Nino Schurter about motivation, strategies and luck
Honour to whom honour is due, number 18 of the 20 heads series for 2020 is dedicated to the reigning world champion in men’s singles. Nino Schurter has already achieved legendary status among the elite with his 2016 Olympic victory and his splendid eight rainbow jerseys. In Switzerland, he has moved into the front row of national sports heroes and has helped to ensure that the cross-country discipline attracts remarkable media interest in his home country. The interview also focuses on what’s behind an athlete’s successes, what motivates they and why they believe that luck plays an important role in his career.
One day after his 34th birthday, he comes in for a telephone interview on a Thursday evening. It is before the UCI, the world cycling federation, schedules the World Cup opener for September. The father of a family is a little late because an interview previously took longer than planned. Nino Schurter’s days are pretty full even in times of the Corona pandemic without competition. Media inquiries, sponsor appointments, video shoots and so on fill the weeks around training and family. Some time ago, Schurter spoke of not accepting “nine out of ten” requests. This shows on the one hand that he is a person who has learned to say “no” and on the other hand how much lies ahead of him in the meantime. There is a little more time at the moment and Nino Schurter can give these extras more space. He also gives space to his answers. Before he speaks, usually one or two seconds pass by.
Nino Schurter, how are you doing in and with this non-competitive time?
I’m trying to make the best of it, there’s nothing else to do.
Your wife Nina, with whom you have been involved since you were a teenager, knows you practically only as the athlete who follows the rhythm of the competition. That’s probably new territory, isn’t it?
When I’m at home, I’m intensively at home. I don’t go to work in the morning and come home late at night. I already know that, being at home. It’s probably a long time now, but we enjoy it very much as a family. So far we are coping quite well, even though we see each other a little bit more than usual (laughs).
What does your everyday life look like?
Pretty much the same as usual, actually. I still train exactly the same, only the competitions are cancelled. The daily routine is pretty much the same as when I’m usually at home. In winter, in December and January, I don’t compete for a long time either and train for myself.
Keyword training. What kind of strategy do you follow without these usual competitions?
I try to work a little bit on different aspects so that I am ready when it starts again. I actually train very intensively, last week I did a longer endurance block, different intervals. I try to improve my thresholds, to improve my VO2-Max (maximum oxygen uptake). I try to use the time, that you have so much time for training, which is rare. If you have to race, you can’t train so specifically. Now we really have the opportunity to work on different things.
How difficult is it to mentally renounce these competitions, which you have known since teenage age and which is normally an orientation for you?
Of course it is a bit difficult because you don’t know when it will start again. But at least you know what next year will look like. The training routine helps to have a certain flow.
Besides the training there are certainly other things to do. How many interviews and appointments did you have this week?
Quite a lot (laughs). But of course it’s nice that I can still provide a platform for my partners despite the lack of competitions. That I can do my work as an advertising medium even without racing. I now consciously take a little more time for such things, small video campaigns for example. Before, I had to say that I prepare for big competitions and have no time. But now I am more available for the media and my partners.
You once said in an interview that you would turn down nine out of ten requests. So you can reduce this rate at the moment?
Yes, phew, but I still have to turn down a lot. But I appreciate that I am in the situation of choosing the nice things, the things that are fun.
You are eight times World Champion, seven times overall World Cup winner, have won all three Olympic medals, do you sometimes think in a quiet minute: the alarm clock is about to ring and I wake up from my dream?
When I think about it, only then do I become aware of it. Otherwise I don’t feel that I have achieved a lot in particular, but like every other racer out there. I want to do my best and success doesn’t matter.
So what lies behind doesn’t matter. Only the next race counts?
Of course it gives you a sense of serenity, knowing I have already achieved a lot. But I forget that pretty quickly and focus on what’s coming.
Nino Schurter’s success record is already the best in mountain bike history. He rarely had to deal with defeats, both at a young age and later. At the Olympic Games in London the Czech Jaroslav Kulhavy was his biggest rival. They arrived at the finish together and Kulhavy managed to pass the man from Grisons before the last turn and won the race very close. Kulhavy also beat Schurter at his home world championship in Champéry. He was also a favourite at the U23 World Championship in Fort William, Scotland, in 2007 when he had to give way to the Dane Jakob Fuglsang and in 2013 he was beaten by Julien Absalon at his home European Championship, just as he was at the 2014 World Championship. But there is not much more flaw in his career.
The Olympic victory in Rio, after silver in London and bronze in Beijing, was the gold medal the success that contributed most to this serenity?
