Interview: Thomas Frischknecht

When it turned out that Americans racing cyclo-cross in Europe in the late 80’s were a novelty that promoters were willing to pay to come race, a pair of Ritchey racers took advantage of their sideshow status to race ‘cross in Sardinia, Italy. It’s there where they spotted the talent of a junior racer from Switzerland, who was sporting the rainbow stripes given only to the world champion. 18-year-old Thomas Frischknecht – it seemed – had something the others just didn’t and, if he was that good at ‘cross, what could he do in this new sport of “mountain biking?”

Frischknecht, or “Frischi” as he’s commonly known, was invited to race mountain bikes for Ritchey, which evolved into a 30-year friendship between Tom Ritchey and Thomas Frischknecht. But Frischi’s interests went beyond pinning on a race number and breathing in the high of winning (which happened to him a lot); his focus was on making the bike faster as well. To Frischi sport performance involved the equipment as well as the racer and together with Ritchey, Frischi took a chance on being the first to try new technologies in order to be first.

A racer in the prime of his career, with access to state-of-the-art equipment, can expect to do reasonably well if he plans for success by training, racing, resting, and fulfilling his nutritional needs. “Success” in pro mountain biking however, became a dirty game for a time for whomever was willing to play pay. Frischi has since forgiven the cheater who later turned over the 1996 world champion’s jersey and medal, which he won dishonestly, to second-placed Frischi, though four years after-the-fact. After that, when Frisci could have given up on mountain biking in disgust, instead he went on to a “second career” after the sport got clean again.

Now he’s in charge of the white-hot Scott-SRAM mountain bike team, which is currently headlined by two of the biggest names in pro mountain biking. We know that Nino Schurter and Kate Courtney have fast legs and a will to win, but those aren’t the only characteristics that Frischi looks for when scouting new talent for team. Kate had already committed to the team…and then she won the 2018 world championships, which sure didn’t hurt her status.

Thomas Frischknect is one of the most enduring names since the beginning of mountain biking and his name is as relevant now as the manager of the world’s best team, as it was when he won the silver medal at the first Olympic mountain bike event in 1996.

Here we ask Frischi about being first, “losing” to cheaters, his Olympic predictions, and about a relationship with Ritchey that’s lasted 30 years.

What’s in a name?

Who first called you “Frischi” and how come the name stuck?

TF: I’ve had many nicknames over the years: Silverfrisch; Friskys; Tomboy; Swiss Miss…to name a few. Frischi was the only one without a negative touch so I started using that one myself. Frischknecht is somehow impossible to pronounce for any English-speaking people.

You’re often referred to as the “Elder Statesman” and even the “grandaddy” of European mountain biking. Do you like those monikers?

TF: “Grandaddy” – this is the first time I’ve heard this, but “Elder Statesman” or “Legend” on the other had, I take as a compliment.

On the highs and lows of your racing career

Did you start mountain biking with the intention to race professionally?

TF: I was a professional cyclo-cross racer when I started mountain biking. When I saw the potential of this sport my interest shifted to MTB

What hooked you on mountain biking?

TF: The people and travelling to great places. In both regards, racing cyclo-cross in Belgium didn’t have the same to offer. Mountain biking in general looked very attractive to me and, at the age of 20, I kind of wanted to explore something new that I hadn’t done before.

Until now, you’ve endured two of the lowest points in the history of mountain biking, both of which had a direct effect on you. Can you describe that moment when Jerome Chiotti admitted to you that he cheated in the 1996 World Championships and what happened afterward?

TF: Jerome was just the tip of the iceberg in the mid 90’s — he was kind of synonymous for what was going on in the sport at that time. Luckily I was there before the sport got dirty, I survived and had a second career from 2001-2008, after the sport got clean again.

Have you been able to forgive Chiotti?

TF: Yes, because he at least had the balls to invite me to Paris, apologize, and give me his world champion jersey and the gold medal. Others didn’t.

The outlook for mountain biking was starting to look grim in the early 2000’s, evidenced by a reduced World Cup race calendar and shrinking sponsorship budgets. 2003 listed just five race events while 2019 had eight cross-country events (10 World Cup events in all). Was it a struggle to survive that downturn?

TF: I didn’t feel that this time was a crisis. For me it was the other way around since I started the Swisspower team in 2002 (now the SCOTT-SRAM team). The world cup suffered because of sponsorship, but many national series were strong back then.

Your career is marked by firsts, like first Swiss Olympic medalist in mountain biking, first foreigner to win La Ruta de los Conquistadores (2005), and the first Swiss mountain bike legend. What else can we add to this list?

TF: The first to race equipment that changed the market. For example Ritchey’s 2x9 drivetrain in 1994, semi-slick tires (Ritchey Speedmax) at the 1996 Olympics, a “full suspension” bike (the Ritchey Softail at the 1996 Worlds), and tubulars (Dugast) at the 2004 Olympics.

Your connection to Tom Ritchey will celebrate 30 years in 2020. How did the friendship start?

TF: When I joined Team Ritchey at 20 years old in 1990, Tom was at first a legend to me. Once he saw my determination – not only in racing, but also my interest in development – Tom really took me under his wing and began to promote me. He is an awesome mentor in many ways. Sharing our ideas and putting them into production changed some standards in the industry several times. What grew out of this was a great friendship; I’m very honored.

From Scott-Swisspower to Scott-SRAM 

Did you approach Scott with a proposal to start a team or was it the other way around?

TF: The Swiss national coach (and my personal coach in my early years), Andi Seeli, had the idea of a “private” organized Swiss national team to develop the best Swiss talent into pro racers. With Swisspower he brought in the title sponsor, then I convinced brands within the bike industry, such as Scott, SRAM, and DT Swiss, to become sponsors.

Kate Courtney has called you a “mentor” more than once in interviews. How do you mentor your racers?

TF: Being in the sport for 30 years, I have some experience. Athletes often need a second opinion or some guidance in making the right decisions.

Kate also mentioned that you had expressed interest in her joining the team before her world championship win. What do you look for when you’re scouting new talent?

TF: She committed to SCOTT-SRAM before she won Worlds. In her case, she brought the right package we were looking for. She’s not only fast, she’s also super smart, sells herself excellently with the media and most important to me — she is fun!

Jenny Rissveds has gone on to form her own team in support of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, specifically article 31; Kate Courtney is involved with Little Bellas, mentoring on mountain bikes for girls. Do you think these are unintended consequences of your mentoring?

TF: Absolutely not. These are their own projects that that come from the heart. But I support the idea to do more than just racing from start to finish. Such projects have a very important and deeper meaning

The 2020 Olympics

How do you think the Tokyo racecourse matches up to Olympic racecourses in the recent past? To your 1996 racecourse?

TF: Tokyo will be a very spectacular course with huge jumps and drops — far away from what we were racing in 1996.

What makes a great Olympic racecourse?

TF: The most complete athletes should be on the podium. This means that the course should not only be physically- but also technically-demanding

Will you attend the Olympics?

TF: Yes, I’ll be commentating on the races for Swiss television, same as in London and Rio. 

One last vital question: what are your men’s and women’s podium predictions for the Olympics?

“I may be a gypsy but I’m not a future teller”