Thomas Frischknecht is a unique example of the European invasion that took over mountain bike racing as the sport exploded into international prominence in the last decade of the century. While many of his compatriots started on the road before switching to the dirt when the money was flowing free, Frischknecht cut his teeth on the cross courses of Switzerland and at age twenty packed his bags and moved to Palo Alto in 1989 to race for mountain bike pioneer Tom Ritchey.
Speaking with Frischknecht, he is calm and reserved. In stereotypical Swiss fashion he is precise and clinical with his answers. Many questions are answered in a few words with little elaboration. Throughout our conversation, Frischknecht rarely gets animated. Emotion might be lost in translation, but the impression is that that he views his victories and success in terms of cause and effect: work hard, stay dedicated and results will follow. (Read Part1)
In the late 1990s mountain biking racing dropped off greatly in popularity. Why do you think this happened?
This is something the UCI should ask themselves. I don’t have a clear formula of how it could be done better. Fact is the sport was not sold to the media the way it should have been.
How do you think the sport should have presented to the media and potential sponsors?
It is something we could talk about for days or hours and at the end probably not come to a clear answer. I think at the time the UCI didn’t have the right people to make the right decisions. In my opinion that has changed a little bit now since they have more people who know more about the sport. There are ex-racers that make the decisions now and at that time it was different. It was still road racing, road racing, road racing and within the UCI we never really had the power that was behind other disciplines and that’s why it was mismanaged.
The economy had a role too, and at the beginning everyone jumped on mountain biking because they thought it was going to be the new big deal in cycling. Then people realized that you can’t ride a mountain bike everywhere in the world, and road is still important too so some sponsorship money ended back into road racing instead of mountain bike racing. There was a devolution there that was not good for the sport, but in general, even without making huge steps in the sport, I think that we are going in the right direction now.
You started racing on a rigid bike, and then used a Softride stem before moving to a suspension fork and then finally a full suspension bike. How was it adapting to the new technologies?
People who can’t imagine why we made the choice to ride rigid instead of a suspension fork have to understand that its not the decision that one would make today with a fork that actually works. People have to understand that first RockShox had 6 cm of travel—maybe 4 cm of useful travel and it was super heavy. We didn’t feel like we got a whole lot out of it for the compromise of extra weight that we had to carry. That is why we chose to go rigid. Then we jumped on the Softride stem because as far as comfort goes, at the time, it worked much better than a suspension fork. It was a situation of where we had to compare what was around at the time, and that is why we were holding back on certain things. It was the same thing with disc versus V-brakes. That decision was also at the beginning when the first disc brakes came out. They were just not as good as the ones today and the compromise of weight was not worth the switch from V-brakes to disc brakes right away.
That [thinking] was kind of Henrik Djernis and myself, along with Tom Ritchey who is more old fashioned. We all have backgrounds from cyclocross where we were use to riding off-road on skinny tires, no suspension and shitty brakes. We were looking more at the bike that got us up the hill as fast as possible and down the hill we were technically better than most of our competitors so we where able to take a little disadvantage in certain cases. That is why we made decisions different than others.
What is your role in product development with Ritchey and SCOTT?
It is probably the easiest to explain if I give a couple examples, which basically changed the world of mountain biking at least a little bit. First is the 2X9 system that Tom Ritchey and I developed, which after fifteen years turned into a 2X10 drivetrain from SRAM. It was 1994 or 1995 where we tried to lower the Q-factor to a minimum because switching back and forth from a road bike to a cross bike to a mountain bike I always felt the Q-factor was always very bad on a mountain bike. That is why we started to use road spindles in the front. Back then the market was just not ready and they did not understand, but 15 years later it finally became standard because of the same reason we changed it 15 years ago.
Next is the Speedmax Tom and I developed for 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The course was run on sandy terrain with some slick rock terrain. The Speedmax was basically the first semi-slick off-road tire. It started a whole new category of tires. Then after this probably the most significant thing was when I brought tubeless tires to mountain biking with Richard Neuhaus from Dugast. I was the first one to ride with tubeless in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, and if you look at things today tubeless has become the standard in cross-country racing. Even guys that are sponsored by other tire companies use tubeless now for racing.