It was certainly an important success for me. If I were still without an Olympic victory today, I would probably be more nervous, even in the current situation. I can handle it more relaxed because I know that I was able to celebrate this success. If it comes to another big success at Olympic Games, it’s great. If not, it won´t be the end of the world for me as an athlete. Yes, I think that was already an important success. Every athlete dreams of an Olympic victory and achieving that gives you more relaxed.
After the victory you also showed more emotions than usual.
Olympia is simply something special. If you make it in the race that only takes place every four years, it’s just even more special than in a World Championship that takes place every year.
Especially as with you perhaps the history in London played an additional role.
Sure. If I had finished second again, everything would look different.
There have been very few defeats in your career if you consider second place a defeat. Do you see second place as defeat?
It depends on the situation. In London it was certainly a defeat for me, certainly one of my biggest defeats, because I was extremely close and it wasn’t enough. At other competitions it depends on whether it was the best I could give. Also how a result is achieved. I am someone who always wants to be the best. I think this is a reason why I am so successful. Because I am usually not satisfied with second places.
When you were 14 years old you told your older brother Mario that you wanted to race at the front when you were as old as he is.
(Smiles). I just like the competition. Even now and if it’s only on Strava. I enjoy competing. You have to be the type of person who needs that incentive, to have that ambition, too. You can also call it doggedness (laughs). It depends on the perspective.
If you take a step back and look at yourself: do you sometimes see yourself as dogged?
Yes, I think it is a little bit of everything. Sometimes it takes a little bit of doggedness. I wouldn’t consider myself to be the most dogged, but I think if you want to achieve something, you have to be. A dogged approach can also be understood as focused, determined. As I said, it depends on the perspective.
Nino Schurter shares the fate of most athletes who become serial winners. They often win because they are very focused and determined, as he puts it himself. Large events are very well planned and leave little room for energy-draining sideshows. This, combined with his rather calm and introverted nature, makes him seem rather aloof to the outside world.
But this is only an excerpt of his personality and if there is room for it, you can experience an open but modest Nino Schurter, who can also not begrudge competitors of successes. Not only did he celebrate the victory of his team mate Lars Forster in Snowshoe. Even before he had won a World Cup himself, he gave up a World Cup podium in favour of his team mate Florian Vogel, for example, by giving him his wheel when it broke down. And the fact that he has been riding Scott bikes since 2001, has been part of the same team since 2003, and has had the same coach, Nicolas Siegenthaler, since 2001, speaks for consistency and reliability.
He grew up in Tersnaus, a small Grisons mountain village with less than 100 inhabitants. His father Ernst was an ice hockey goalkeeper in his early years and later also a downhill national coach for a few years. In an interview, mother Franziska once said that her two sons Mario and Nino were driven by the desire to win. The possibly equally talented and two years older brother Mario was stopped by a broken leg, but at least he took part in a Junior World Championship as a downhiller.
One part is the athlete Nino Schurter. Are you also focused and determined in other areas of life?
I think I’ve been lucky enough to find where my talent is. The sport in which I am talented and where I am also focused and determined. I wouldn’t say that I am that in all areas of life.
Who is responsible for you having found this sport for yourself?
That is luck.
Your parents have lived it to a certain extent as well.
Sure, yeah. But it could have been different. Maybe I would have done a sport where I had less talent. I think that I already bring a lot to the mountain bike sport. I also did judo as a child and ski-alpine racing. If I had stayed with that, would everything have been different?
Did you have talent in alpine skiing?
I wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t among the very best either, as far as I remember. I came to mountain biking through regional ski training. With alpine skiing you have to put a lot of effort into it and we quickly found the joy of mountain biking. I rode my first race when I was seven years old. My brother and I also rode around at home a lot on bikes and had fun with technical riding, although endurance was more important in the kids’ races back then.
Coaches and sports scientists in the Swiss Association attribute two essential success factors to Nino Schurter. He does not set the records anywhere in tests, but he is always right up there at the front. This allows him to find his way on all routes in this mountain bike world. The other aspect is that he manages to get even more out of himself with his team and meticulousness . That’s probably the only way to become a serial winner in a discipline like cross-country, where the demands are always varying. It took Nino Schurter ten seasons for his 32 World Cup victories so far, the previous record holder Julien Absalon (France) 16 years for 33.
Allow me to return to the subject of defeat. The last time you lost, you cheered.
Ah, you mean the World Cup finals in Snowshoe.
Yes, when you were beaten by your teammate, Lars Forster at the finish.
