In a nail-biting final lap on a September day six months ago in Canberra, the young Swiss Nino Schurter upset established French pro Julian Absalon, a two-time Olympic Champion and former World Champion, to win the cross country World Championship.
Schurter was no stranger to world titles after years of success in the junior and under 23 ranks, but this day was special, bringing him his first elite title. Cyclingnews' Sue George spoke with Schurter in the week before he kicked off the 2010 season with a win at the Maremma Cup in Italy.
"It was a perfect day," recalled Schurter. "The course was exactly right for me. It was not too long on climbing, and it was pretty technical. We had good team tactics with the other two Swiss riders."
With riders like Ralp Naef, Florian Vogel, Christoph Sauser and Schurter, just to name a few, the Swiss are favorites at any World Cup or other major event. On that day in Canberra, chances looked good for the Swiss to keep the world title that Sauser had won the previous year in 2008 in Val di Sole, Italy.
"Not really," said Schurter when asked if he had thought before the race that he could beat Absalon. In fact, he had been sick and not following his training plan exactly during the time leading up to worlds, yet he was optimistic that someone on his team could carry the Swiss flag to the podium.
"We were thinking that one of us could win," said Schurter. "We'd see how it was going and who was able to win on that day."
Schurter was the one who found himself in the perfect position. He was left at the front to do battle, man-to-man, with Absalon, while behind him his Scott Swisspower trade teammate Vogel raced with Jose Antonio Hermida in third and fourth.
"I knew my teammate was in the second group and was not going to work with Hermida to chase me," said Schurter. "We were both able to save a lot of energy."
Schurter's confidence grew as the race wore on. "At first, I was just thinking that I have to try to stay on his wheel, and then I can go for the silver medal. Then, in the last lap, I started to think I could win because I noticed he was making some mistakes.
"My tactic was to stay on his wheel and outsprint him [to get in front on the singletrack] going into the last downhill. The last 200m was too short to pass, so I wanted to get to that last downhill first." His strategy worked, and the 23-year-old claimed his first elite rainbow striped jersey.
Life after the big day
Schurter, who hails from Chur, says his life hasn't changed too much since his worlds victory in Canberra though he has noticed that the attention on him has increased. "I have more media and sponsorship [obligations]… Most everything else is the same. I am still a mountain biker."
In Schurter's case, the saying "Once a mountain biker, always a mountain biker" applies. It's what he's good at and he clearly enjoys the sport. "I'm really comfortable racing. I like it. It what's I like to do.
"It's a great job. I can do what I like," he added.
At age seven, Schurter got his first taste of cycling competition. "I started when in a ski co-op and in the summer, for training, we went riding," said Schurter. "My brother and I took part in a mountain bike race. From then on, we started to do more mountain bike races."
Although his brother, two years older, switched to downhill racing and then stopped racing altogether, Schurter continued on the path of cross country.
Schurter is the perfect example of why Swiss mountain bikers are so good. Many of them start young and have plenty of opportunities to race interesting venues nearby with tough competition.
"Switzerland is a good country to ride mountain bikes. We have nice trails. You can ride everywhere. We have a good [national] series – the Racer Bikes Cup. You can race from kids up to pros. It's great."
"It's why we are so strong. Within two or three hours of driving, you can go to races with top athletes, and we push each other to bigger results."
2010 and beyond
Later this month, Schurter will try his first-ever mountain bike stage race by competing in the eight-day Cape Epic with his Scott Swisspower teammate Florian Vogel.
"It will be my first time," said Schurter. "I'm looking forward to it. It will be a new experience to do a stage race. I really like South Africa. I've spent a lot of time doing training camps there." He was there earlier this winter, logging some warm weather kilometres for training as he has for the past five years.
Schurter is modest about his expectations for the South African race. "We aren't going there to try to win. We are going there for training and to get a new experience."
He explained why the emphasis would not be on winning. "The level [of competition] is really high, and we don't know how our bodies will work. Eight days is a long time, and when you push too hard there, you could break your whole season. We don’t want to do that. We will maybe try to win a stage."
The Cape Epic, from March 21 to 28, is the only stage race on Schurter's 2010 calendar. He also has no plans to race marathons this season.
"There's not a lot of time to do races like that," he said. "The World Cup and World Championships are my goals for 2010."
The World Championships will be in Mont Sainte Anne, Canada, in September. The perennial triple-discipline World Cup venue is popular, especially among the cross country racers. "Mont Sainte Anne is a good course for me," said Schurter. "It's technical. I think I’m good on the technical stuff. My weakness is longer climbing." He pointed to other favorite courses… the World Championships in Lugano and also in Canberra.
Looking ahead, Schurter wants to excel at the Olympic Games in 2012 in London, England. He won a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, an achievement he called even "more special" than his elite worlds win. "It was the Olympic Games. It was my first Olympics. I was the youngest Swiss athlete to medal. It was a great moment.
"2012 is a big goal for me," he said. "I want to go for a medal that is more shiny than the bronze one."
Considering other disciplines
Although some elite mountain bikers such as Cadel Evans and Jakob Fuglsang, for example, have marched straight up the under 23 and elite mountain bike ranks and then jumped over to the road, Schurter says that's not his plan – at least not presently.
"I do both [for training]… 50 percent on the road and the mountain bike," he said. "I'm successful on the mountain bike and I have a good team. I'm not thinking of making a change now, but I don’t know what will come in the future."
Schurter, who spends a lot of time doing strength training in the gym, said he likes to mix up his training. "I never keep it all the same. I like a lot of different sports." He also does some Nordic and alpine skiing for cross training.
One sport that hasn't caught his fancy is cyclo-cross. "It's not really my thing. I tried it a few times. I don't like to race in the mud," he said. "I prefer to do a bit of resting [at that time of year]."
The talented Swiss racer does most of his winning on a 26-inch hardtail and has no plans to switch to the 29-inch platform. He does, however, race a full suspension bike for the bumpier races. "I know 29ers are popular in the US, but I don’t think it's a big thing," he said. "I tried it once. It might be an advantage on a soft course without too many corners, but the rotating weight is more for the wheels, so when you are pedaling up to speed out of a corner, you notice it. For most technical cross country courses we have now, we don't need one."
Schurter is hoping that his chosen sport of mountain biking will get more popular as the years pass. He has some suggestions on how that might happen. "I hope they make the races shorter and with more loops so it's better for spectators and for TV."
The rainbow-clad World Champion will certainly be easy to pick out on TV - or in person - throughout this season.
Nino Schurter's recent cross country racing palmares
2009 World Champion (Australia)
2010 World Cup - 5th overall
2008 Olympic Games (China) - bronze medal
2008 U23 World Champion (Italy)
2007 U23 World Championships - 2nd (Scotland)
2006 U23 World Champion (New Zealand)
2005 U23 World Championships - 3rd (Italy)
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Sue George is an editor at Cyclingnews. She coordinates all of the site's mountain bike race coverage and assists with the road, 'cross and track coverage.