Larger wheels are another area of development we worked on way before Gary Fisher came out with his 29er. We had a mountain bike that was called Mount Cross, that actually I won a silver medal with at the Cyclocross World Championships in Munich. That bike was kind of something between a cross bike and a mountain bike. It had the regular mountain bike frame—P-20 at the time and Tom made the braze-ons in a way that I was able to use regular cyclocross wheels—28-inch wheels and we used big volume tires which were at the time smaller in volume than what Gary Fisher came up with the 29er, but basically it was kind of a 29er. That is why I always believed in bigger wheels. To me it was just a matter of time until those wheels made their breakthrough. It just took a long time—it always takes time—not only because of the frame but it also takes components. The whole industry only produced lightweight tires and lightweight wheels and forks for 26-inch wheels. At the start, the 29er had two disadvantages weight-wise. In general, a 29er frame is a little bit heavier. Second, all the components that went on the frame in the early days were just not at the same weight level as the 26-inch stuff. That is why it took a bit longer to make its breakthrough, but I am a big believer in 29ers.
The 26-inch wheel was a standard that was used in the beginning because it was an existing standard, and the same thing happened with the 29er. It was used because it was already out there and maybe no one really went into it a little bit more precisely to find out what actually is the best wheel size. I think there will be a time where people do more tests to find out what the best wheel size should be. Everything at this point is more from a personal feeling, which has a lot to do with where you ride, how you ride and how large you are. Maybe in a couple years down the road it will be a little bit more scientific.
Today I try to bring the experience of racing into the products of our sponsors. We test, we propose new ideas and we are part of the whole development of new products. It’s part of the team service for the brands that are behind the SCOTT-Swisspower Team. We are lucky enough to work with some big companies like Ritchey, SCOTT, DT-Swiss and SRAM that if we have ideas that have some potential we can actually develop them into products and ride them. Not every team has this opportunity.
With your experience what do you look for in a bike?
That it suits the conditions I’m riding in. The variety of riding I’m doing is big. From a cyclocross bike to a 6-inch travel bike, but in general I like it as simple as possible—and light.
What bikes are you riding right now?
I have a SCOTT Addict cross bike; I have a SCOTT Foil road bike, which I ride a lot. I have a 29er Scale, 29er Spark and I also ride a lot with my Genius when I go touring in the Alps. For the bigger stuff I go with the Genius. I actually have a Genius and a Genius LT—the whole line from SCOTT. I also have a Ritchey cross bike and a Ritchey P-29er that I built up with a rigid fork.
What is your schedule like for 2012?
I am organizing the travel for the team and then once the season starts in early March, we fly down to South Africa for the first World Cup, I am pretty much at the races every weekend until October. I will be going to all the World Cup races; all the European races and a couple things for SCOTT’s product launch and the Olympics. The Olympics will take some time as well. Once the season starts I am moving around.
For the Olympics I am going to be co-commentator for Swiss television during the race. Before the race I will work on finding the perfect set up for our riders. I am hoping there will be two Swiss riders like there was in Beijing. Nino Schurter already qualified and I hope Florian Vogel makes it too. I don’t have a job with the Federation, so if I’m there am going to be there for SCOTT-Swisspower.
After so many years in the sport, is there anything left you want to achieve athletically within the sport?
No. Well the goal is to stay fit as long as I can and to try to ride my bike everyday—except on the weekend. I don’t have time on the weekends because of the team’s racing, however Florian Vogel only lives a kilometer away from me so during the week I join him for training. My son is racing now too, so I have good, very fast training partners. My goal is to try to stay on those wheels as long possible. That is where I get my inspiration and where I get my ideas of how to make better products and how to manage a good professional mountain bike team. In particular there is nothing I have to run after. I think that I have done plenty. There is not much left that I feel I have to do.