That was no defeat. The situation was that in the last round we were both up front and I thought to myself: now I’m going at full throttle and try to take the chance for us. So I made a little sacrifice for Lars instead of trying to beat him and possibly give others the chance to catch up. I was leading the last half lap until Lars attacked. I drove at full throttle and thought that if Lars could come along, he would come along and maybe be stronger in the end. If it were somebody else, I would have proceeded tactically for sure. So I could help him to win and I won the overall World Cup.
But at the same time it was this 33rd World Cup win that would have made you equal to Julien Absalon in the eternal top list of the Cross-Country World Cup. That didn’t matter?
No, it didn’t. I’m an optimist and I’m confident that I’ll get him this year (laughs). Maybe the Corona crisis will upset my plans. No, no, we’re still doing World Cup races.
You think so?
I think it will be a very intense autumn.
The interview was conducted before the UCI published a new calendar. If the pandemic allows it, it will indeed be a hot autumn, with seven top-class races (World
Cup, World Championship and European Championship) in six weeks.
You ride your whole career in the same team, are coached by the same coach. This is very unusual, maybe even unique. Many athletes are looking for new impulses – even in success – at some point. Why did you not need this?
An important reason is that I was lucky. Right from the start I met the right people, found a coach I trusted from the beginning, with whom I could build something. We grew together and then the team grew together. I think you lose a lot when you change teams. When you work together for years, there are constellations and processes that only work if you have been together for a long time. You can only reap the fruits if you have been together for a long time.
So there was never any thought of a change?
In my career I have also thought about a change once or twice, wondering if it makes sense to do something different. But I always came to the conclusion that there was nothing better for me. I can benefit so much if I know all the people and we know exactly how to do things. It takes luck here, too and I’ve had it in my career. Of course, it also depends on how you deal with your people, how you work together. That took a lot of energy, but it’s important, also for your sporting career.
These thoughts about change, was it about the team?
Yeah, once or twice. Of course, I’ve also considered the options. Also with the coach I thought about whether I need the change. But I always came to the conclusion: I have the best team, I have the best coach and I am successful. There is no reason for a change.
Has the work with your coach changed? Over the years you have gained a lot of experience from the feedback your body gives you.
Yes, of course. Also with the team. In the beginning I just took part. Today I also determine a lot about how I want to do and handle things. Also in the training area. For me a coach is simply extremely important for exchange. Even if I could do it by myself today, I still want someone with whom I can discuss things. Everyone who trains himself loses the view from the outside. That’s what I really appreciate about my coach. There are sometimes weeks when I plan my training. Then there are weeks when I don’t even think about what I should train, but look at my training plan and do exactly that. It also depends on my mood whether I want to decide for myself or simply trust Nicolas. It’s the same with the team. Frischi (Thomas Frischknecht) was first a role model and then team manager. In the beginning I was only one of many and today I can also have a say in a lot of things – which I appreciate.
Can you also have a say in the team constellation? Are you asked about who will be signed?
Yes, my opinion is asked. In the end it is a decision of many parties. But in recent years I have always been asked whether I agree with it or not. But it is not my team. The sponsors and Frischi decide, I only give my opinion.
In connection with the training you have just mentioned your mood, which can play a role. How important do you think it is for an athlete to be able to pay attention to his or her mood and react?
You have to find a balance. It is important to listen to yourself and your body. But when it comes to training, sometimes I have too much on my plate, so that I could still have enough good thoughts about my training. Then I just follow the plan. When I have more time, when I have the feeling that I need this or that, then we discuss it. I plan it myself and we discuss it. In these other phases I lack the energy to do that, so I’m happy to have someone I can trust. In most cases, my coach rather slows me down. He rather has to say, do less.
That probably applies to the vast majority of top athletes.
I think that’s the biggest mistake people make. But if it doesn’t go well, it’s just much harder to say: I’m doing less now. It’s difficult to stay cool and follow your program. It just takes much more self-confidence.
Do you know such phases where it doesn’t go well? It’s hard to remember something like that with you right away.
Yes, I do. In spring 2019, for example, when there were a lot of muddy races, I wasn’t satisfied with my performance. I wasn’t satisfied with myself when I finished sixth in Albstadt. A few things came together that made me think. It’s important to analyze and to recognize why is that and how is that. Looking back, moments like that are good.
In what way?
Surely also, to make it clear that not everything can always be perfect. Even to experience some dissatisfaction. If you are always satisfied, then you think it’s going well and, consequently, you let up. To feel again and again that there is no automatism.
In Albstadt 2019 you were sixth. At the finish line you actually felt that you were not at peace with yourself.
I just don’t like rain, I don’t like mud (laughs).
