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By Andrew Hood
It’s hard to believe Thomas Frischknecht is only 32 years old. That might seem ancient to young upstarts, but Frischknecht has been a leading figure in mountain biking since he showed up at the very first mountain bike worlds back in Durango in 1990. Since then, he’s done just about everything a mountain bike racer could accomplish. Like many big-name stars, Frischknecht now has his own team where he will he will act as coach and racer. VeloNews’ Andrew Hood caught up with Frischknecht last week as he prepares for the 2002 racing season.
VeloNews: How are you feeling coming into the season?
Thomas Frischknecht: “Compared to last week, I feel great, but overall I am not where I want to be.
I’m just getting over a blood infection. About two weeks ago I cut my left thumb while working on the bike and something got in there and it became infected. By the time I went to the doctor he sent me straight to the hospital and they operated on me to clean up the cut. I had to take strong antibiotics all week.”
VN: What are you plans for the season?
TF: “I have a new team based in Switzerland with only Swiss riders. Since we have a two really strong race series in Switzerland, I will race mostly here. I will race in the three World Cups in Europe and I will be focused on the European championships this year, which take place in Zurich (Aug. 4). My main goal this year will be the world championships in Kaprun. I won the World Cup race there last year and I showed at world championships last year I’m still good for a medal. I really hope that when things go well, I still have some hope that I will finally win the world title.”
VN: You got the eventual title from 1996. But you really want to one outright?
TF: “Yes, I got the jersey. But I want to win it and then be able to wear it.”
VN: You’re 32 now. Do you still feel fresh about mountain biking?
TF: “The age in your passport is not that relevant. It’s good to be around young, motivated kids. On our team we have three under-23 riders, a junior woman and an elite woman. These guys are so hungry and motivated that it’s good to be around such people. That kind of fever jumps over to me sometimes. It’s always good to be around positive motivated people, you even feel younger if you’re not.”
VN: Are still as passionate about mountain biking as, say, 10 years ago?
TF: “Yes, because I really have my soul in mountain biking, maybe stronger than others. Not just for racing, I still enjoy love the sport almost as much as I did when I entered the sport 13 years ago. That’s what keeps me going. I’m going through an interesting time right now in my career because I’ve been consistent results over so many years, I have a certain status in the mountain biking world, especially in Switzerland. It’s opened new opportunities that I am following right now. I have my own race, Frischi Bike Challenge, in Switzerland (June 22). I have my own clothing line, Odlo, a performance bike clothing line in its second year. I started my own team, Swiss Power Mountain Bike, that’s a huge project for me. I’m still associated Ritchey.”
VN: Tell us about your new team.
TF: “The budget is almost $1 million for one year, that’s a pretty big budget, until 2004. There are a lot of teams are leaving the sport or with less budget. We are actually are doing the opposite, which is a good sign for other countries. Development starts not with just a pro team, but with young riders.”
VN: The team will race primarily in Switzerland?
TF: “I think in the future we’ll have more teams that are based in their country where they are sponsored and where the riders come from. You can give more back to the sponsor. Now we have Swiss riders, Swiss sponsors. Swiss Power is a power company electricity gas and water, it’s like Enron (laughs). It’s a huge company. They cover half the budget, the other half are sponsors I brought in; Credit Suisse, Odlo, Scott-Ritchey; Lexmark printers.”
VN: What role will you play?
TF: “I’m team captain and team owner. It fits together that I can give something back to the sport that I took a lot of profit from over the last years. It gives me a good reason to keep going and keep racing. In the meantime, I can start a new business basically that could continue when I am not racing anymore. I didn’t want the end of my career to depend on if I could find a team for next year or not. That’s why I made the step forward and organized my own team. It gives some security. This way I can decide my own fate.”
VN: You have so much going on beyond racing. Will it interfere with you ability to train?
TF: “It actually keeps me fresh because I’m not thinking about racing 24 hours a day. I still take my time to be focused on being a racer. It helps for me that I have other things going on, to keep my mind away from racing, at least part of the day.”
VN: Will we see you at the 2004 Olympics?
TF: “Yes, that’s my long-term goal. My goal is to make it one more time to the Olympics. This year, the worlds are the main focus, as well as 2003, because the worlds will be near Lugano in Tucino (Switzerland). I designed the cross-country course. It gets me a little home advantage.”
VN: Have you thought about what you will do after racing?
TF: “I will concentrate for another three years on cross-country and the World Cup. After 2004 I will see how I continue. Last year I did a marathon mountain bike race in Switzerland, Swiss Bike Masters, with 5,000 participants which I won. I like these long races, these mass participation races. I could see myself doing that after 2004 year Olympics.”
VN: The World Cup isn’t what it used to be. How do you view it?
TF: “It’s obvious that there are some problems with the World Cup and mountain bike racing in general. What we’re going through now are mistakes that the UCI made a couple of years ago. I think we’re pretty much at the low point. There have been quite a lot of negative things. There are less sponsors, less teams, good racers are leaving the scene. But a World Cup is still a big event. It’s not as bad as people as say it is. Last year, for example, many places had record spectators in attendance. Houffalize has had a World Cup over 10 years and they set a record last year. That’s why I don’t believe a lot of negative talk. It’s not as bad as some people say.”
VN: What are some of the mistakes you believe the UCI has made?
TF: “The first was to spread everything apart between cross-country and downhill. The big teams had to start with two separate teams with full staff, vehicles and all that, which was super-expensive. We just went to places all over the world where there was no market for mountain biking. We had races in Mexico or New Zealand, where there’s barely any market for mountain biking. To go to such places so far away costs a lot of money. Then the mountain bike market went down anyway. The marketing money went into road racing, which wasn’t happening 10 years ago. Then, companies like Specialized and Trek only spent money in mountain biking. These days every big company is involved in a road team and they actually spending more on road racing now than they ever did on mountain biking. There just wasn’t enough money from the teams to pay all the bills with races all over the place.”
VN: Has mountain biking seen its best days?
TF: “I’m very optimistic. Now we’re paying for the mistakes, but now we are seeing some triple events, less races and more races at places that have good spectator attendance. We first have to prove again that we are on the way back up. They did learn a lot from the mistakes.”
VN: Big stars such as Cadel Evans and Miguel Martinez are leaving the sport. Do you think new riders will step up?
TF: “Yes, that will happen pretty quickly. That’s one of the problems from the past, there are no more real heroes in the scene, consistent riders that people could follow, like Tomac or Overend. Almost every race there is a different winner. That’s never good. It’s better if a smaller group of riders go for the win. It’s never great if there are 20-30 riders who can win a race. But new guys will fill up the holes that have been left. Guys like Hermida, Absalon, they already shown last year they are ready to fill the hole.”
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