Heading into this past weekend it had been three years since Swiss racer Nino Schurter won his last XCO World Cup at Les Gets, France. An incredible 32nd victory at the pinnacle of cross country mountain bike racing but still one short of the all-time record of 33 set by long-time dueling partner, Julien Absalon.
It’s clearly been a painful three years, too, with Nino coming over the line in second place three times in 2019, and twice in 2021 (by just two seconds each time). That’s not to say Nino wasn’t having success, as he lined up in Brazil wearing the World Champion’s rainbow jersey having won the honor for a record ninth time (plus once as a junior and twice in the under 23 category).
Being one short of Julien’s record as more and more younger riders - including occasional MTB crushers Tom Pidcock and Mathieu van der Poel - made it look like Nino might never close the gap. Brazil has good vibes for Schurter though as he won his Olympic gold here in 2016 and he clearly loves showing off to a crowd. With 45,000 tickets sold for people wanting to line the 4.5km rainforest course he certainly wasn’t going to be short of an audience and the brand new Petropolis course track suited him, too.
The climbs were narrow and singletrack with regular tech pinch points which suited his power bursting, highly skilled strengths more than long, exposed drags. The descents were loaded with big berms, snaking boardwalk sections, and some serious gaps and drops - again a big plus for a rider who loves to whip jumps and showboat even with an inverted stem and high saddle. It was clear he was up for a charge from the start too, pushing hard in the Friday night short track race and leading for most of the last lap then making the move that split the field apart early on the Sunday main event.
Executing the winning move
As with all the best fairy tales, the final seconds couldn’t have been more dramatic either, especially with Schurter’s mixed history of significant final corners. To recap his dive under Mathias Flueckiger on the final switchback at Val Di Sole was the pre-sprint move that clinched him his current XCO World Championship jersey in August last year. However, Nino was in tears after Jaroslav Kulhavy did the same move on him at the 2012 Olympics. He was shut out at the penultimate corner of the 2021 race at Albstadt by Viktor Koretzky as well.
As Vlad Dascalu faded in the last few hundred meters of the seven-lap race in Brazil it was mano a mano between French Santa Cruz/FSA racer Maxime Marotte and the Swiss Scott/SRAM legend on the final kicker climb. Despite having been dropped earlier Marotte somehow found the power to edge ahead of Schurter into the crucial final corner. Crucial because from there it was a steep, straight drop down to a super short flat sprint to the line. Schurter hasn’t been as successful as he has by giving up easily though and, as usual, he and his team had prepped perfectly in technical terms. Specifically, they’d fitted the largest possible 38T chainring to his Scott Spark.
That gave him a two tooth advantage over the 36T max chainring size of Marotte’s Santa Cruz Blur. Just enough for the legendarily powerful Swiss sprinter to muscle past the regularly frustrated French rider (this was his fourth World Cup second place and he’s also had eight third-place finishes) literally in the last nine pedal strokes. And yes I did count them on replay.
Tears but no fear
As if the roar as he crossed the line wasn’t a sign of what this 33rd victory meant to Nino, it couldn’t have been clearer when Red Bull TV tried to interview him. “Just what does this moment mean to you?”
The normally composed and ultra-experienced rider (he’s both the youngest and oldest to ever win a men's XCO World Cup event) was in tears and bent over a couple of times with the hand of team manager and fellow Swiss racing legend Thomas Frischknecht on his back before he could manage a reply.
“It took me three years for this World Cup victory, the 33rd, but it’s even better in front of a nice crowd and such a tight battle. It was insane with Maxime. I almost lost the game in the last meters but I didn’t give up - and yeah, that was a sweet one. It was one of my last big goals to actually keep up with Julien’s World Cup wins and now we have both 33 and that’s quite nice.”
Asked whether he ever had any doubts whether it would happen he replied, “Ya, for sure you have doubts sometimes and I’m not getting younger [he’s 36 in a month] so it’s nice that I can still win races.”
He’s not finished just equalling the record either, but he knows it isn’t a given. “I don’t know, he was hard to beat. He was already hard to beat when we raced together, it’s probably also hard to beat his record. But I will work hard and hopefully go for another one.”
Solidifying his GOAT status
GOAT has become an acronym for the Greatest Of All Time and is used broadly in sporting circles to describe athletes of this ilk. There are currently two GOATs in men's mountain biking: South African downhill legend Greg Minnaar and now, Nino Schurter. The South African has won more World Cup DH races than any other rider (22) and took his fourth DH World Championship in Val Di Sole not long before his 40th birthday.
Obviously, there are some DNA and mental strengths going on here that most of us wouldn’t even know how to dream about. But both riders also share a widely recognized fanatical attention to detail in terms of preparation both physically (Nino’s gym videos are fascinating - if intimidating - to watch) and with equipment. That’s not to say things don’t go wrong (the Scott/SRAM team had a nightmare at Absa Cape Epic early this year) but they know themselves and their gear inside out so they’re best placed to capitalize (or salvage) racing situations.
Perhaps most importantly, is the passion they both still have for riding and racing their bikes. Minnaar might not be the showiest rider, but he clearly still lives to get behind the bars and go as fast as possible at every opportunity. Nino still pops, manuals, or whips any feature he can like a teenager, even mid-race at the highest level.
And keeping a big grin on our faces, treating ride time as playtime as often as we can - even if it’s between hill repeats - sounds like a great idea to me whatever level you’re at. Or to put it really cheesily, while we won’t ever be the GOAT, if you can still act like a kid every time you hit the trail then that’s the way to win at every ride….