A journalist once called you Mr. Perfect. If you wanted to find a flaw in your performance, you’d probably find it in the mud races.
Yeah, I don’t think that’s one of my strengths. Especially when combined with cold. I’m the first one to have cold fingers…
… plus the trouble with the brakes and the gears and…
Exactly. Then I don’t know how to deal with the situation, why I do it to myself and everything.
Is that so? You’re getting in trouble, too?
Yeah, when the conditions are this bad. Then the conditions are the problem (laughs).
In 2010, when you couldn’t defend your World Championship title at Mont Sainte Anne because of two defects, you weren’t as angry at the finish as you were last year in Albstadt. You took that better.
I would have won there without the defects. In Albstadt, it was me who couldn’t manage, not the material.
What stands out in your career is the incredible consistency. There’s no such thing as a really bad year. Individual failures maybe, but no real dent in performance. Since your first World Cup victory in 2010 you have won at least one World Cup race every year…
… and I’ve won a medal in every World Championship I’ve ever participated in. Except in 2010, when I had two flats.
You also have the complete Olympic medal set. What is it then that really motivates you?
The completed experience no longer counts for me. I want to confirm over and over again that I can still do that. When I stand at the start, it doesn’t really matter whether I have won before or not.
Does that mean that you practically draw your own motivation from every single race?
Yes, if it’s a big race, I can motivate myself. What I find more and more difficult is smaller races. Some of them are not easier to win because the participation is just as good. If there is less attention, less spectators, then I can sometimes motivate myself a bit less than maybe ten years ago. But I am a competition type. Nobody wants to win a race if they know that the other one didn’t give their best. The successes I had to fight hardest for are the best.
Apart from your big successes, are there any races in your career you would say, hey, that wasn’t an important success, but for me it’s very important?
When I rode elite for the first few years, there was one race, a mud race when I finished third behind Frischi (Thomas Frischknecht) and Florian (Vogel). That was at a Swisspowercup, 2006 or 2007, that was such a moment. Certainly also the first World Championship and the Olympic Games 2008, because nobody expected me to win a medal. The races I could surprise everyone and exceeded my own expectations. I enjoyed the time very much as well. If I become second today, then it is… my team does not really know whether they should congratulate me or not. Whether I am disappointed or not. It is not the same anymore (laughs).
Does it frighten you sometimes that it is like that?
It just is. On the other hand, it is nice that I have worked for this. You always have to look at the positive things. But surely it is not so easy for the situation. If at some point I can’t live up to it, it won’t be easy. Then you have to learn to deal with it.
People who can prevent you from winning are rare. Mathieu van der Poel is one of them, or Sam Gaze, if he can live up to 2018 again.
I am curious about that. He would not have qualified for the Olympics this year, maybe he will get another chance next year.
The focus has been on the duel with Mathieu van der Poel for quite some time. You had already concentrated on Olympia before the cancellation. Do you look at it carefully to find out where exactly you can beat this opponent?
Yes, of course. I have a strategy for each opponent. There are big differences. Whether it´s a (Gerhard) Kerschbaumer or a van der Poel, they both need a different strategy.
When van der Poel beat you for the first time in a cross-country race in Nove Mesto, you said: if he starts like this on the hill, you wouldn’t have a chance. Was that due to his form on the day or does he simply have something you can’t compete with?
He simply has the prerequisites for it. I’m sure he has faster muscle fibers than I do. Because he rides so much on the road, he can deal better with climbs that are not so steep and you have to ride more at a cadence. I was never as good at that as he is now. But I have advantages in other places, for example when it’s steep uphill and you need strength. When it goes uphill for a longer time, I probably have advantages, too. Everyone has his own prerequisites. He is certainly one of the greatest cycling talents the world has ever seen.
There was a time when Nino Schurter often won his races following a similar pattern. During laps one and two, he pushed hard. Unlike the competition, he was able to compensate for that. So he got the decisive advantage and was able to manage this over the rest of the distance with his focused, clean and less error-prone riding style. For a few years now, this has changed. Again and again it boils down to duels, which Schurter then wins more often than he loses with his enormous wealth of experience and his all-round abilities. Sometimes against the South Tyrolean Gerhard Kerschbaumer, sometimes against the Dutch Mathieu van der Poel or with other riders who have a different day, such as his compatriot Matthias Flückiger, the New Zealanders Anton Cooper and Sam Gaze.
How do you assess your possibilities on the Olympic track in Tokyo?
As an athlete you always have to look at it positively, but I think I have a chance on the track. It’s very steep uphill, I like that. On the other hand, there are only short climbs, which Mathieu likes. But I am confident. I think if I can do my very best again, I can beat everyone again. But it requires that I once again reach my very best level which is getting harder and harder for me. At the age of 35 I have certainly reached the upper age limit.
