Perhaps no man has had a greater impact on cross-country mountain bike racing than Thomas Frischknecht. The man known simply as “Frischi” raced for nearly two decades at the World Cup level, earning silver at the inaugural world championships in 1990, before winning gold six years later. Now 48, Frischknecht helped transform his home country of Switzerland into mountain biking’s strongest nation by spearheading a national racing series and personally developing its brightest athletes.
What can American mountain bike racing learn from Frischi? VeloNews caught up with him to find out.
VeloNews: What’s your assessment of the overall strength of World Cup cross-country racing?
Thomas Frischknecht: I would say the level is probably the highest ever, in terms of how many guys are now going for the win. It’s been Nino [Schurter] against [Jaroslav] Kulhavy and Julien [Absalon] at the very highest level for a few years, but now there is a wider spread in cross-country racing, with more talents coming up. You can certainly see the change from the younger generation to Nino and the guys from his generation. Also, in the women’s field, there is no consistent leader that is winning everything. So, every weekend you could have a different winner. That makes the racing more interesting to follow.
VN: What has been the biggest shift on the World Cup to improve its overall strength?
TF: Having Red Bull enter the scene has helped a lot because they broadcast downhill and cross-country racing at a very high level. They came in and brought it to the next level. So today you see a lot of spectator attendance at the races. And a few national broadcast organizations have started to use the Red Bull production for their own live coverage. This is a huge step forward from where we came from even 10 years ago. So, this helps everything. We now have a title sponsor for the World Cup [Mercedes-Benz]; it is bringing in new blood.
VN: What is the biggest threat to this growth?
TF: I am a little bit worried about the bad state of the bike industry in general. Sales, in general, are hurting, and there is a shift in Europe from regular mountain bikes to electric mountain bikes. It is quite large and intense, and the companies are trying to make budgets. So that could be a threat. Participation is also up and down. In Switzerland, the marathon races are facing smaller numbers and the smaller races are hurting, too. Traditional cross-country is not yet weaker, not at all.
VN: In the United States we have seen growth in mountain biking because of the NICA high school leagues. How does development work in Switzerland?
TF: In Switzerland, we do things a bit different. We have a standard program — not a program like high school. We do more of a traditional racing program. We benefit from having had a very strong national racing series that is very well organized. We also have a geographic advantage over the United States in Switzerland. It makes it possible that you can go to all of the races within the national series within a two-hour drive. This means the expense is much lower on families, and parents can just drive their kids to the races. They can then watch the elite races with Nino and Julien and see a high level. Parents and kids then get inspired.
I think that having a strong national racing series is most likely to be the reason for the prominence of mountain biking [in Switzerland].
VN: At what age do kids typically first pick up mountain biking in Switzerland?
TF: Already at the age of five or six, I believe that they have the first race. Kids are competing on mountain bike obstacle courses. They are racing not for time, but for points, which you get because you cannot put your foot down. This teaches them technical skills. Then they have quite a short five-minute cross-country race, which is just one lap, where they kind of do a little bit of endurance, too. Those races are focused more on technical skills. I think that is an important thing that the young kids learn early—how to handle a bike. It’s not about pushing them too much on the endurance side.
VN: Switzerland has also had mountain bike heroes, like Nino and yourself. What impact does that have on participation?
TF: It has a huge impact. The young kids want to have stars of the sport to follow. Once this is missing, there is nobody to look up to, nobody to admire, and this has a big impact. I’m certain that if the United States would have had someone like Nino the past 15 years you would see more success. There was a time when the U.S. was dominating mountain bike with Ned [Overend] and [John] Tomac and Tinker [Juarez], and it had a huge impact on the followers. Unfortunately, the U.S. hasn’t had a lot to show over the last 15 years, and there is nobody to look up to. That is a huge part of why U.S. mountain biking wasn’t successful. The only hope is that soon you will have more riders like Kate Courtney that will inspire the younger kids and attract people to the races. The spiral either goes upward or downward. I’m sure the turnaround has already started for the U.S. The low point was reached a few years ago. Now it is about being patient to see riders on the podium at World Cup races.
VN: Yes, but there is also a phenomenon in U.S. mountain bike racing to shun traditional cross-country racing in favor of non-traditional formats, like single-speed and ultra-endurance races. Do you see that phenomenon in Switzerland?
TF: No, I think that is quite an unusual thing that happens in the U.S. There will always be people who want to be different. I saw this in the early 1990s when cyclocross was popular in Europe and as soon as mountain biking was popular some of the guys walked away to do it. So I was not surprised to see some guys walk away from cyclocross and mountain bike to do single-speed or enduro, and now it is 100-mile and marathon racing. There is always this shift. As soon as something gets too mainstream people are walking away for it. And I see this as a typical American thing. It is not that way in Europe.
VN: Is there still a fear that cross-country may be eliminated as an Olympic event?
TF: Before the [2016 Olympics] there had been discussion and some rumors that mountain bike could potentially not be in the Olympics anymore. The talk was about the cost of the production and how much a cross-country course costs to build. You have to build it from scratch, and when compared to the number of riders who use it, and the high price, it was a question. After the success of the race at the Rio Olympics, I think that discussion is over. In Switzerland it was the second highest viewed event behind the 100-meter track [race]. There is no question it belongs. There are 100 other sports that would have to leave the Olympics before mountain biking, in my opinion. It is essential for the sport to remain in the Olympics. I’m not afraid at all that it will become a problem.