Catching Up With
By Steve Thomas
Swiss cross-country ace and current Olympic XC champion Nino Shurter has been the standout male mountain bike racer of the last decade—not just because of his amazing results but also for his obvious and uncompromising passion for the sport.
Like anyone, Nino surely enjoys winning races—and, as an eight-time world champion, seven-time World Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist, he has enjoyed his fair share of wins! But equally obvious, and perhaps more important, is that he simply loves to ride and has fun doing it. In fact, it could be this dual-threat that makes him so hard to beat.
As Nino’s storied pro career rolls into its second decade, many have wondered just how long he can keep up his winning ways. No doubt Nino is aware that while he’s not getting any younger, there are also newer names to the game (chiefly Mathieu van der Poel) who have risen to successfully contest his status.
We caught up with Nino during a period when he should have been defending his Olympic title in Tokyo. Instead, much like the rest of us, he found himself realigning his goals and life to deal with a rapidly changing new world constrained by a pandemic.
Steve Thomas: How many hours a week do you train?
Nino Schurter: From 12 hours for a really easy recovery week up to 35 hours for a really hard one.
ST: What kind of bikes did you start with, and what sort of trails did you first get into riding?
NS: I started on a BMX bike, because there were no good kids’ mountain bikes available at that time. On those bikes, my brother and I chased each other all through the town and built jumps. I grew up in a tiny remote mountain town in the Swiss Alps, surrounded with challenging trails.
ST: You first raced downhill, so what made you focus on cross-country?
NS: I entered the Swiss Bike Cup, which was the racing series for kids. Having success in XC from the beginning, I stuck with it. Meanwhile, my brother focused on DH.
ST: What’s your feeling towards road racing? Did you ever consider mixing it up more like Mathieu van der Poel?
NS: It was a great experience for me to race the Tour de Romandie and the Tour de Suisse on a WorldTour team; however, mountain bikes are my discipline of choice, and I like to be at the start line going for the win. In order to be successful on the road, it would require me to fully focus on that. I don’t believe a mix of both would work out for me in the long term.
I’m also maybe too much of an individualist to fit into a large road team. I stick to what I’m best at. I see Mathieu as an exception. He’s got huge talent and comes from a different background than I do.
ST: What’s your take on gravel racing? Have you ever thought of trying it?
NS: I look at gravel riding as a great alternative to road bikes. Being able to escape from traffic becomes more and more a demand. The gravel bike is very versatile, but I just don’t have the time for gravel racing as long as I’m on the XC World Cup tour.
ST: What are your favorite kinds of trails and riding style?
NS: The more demanding the better. Whenever I can make use of my Scott Ransom with 170mm of travel, I’m on my trail of choice. To get the best experience, I like to ride with others riding at my level or faster. My brother, for example, can still challenge me whenever we go downhill.
ST: You have amazing technical skills and seem to love to entertaining the crowds. Where does this come from?
NS: The answer is pretty simple. I love to ride and I love to race my bike. This sometimes might seem like I’m showing off. I’m not sure if I do it for the fans or just because I like to have fun whenever possible.
ST: What would be your typical training structure in the buildup to racing?
NS: That’s not a simple answer. It’s all structured in different phases with different aims. I do a mix of endurance training and intervals and quite a lot of work in the gym, combining power with coordination skill.
ST: You seem to do some brutal gym sessions and cross-training. What is your cross-training theory?
NS: The intensity of XC racing requires power. In addition, the technical parts of a racecourse require balance and coordination. In a so-called circuit training session, I combine all this into one very intense training session. It’s kind of a race simulation in the gym. I do this throughout the whole year. In pre-season preparation, I do it several times a week.
My coach, Nicolas Siegenthaler, sets the program, which I more or less follow strictly; however, over the years I have become very experienced and can change the training around some, depending on the circumstances.
There are days when I don’t feel 100 percent recovered. I respect such moments and don’t force it too much.
