Three-time Olympic medallist, and XCO World Champion, to name but a few titles, Nino Schurter is the face of international cross country racing. He is in South Africa to race the Absa Cape Epic with teammate Matthias Stirnemann of the Scott-Sram MTB Racing Team. We caught up with him in Stellenbosch to find out about his plans for the Epic, talk bikes, doping and, of course, the Hunt for Glory.
You are back at the Cape Epic this year, after not riding it last year. Does a race like the Epic have a big impact on your XCO season in terms of fatigue afterwards, and how does it fit into your training for the year?
It’s quite different racing, if you intend to do well at Epic you need to train differently than you would for cross country races. But it’s early in the year and you can also use it as preparation, as a hard week. But then you need to be careful that you don’t go too far over your limits. I have reached a lot of my goals, and that’s going to be one of my next goals: to try and win the Cape Epic. In the past, I was just here to see how it went, more for training than racing. This year and especially next year are going to be different.
After coming close in 2014, are you looking to make the podium this year?
For sure, if we can get on the podium it will be great but if we see that Matthias [Stirnemann] or I are struggling then we do not want to destroy ourselves. I do not think we have a chance for the overall podium this year, we haven’t raced yet. All the others guys have been training specifically for Epic, they already have races in the legs. For us, it is to get experience for Matthias, and also the other two members of the team.
I’m quite relaxed, I don’t feel there is any pressure right now. I am looking forward to it - it is an awesome event.
What advantages do you and Matthias Stirnemann have in the quest for the podium?
We have a similar riding style and we are quite similar physically. We have a good chance to get away in technical stuff, and maybe being able to deal with the very high intensity riding from cross country will be an advantage.
Why are the Swiss so good at mountain biking?
It’s a great place to ride a bike. There are a lot of mountains, a unique trail network of hiking trails through the Alps that you can also ride on. From nearly everywhere in Switzerland you can start from where you live and go on a ride. Now more and more of the ski regions are building trails for summer, the winters are getting shorter and shorter, and they need to do something in the summer. Nearly all the ski resorts now have built bike parks, and offer different kinds of bike activities.
We also have a really great cup, the Swiss Cup. You don’t have to drive far to get to the races. From any place in Switzerland you can probably get to all the races in under three hours, and from seven years onwards you can take part in races. The same weekend you also have a pro race, that’s one of the main factors.
You are well known for your gym routines which have been documented in The Hunt for Glory video series. Do you think you do more gym work than your competitors, and is it something that you feel gives you an edge on the course?
You need to be complete physically and as a mountain biker you need to be athletic in every way. For me, it is a must to do something like that to be successful. Just going out and riding is not enough for a mountain biker. You need to challenge your body in new ways: such as the co-ordination exercises. In my eyes that makes the difference.
You have been to South Africa several times in the last few years. What do you think of the trails here?
Here the trails are quite different to what we’re used to. In Switzerland, we have a trail network that goes through the whole country, the trails are quite old, and natural.
Here the land is mostly privately owned, you have nice trails, but each are privately owned and managed, and access is controlled.
Then the surface is quite different. We are used to more natural rocky trails, and here the dirt is quite different: more loose and sandy over hardpack. It’s good to ride here and get that practice.
The opening leg of the 2018 UCI Mountain Bike World Cup will be held in Stellenbosch a week before the 2018 Absa Cape Epic. You mentioned that you would like to try and win the Epic next year, will you be racing the World Cup as well, how does that fit into your Epic preparation?
Next year I will be here early, I would like to do some racing before the Epic as preparation, so the World Cup fits into that well.
Nino Schurter and Matthias Stirnemann during the Prologue of the 2017 Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike stage race held at Meerendal Wine Estate in Durbanville, South Africa on the 19th March 2017 Photo by Ewald Sadie/CapeEpic/SPORTZPICS
You rode a 650b bike at the top end of the field for several years, while most of your competitors were on 29ers. With the release of the new Scott Spark RC 29er just before the Olympics last year you made the switch to 29er. Was there anything specific about the design of that bike that allowed you to make the swap comfortably and did you have to adjust your riding style at all?
The bike has changed quite a bit. The first 29er frames manufacturers just blew up the size to fit the bigger wheels. The new Spark is really built around 29er wheels and the geometry has changed quite a bit. Also with Boost wheels are now much stiffer.
So you won’t switch back to 27.5?
No. But the 27.5 still makes sense for shorter people. I think for a lot of women- the 29er bike is just too big, and weight is an issue. Jenny won the Olympics on 27.5. I still believe if you are not tall it makes sense to go on 27.5 inch wheels.
Jenny Rissveds is riding with a dropper seatpost at Epic, with an eye on maybe keeping it on for XCO. Is that something you would consider?
Yes, we are starting to test more and more dropper posts. But for me there is not the right product out there yet. They need to be a bit lighter, and for cross country you don’t need that long travel to drop. For me, it doesn’t make sense to put one on. But dropper posts are going to be the future in cross country racing for sure.
Do you make changes to your race bike for Epic compared to your cross-country bike?
Yes, I ride softer suspension because you don’t ride as aggressively and a bit harder pressure in the tyres just to avoid flats.
Will you be aiming to defend your Olympic title in Tokyo in 2020?
Yes, that is the goal. I already have the most Olympic medals for a mountain bike racer but I don’t have two gold medals like Julien Absalon, so I’d like to defend my title in Tokyo, and see if I can get another medal. Four medals in four games would be amazing.
What can be done to clean the sport of drug use?
Just more controls, more testing out of competition. In some countries the system is not working. We in Switzerland already have quite a good system, we get tested by three different kinds of organisations, and there is a lot of out of competition testing. But I hear that other countries do not have a lot of out of competition tests. There is no organisation that is ensuring that testing is consistent in every country.
I would say that cycling in general, and definitely mountain biking is cleaner than some years ago. Cross country mountain biking requires technical skills, and is a one day event, not an ultra endurance stage race like Tour de France, so it’s not just all about your engine. And there is not as much money at stake as on the road, so that also why I have the feeling that in mountain biking there are just a few cheating, I don’t think there are a lot- I don’t think I would be able to win races if it was that bad. I think on road it may be worse.