The Original Swiss Sensation
By Steve Thomas
As part of a small contingent of adventurous European riders who came to America in the late ’80s, Thomas Frischknecht wasted no time in making known the level of winning talent that was about to descend on American shores. Not only was he a European in an American-dominated sport, but he came to mountain biking from a deep-rooted cyclocross background, where his efforts had already earned him a World Championship.
Bucking tradition, the young Swiss ace decided that his future lay in the hands of the all-new and freshly inspiring sport of mountain biking. So, in 1990, he traveled to America to compete against the original practitioners of the sport and, within just a few months, proved himself competitive by winning a NORBA National against America’s best.
Frischknecht’s ultimate flashpoint came when he had the audacity to challenge Ned Overend for the first-ever UCI-awarded World Championship XC crown in front of Ned’s hometown crowd in Durango, Colorado. Who was this skinny kid carrying his bike up the steep Purgatory Resort climbs all the while staying right on Ned’s rear wheel?
In later years, Frischi’s legacy was plagued by silver medals. At the first-ever Olympic mountain bike race in Atlanta in 1996, he finished second to Bart Brentjens (before riding a cyclocross bike in the following day’s road race).
And, there was his string of XC World Championship silver medals, which remain clouded in controversy. In fact, the one XC gold he earned was awarded years after the race when original first-place finisher Jerome Chiotti eventually owned up to his doping and handed back the rainbow jersey to its rightful Swiss owner.
In 2003 and 2005, Thomas added World Marathon titles to his super-impressive list of achievements, earned during a very long career that outlasted all of his early rivals.
Although his own competitive days are a thing of the past, Thomas stays current in the sport, as he runs the Scott-SRAM MTB team, which not only includes his Swiss protégé Nino Shurter (the winningest XC rider of all time), but also his up-and-coming son, Andri.
THE FRISCHI FILES
Steve Thomas: Coming from cyclocross to mountain biking in the early days, what drew you to the sport, and how was mountain biking accepted then, especially by your dad?
Thomas Frischknecht: My dad was a professional cyclocross racer in the ’70s and ’80s. This is how I was born into the sport. When I was 17, I started to pay attention to mountain bikes. At the age of 20, I was the first European to spend the season in the U.S. to race the NORBA nationals.
At the time, mountain biking was far less recognized than cyclocross. It was not well-received by everyone when I switched, especially by my dad, who thought that it was a waste of time.
ST: How did your American racing experience begin?
TF: I started my mountain bike career with Ritchey in the spring of 1990 and came to America to first race at the Traverse City NORBA race, where I placed 17th and Tomac won. The second race in Mount Snow, I won ahead of “Old Neverend” and Tomac. I did the whole NORBA series prior to Worlds in Durango.
ST: What is your memory of the Durango Worlds, and especially the back-and-forth battle you had with Ned Overend?
TF: I was 20 years old and had nothing to lose. I was super happy with my second-place finish and was happy to step on the podium with Ned and Tim Gould. I figured second was great, and I would take the gold next time. Only then there was another second, and another second came after, followed by the EPO period when I kind of lost my chances for gold for a while.
ST: You, Henrik Djernis and Mike Kluge all came from cyclocross (and were all World Champions), but there were not too many mainstream cycling converts to mountain bikes. What was it like entering a new sport, and what things did you have to adapt to?
TF: The ’cross racers had the riding skills that made them better than others, except for John Tomac that is. The young cycling discipline offered new opportunities and was not too tradition-driven like other cycling disciplines. I liked that at the age of 20.
ST: More top cyclocross riders have moved to racing the road WorldTour recently (including Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert), but not many moved to mountain bikes.
TF: The riding skills are something that you have to have in the early days of a career. Performance, power and endurance are something that you can train to achieve after.
That’s why this works only one way. The roadies don’t have the riding skills it takes to be successful off-road.
ST: What are your thoughts on MVDP’s approach, and is it something you think we need more of, or is it purely his arena?
TF: He is an awesome rider—very gifted in talent and exactly what we need in our sport. The sport lives on rivals who put on a show. In the past, it was Absalon versus Nino, then Kulhavy versus Nino. Now it’s MVDP. Let’s hope this duel lasts for a long period again.
ST: Did you encourage Nino or other riders to mix disciplines? Why do we not see more of it?
TF: Nino knows exactly what he wants, and he clearly wants to focus on that—and to do that one thing right. Racing in the wintertime is not his thing. He prefers to be on the snow whenever possible. Both Lars (Forster) and my son, Andri, love to race cyclocross. I leave them the freedom to do what they like. Usually, that’s best for the motivation of an athlete.
ST: How different was the mountain biking spirit back then compared to now, and how did you see it change as the UCI became involved, and then the Olympics?
TF: The spirit back then was good—and today it still is. Many things changed, but the love of the sport remained over all these years. Sure, these days things are a lot more hectic; but, in principle, it’s more the race format and equipment that changed drastically, not the spirit itself.
ST: Courses, racing style, everything is far from what it was 25 years ago. What are the good and bad points of that evolution?
TF: Mountain biking first had to figure out what the best format was for racing. That took quite some time. The evolution of shorter and more spectacular racing has only positive aspects. We are now a TV-friendly sport, not like 25 years ago.
