On September 8th, Jolanda Neff and Nino Schurter will attempt to defend their Elite cross-country Olympic (XCO) titles at the 2018 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships presented by Mercedes-Benz in Lenzerheide, Switzerland. While defending a world title is always difficult, Neff and Schurter both face the added pressure of trying to repeat in their own country before what is sure to be a huge partisan crowd.
"For sure there will be many more people and more going on," agrees Neff, " but the race is still the race, and I couldn't be more excited to come to my home World Championships as the reigning World Champion. That is such a great special feeling."
Schurter, who will be going for a record seventh Elite Men's title, said, "It's a nice but difficult task. It's not easier back home, because there are bigger expectations and more pressure, but it's also a nice opportunity. The preparation is the same, but I have to be careful not to have too much going on around me. Mountain bike is quite big in Switzerland and there will be lots of media attention. But it's going to be really cool, since it is just 20 minutes away from where I live."
Switzerland goes into the UCI World Championships as the Number One-ranked nation in XCO for both Women and Men, with the top ranked riders. With Neff and Schurter, Switzerland has three women and three men in the Top-10 of the world rankings. The country is clearly doing something right."I think there are two main reasons," says Schurter. "I think first we have the perfect mountains to ride mountain bike, with a unique trail network; from everywhere in Switzerland you can ride amazing trails. The second thing is the Swiss Cup series, which we have had since the 1990s. I started racing the Swiss Cup in, I think, 1993, and there was always a pro race, but also races for kids. I was at the same events as Thomas Frischknecht, but in the kids race, so we always had our heroes to see and to look up to."
Thomas Frischknecht, a former UCI World Champion and Olympic silver medalist in mountain bike, who runs the professional Scott-SRAM team that Schurter races for, agrees that the Swiss Cup offers a tremendous advantage for Swiss riders: "We have a strong racing series in Switzerland; again you are competing at basically an international level at each race you do, and it starts at quite an early age. Families can do these races with their children at a low budget, because in Switzerland everything is so close together. It gives athletes a lot of chances to compete at a high level."I think it [the reason why Switzerland is so strong] is the tremendously high competition. From an early age, the riders have to pedal their way through the ranks. Whoever makes the national team of Switzerland doesn't have to fear international competition. They are always pushing each other really hard just to make the national team. Even if Nino is not winning races, there are other talented riders who can jump in, like we saw with Lars Forster at the European Championships."