorochod/
Valentin Scherz is aiming for a spot at worlds. | Anthony Skorochod/

But you know, to be really good you have to focus all the year on cyclocross, and you need to avoid long travel. Plus, you need to be fit at the right time. These are three things the U.S. riders don’t have the chance to do. Worlds are too late, the top riders ride on the road all the summer, and every world cup is overseas for you. I believe it is going to change with `cross growing in the U.S. and the worlds in Louisville. You will have the means to bring your riders to the best level in the next few years, and the U.S. riders will be able to show their abilities in fair conditions.

Q. What’s it like being one of only a handful of European riders doing `cross in the U.S.?

A. It’s a good thing, I guess. I get noticed more quickly than a U.S. rider, and more than I would among Swiss riders in Switzerland! There is a French saying: “Nobody is a prophet in his own country.” I believe that.

Q. What made you want to race in the States?

A. Last year it was because I had this dream of bike racing and training as a professional rider, which has been my dream since I began to ride my bike. I rode without the salary or support of a pro, but I had the time to train and apply all what I learned about cycling after years on the Swiss national team and being with a lot people with cycling knowledge.

Also, I wanted to practice my English, because it was pretty bad at school and I wanted to travel far from my home, because I knew that it would be a good experience. I was done with school and, before I did anything else, I wanted to take time to be young—and to have fun! It’s more or less what it was. Plus, I had to complete my military service, so it was part of the plan.

This year I came for different reasons. The host father who invited me over last year, Dave Berson, offered me to come a second time. He wanted to build a team around me to support me and to bring me to a better level. The invitation came with the opportunity to bring my friend Anthony Grand with me.

I was in the army last spring for four months—a nightmare!—when Dave wrote me. So with this idea of having fun racing in the U.S. again, plus the good challenge of coming back into shape in two months, was what I needed to get through my army service with good perspectives. And I knew that I could do better than last year at the worlds and the Swiss championships. For all those reasons, I decided to do it again.

Q. How did you like living here?

A. I loved it! I love people in the U.S. I mean, I love how you’re up to hosting me, to host me as European rider and sometimes without knowing me. It happened when Dave Berson told me “Yep, come over for three months. I’ll feed you, I’ll drive you, I’ll be in the pit for you. We’ll have fun.”

I love your really typical “Here’s the fridge, here is the remote control of the TV, help yourself!” It’s really uncommon for me. I love your ability to speak with people you don’t know. I love your capacity to build big projects and to dream big projects.

But there are other things that make my life as a cyclist not that easy. The road is really dangerous in the U.S. compared with Europe. People are not that educated about driving, not texting or calling while driving. The roads are busy.

Another thing is that I was born in a town with 400 (residents). So Philly and New York have been exciting.

Q. Which U.S. riders have impressed you?

A. Powers is the best this year. He shows perfect technical skills and a capacity of acceleration that is really useful in `cross and which could bring him to the best level. Trebon impressed me because his height gives him unbelievable power and running skills. Johnson is impressive because this guy starts slowly but always moves to the front with class and efficiency.

Q. What can we learn from European `cross?

A. The only thing you need is more spectators, a decent podium ceremony and the “after.” Usually people stay after the race to eat, have a beer, watch the podium ceremony. But for that you need to change the race time of the elites in the middle of the day so that other categories’ racers are around the course and not everybody has gone. Then maybe people will bring others.

Besides that, the question would be more like, what does Europe have to learn from the U.S.? That would be your fair-play riding, having so many masters riders, having such good Internet coverage—and fun things like beer and money hand-ups!

Q. Are you already thinking about the 2013 `cross worlds in Louisville? And what did you learn after racing on the course in October at the USGP Derby City Cup?

A. Louisville would be my first elite worlds. So for now, no, I’m not thinking too much about that. The only thought I have is how small the budgets of the federations are, so it will be difficult to have the best U23 and junior racers from all countries. Of course, that would be an advantage for me with the connections I have in the U.S. now. The course is pretty typical, with short, steep hills.

Q. You’re only 20 years old. Is your goal to one day race professionally at the top level of European `cross?

A. I’d love to turn pro, but honestly, I’d only do it if I got a really good opportunity to improve my level, if I could have good support. Because I have the chance to be able to study and to achieve a lot doing that too. It’s one reason I admire Jamey Driscoll. He’s managing his studies and riding at the best level at the same time. That’s something I’d like to be able to do.

Q. What are your goals for the rest of the season?

A. To do a good January with the Swiss championships on the 9th and worlds at the end of the month. Those two events are what really matter to me. Last year I finished all my world cups and the world championships in the top 25. I’m hoping to improve this year. I’ll be doing other world cup races, too. I still have to do top 25 in those to qualify for the worlds team.