ST: Could you ride a modern course on your pre-suspension bike? And, do you think man-made courses have taken away from the natural aspect?
TF: I tried that in Val di Sole two years ago. It’s very tough if not impossible. The drops and jumps of today are very difficult with a bike of the ‘90s. Man-made courses are part of making the sport spectator-friendly, but there are good examples that modern courses still can be natural. Mont Saint Anne (in Canada) is a good example.
ST: The Ritchey squad always stood apart from the crowd, owing to Tom’s insistence that they rely on lightweight steel frames like the P21 and P20 when most others were moving to aluminum frames. What were those bikes like?
TF: Today, in the times of carbon, people forget that early 1990 Ritchey steel frames were state of the art as far as manufacturing and light weight goes. I did feel an advantage over my competitors, especially with my cyclocross background. My Ritchey felt like a ’cross bike that was transformed into a mountain bike.
ST: In between running a rigid fork and eventually using a Rock Shox, the Ritchey team relied on Softride (suspension) stems. Do you think it held you back at all?
TF: You have to understand that a suspension fork in 1993 did not have the same to offer as they do today. Those with less than 60mm of travel did not do the job. At that time, the Softride stem was a good alternative. Henrik Djernis and Ruthie Matthes won the World Championship using them, and I won the World Cup overall on Softride. We were faster than the riders with suspension forks.
ST: Whom do you rank as the greatest three riders of the early days, and how would they compare to the new generation?
TF: John Tomac, Henrik Djernis and Ned Overend.
Tomac had the riding style, like Nino Schurter does today.
Djernis was the super talent who won World Championship titles in mountain bike and cyclocross. Overend was a fighter, much like we have seen in Jose Hermida in past years.
ST: What personal changes did you see in your career, from racing with Ned through to Nino?
TF: Back in the day, it was much more of a one-man business than in the era of Nino today. I was wrenching on my bike myself at the beginning and traveling a lot by car and driving myself. Today, Nino has a whole team around him to do some of his work.
ST: When did you suspect that doping was creeping into the sport, and how did the French dominance play a part in that?
TF: Soon after the announcement that mountain biking was to become an Olympic discipline, the sport started to see some cheaters. Also, they came from other countries that were not on the racing map before. It was by far not only the French, but they came in the biggest number.
ST: What are your feelings now after Jerome Chiotti admitted to doping at the 1996 World Championships where he beat you?
TF: He was under pressure after the book came out, which exposed the doping that had occurred with the Festina road team (which he’d ridden with prior to racing mountain bikes). Chiotti, at least, was the only one who felt sorry for taking something away from me. There are still a couple of gold medals pending from my career that belong to me.
ST: What would you list as your favorite races, bikes, and products?
TF: In my opinion, the  World Championship in Lenzerheide was the best race in history. Favorites are always a tough call, as it depends on the period, just like music. It constantly changes. Right now, my favorite bike is the Scott Addis gravel bike with a SRAM AXS mountain bike drivetrain. The best product of the past years is the dropper seatpost.
ST: You always trained on feel. Did that change in time, and do you encourage any of your riders in that direction? What training ideals do you work on with them?
TF: Today, you have to have a strict training schedule to get somewhere; however, that feel is still important—to listen to your body and ask yourself if everything you do is the right way of doing it. Not having a training schedule forced me to ask myself exactly these same questions day by day.
ST: There were many unique classic races back then. Would you like to see a more varied racing program again?
TF: It would be nice to have two to three more World Cup races, yes. And one would have to be in the U.S. It’s a shame that we are not racing anymore in the birthplace of the sport.
ST: You did the Three Peaks Cyclocross a few years ago in really bad weather (as your father did before you). What was it like?
TF: That was the toughest race I did in my entire life. The Brits are crazy!
ST: Do you still have any bucket-list rides or races you want to do?
TF: Oh, yes. And it’s still a long list. Not so much for the racing, but for other things. I recently did a gravel bike trip with my wife, riding from home in Switzerland to Tuscany; 1,075km in eight days. I’d like to ride along the whole coastline of Italy. Not all at once, but in stages over years. Next thing on my bucket list of events is the L’Eroica in Siena.
ST: Gravel and endurance racing is really up-and-coming, and with much of the old MTB spirit. The UCI seems to want a part of it. How do you see all of this?
TF: I consider myself a cyclist—not a roadie, not a cyclocrosser, not a mountain biker. I really love the variety of all cycling disciplines. But, do we need to race all of it? The UCI is the governing body of cycling races. In my opinion, the UCI should keep its hands off of e-MTB races and gravel events.
ST: How do you think the COVID-19 situation will impact the sport over the next years?
TF: It sure will have a bigger impact than we hope right now. The sport lives off the events; events survive on sponsors, and sponsors depend on the spectators. It’s questionable that we will see events with 20,000 people on site next year.
Our sport is a fragile building. We live off a healthy economy, sponsors, events and fans that follow our sport. It all has to play together to make it work. At least COVID-19 created a great interest in cycling in general. If the bike industry can benefit from this momentum, we might have a brighter future ahead of us.