Are there any others you have on your list?
One athlete that I always keep my eye on is Gaze. When he combines everything, he’s also an extremely strong competitor. I respect that. Wenn, I respect everybody.
You are known for working meticulously and always working on small details and improving yourself. After such a long time, do you still find things to finetune?
Yes, there are always points where I notice I can do even better. But I will never have muscle fibres as fast as van der Poel. I simply do not have the prerequisites. It also makes no sense if I train until I can’t go any further and neglect other aspects. I think as an athlete you have to find your own strengths and position yourself with them. In such a way that your opponent can’t use his strengths at all. I think that’s what I managed to do against van der Poel for a long time. At the World Championships in Lenzerheide (2018) I managed that he couldn’t show his strengths.
Is it at all possible to come up with a strategy before the races? Or do you do it intuitively?
You establish a desired strategy and then things turn out differently anyway (laughs). No, I have always tried to create a strategy. But every athlete is different. When I am ahead with Kerschbaumer, I need a different strategy than with van der Poel. Or maybe there’s another teammate. There are so many situations in which you have to react intuitively, but you have to try to be the one to take the reins.
That is certainly a competence that you have acquired. Do you think this is also something that has brought you many victories?
Everyone does that. You have to have the whole package, of course. If you’re only in the top group with your last ounce of strength, then you can’t make such considerations.
You’ve often won these duels when you were only up front with one competitor. Doesn’t the experience and self-confidence of the many victories also play an important role here?
Certainly the experience contributes to self-confidence and serenity. I can remember many great duels with (Julien) Absalon. I knew I had to keep up and then I knew I’d beat him in a sprint. You have to play your cards and trust in your abilities. Sometimes it takes patience to wait for that last moment. I use the same strategy against Kerschbaumer and when I race against van der Poel, I use the strategy Absalon used against me back then.
Speaking of Absalon. How important is the 33rd World Cup victory and then the 34th to you to be the sole record holder?
For me it is not so important. For me it is more important that I can still win World Cup races. The record would be a welcome side effect. I already have some records and if it doesn’t happen, it might be good for Julien to keep another record. If I still win races, the record would be a by-product.
In Switzerland, of course, people look at it. You have become very well known in your home country. In 2018 you were Sportsman of the Year ahead of tennis star Roger Federer and mountain biking has a level of publicity in Switzerland that no other country in the world has. There is a price to pay, do you have the feeling that you are paying that price?
For me it was important that we achieve this with sport. That was almost as important as the victories themselves. I do not see myself as solely responsible for this, but that we manage to do this, that the sport gets the acceptance and appreciation it deserves. The fact that we have achieved this also gives me a sense of serenity. Of course, there are moments when it’s hard work. But especially in Switzerland, people are very reserved. This is why I feel that success for mountain biking is much more important than the negative aspects.
There have also been some stories, even at home with you, in tabloid magazines. Is this a compromise or do you take a more active approach because it also helps the Nino Schurter brand?
It’s a give-and-take. Doing nothing is not good, too much is not good either. As an athlete you are dependent on the media and sometimes you have to give something.
So it is still bearable for you?
Yes. As long as nothing odd is going on. All in all I am satisfied. Sure there are situations in which I would like to be a nobody, but that would also mean that I wouldn’t have anything else. This is a part of this and the relation is right.
I’m sure a lot of Swiss spectators would have come to the World Championships in Albstadt. The track in Bullentäle is not one of your favourite courses, even though you won three times. Can you still find something good in it?
It’s probably just a love-hate relationship. I’m sure it’s not my favourite track, but I know I can perform well there. I always find the atmosphere cool, it’s a cool event and I’m looking forward to racing in Albstadt again. It’s a pity that there is no World Championship in Albstadt.
Short profile: Nino Schurter
Born in: Tersnaus
Living in: Chur
Married to Nina, daughter Lisa (4)
Sportive successes: Olympic champion 2016, Olympic second 2012, Olympic third 2008, 8x Elite World Champion (2009, 2012, 2013, 2015-2019), 2x U23 World Champion (2006, 2008), Junior World Champion 2004, 7x Overall World Cup winner, 32 Cross-Country World Cup victories, 1 Short Track World Cup victory.
2x Cape-Epic winner, 2017 with Matthias Stirnemann, 2019 with Lars Forster.
Athlete of the Year in Switzerland (2018)
Photos: Andreas Dobslaff, Sebastian Sternemann