ST: XC races are short compared to the four-day-long Cape Epic; how do you handle that duration?
NS: Prior to the season, I typically build up more endurance. This goes along well with the Cape Epic participation. If the Cape Epic were in June, it would not be possible for me to compete. After all the years of training, I don’t have problems with the duration of a stage race. But, it is clear certain things have to be done differently due to the duration. In particular, nutrition and recovery get more attention.
ST: Have you ever thought of riding some enduros?
NS: Again, I believe in only doing one thing without compromise and doing that right. As long as I race XC, there is just no time to race enduro. If I ever decide on doing this, then I’ll do it seriously and focus on it. The level in enduro racing is incredibly high. These guys are super fast. It would take everything I have to participate and somehow be in the mix.
ST: Switzerland has some classic marathon races, such as the Grand Raid. Do you think that the overall World Cup should be more varied than the Olympic format to give an all-around appeal?
NS: No. For me, XC racing is an Olympic discipline and should keep this character. The formula of a 90-minute race on a 4–5-kilometer course is working great for spectators and TV. It’s attractive to watch. Marathon is a great discipline as well, but it should keep in its own world.
ST: What is the toughest race you’ve ever done?
NS: In my first participation at the Cape Epic, together with Florian Vogel, I once bonked so hard in one of the stages that I barely made it to the finish. We had a 2-minute solo lead with 5 kilometers to go, but I missed the last feed zone. I was so empty, I could barely stay on my bike.
ST: The Olympics clearly mean a lot to you. How did you feel when Peter Sagan showed up at Rio?
NS: I worked for many years towards the goal of winning gold at the Olympics, so it was extremely satisfying when I finally reached my dream. I wasn’t too nervous about Sagan; it was more about, can I show 110 percent of what I have? I knew I was best prepared and in excellent shape. In such moments, I focus on myself and not on who else is there or what they do.
ST: You are very media and social media savvy, and you produce some great GoPro videos. Do you do all of it yourself?
NS: Yes. Photography and filming is a hobby of mine. I also like to edit the videos myself. The tools GoPro offers for this make it easy. I see it as part of my job.
ST: It seems that you were still able to train during COVID. How did you alter your riding, and what precautions do you take out there?
NS: In Switzerland, I was able to train at all times. Therefore, my training was not any different than if I would prepare for a regular season. I kind of did my typical December, January and February training in April, May and June.
ST: How strict are you with your diet? Are there any specific things you avoid eating?
NS: There is no strict diet in my life. I’m not vegan, vegetarian or gluten-free; the closest label for my diet would be a Mediterranean diet.
Over the past years, I’ve reduced meat and processed food to a minimum. One thing I pay attention to is buying quality food and ingredients. Where things come from is important to me.
ST: You’ve been with the same team all these years. How has that influenced you?
NS: Over all these years, I’ve been happy with what my team had to offer. I felt comfortable in this team and also had some influence in how things work within the team. Also, I’ve had the same coach through all of those years. I like to keep things as they are as long as they work out fine for me. Never change a winning team!
ST: How much input into the design have you had on your bike, and what specific areas do you focus on?
NS: Scott has always listened very carefully to the input I’ve had in regards to the equipment. I’d say that the influence from the Scott-SRAM team and me on how my Scott Spark rides today was quite significant. We look at all areas where we think there is potential in development. In the end, there are a number of areas that all have to be synchronized to work together. For example, we are now running 29-inch wheels with wider 30mm rims and 2.4-inch tires, which required longer suspension than the regular 100mm of travel we used to have when the tires and rims were smaller.
ST: Which riders have you respected the most as competitors?
NS: Jose Antonio Hermida for his natural ability, Julien Absalon because I was looking up to him when I started my professional career, and currently Mathieu van der Poel because he is the man to beat at the moment.
Mountain Bike Action is a monthly magazine devoted to all things mountain biking (yes, that’s 12 times a year because we never take a month off of mountain biking). It has been around since 1986 and we’re still having fun.