What was your motivation behind doing the Cape Epic?
It started as a joke between me and Thomas Frischknecht, the team manager. The guys in the team already had a plan: there were two teams ready with Matthias Stirnemann and Nino Schurter, and Andri Frischknecht and Michiel Van der Heijden. Thomas asked me if I wanted to start my season in Europe while they’re here racing the Epic. As a joke, I suggested we do the Epic together, and the jokes turned into a serious project. Initially, I was concerned because I have heard the Epic is really tough: but in the end, we decided this is going to be a great experience for me, for the future, and a tough good training week.
You mentioned that Thomas has done a few Epics, have you asked him for advice?
We have spoken about it a little bit, but I think I just have to go and do it, see what it is, and do my thing out there with him as company. I think we can do well together.
Being a long tough stage race, how does the Cape Epic impact on your preparation for the XCO season ahead in terms of fatigue and recovery?
I think it’s going to be really tough both mentally and physically, and after this week of racing I will go back home and try to recover as best I can. Then the first cross country race, the first real race of the season for me, will be in Switzerland, I think two weeks after the Epic. It could be tough with too little time to recover. I just have to see how it goes. It’s a good year to try it out I think, the year after Olympics is a bit more relaxed, you’re not so much in need of UCI points.
Have you been to South Africa before?
Yes, this is my fifth time I think. I’ve been twice to Pietermaritzberg for the World Cup and World Championships, and three times for training in Stellenbosch.If you speak to Nino, he’s been here I’d say more than 30 times. I prefer to train at home, I like to be able to spend time with my family and friends. I believe in that contrast, I need that dark, snowy time in Sweden to stay motivated and hungry for the season. So it’s perfect now to come here at the beginning of the season when I am tired of the snow and the dark. The trails are good here, and the area around Stellenbosch is beautiful.
The opening leg of the 2018 UCI Mountain Bike World Cup will be held in Stellenbosch, a week before the 2018 Absa Cape Epic. Will you be attending either of these events or have you not yet planned that far ahead?
I haven’t looked that much into it. It would be cool to do both but I’ll start with the Epic this year, and see how it goes. It could be that I don’t like it at all, or it doesn’t work for me. But we’ll be here for the opening round of the World Cup for sure.
Will having raced and ridden here give you an advantage?
For sure, we were at Coetzenberg yesterday. We rode some of the trails there. It helps to know the terrain and the climate. From what I saw yesterday, it feels a little bit like Pietermaritzburg and I really liked that track. It has hard sand and a surface that gets super slippery when it is wet. The rocks at Coetzenberg are quite similar to Pietermaritzburg as well.
Has much changed since your Olympic victory?
I don’t know yet. I try to stay the same: my personality hasn’t changed, the team hasn’t changed. For sure the pressure from outside and expectations will be higher. But the team, and the sponsors, the guys from Scott, they don’t expect more just because I am an Olympic champion, and that for me is important.It’s been quite tough to have the increased media attention, especially during the winter. It came so quickly. It would have been easier to handle it if I had at least done one Olympics already. It was a case of 90 minutes of race time, and suddenly all eyes were on me. It’s been a new situation to handle. I think I just need to give it time, I will grow into it and learn how to handle it.
When does your preparation for the defense of your gold medal in Tokyo 2020 begin?
It started the day after the Rio Olympics. It’s always in the back of your mind that you want to go to the Olympics, and it’s always a long-term goal, but I just try to focus on each World Cup and having fun.
You elected to race the World Cup with the elites instead of riding U23. In hindsight, it’s a decision that paid off. Were you confident in the decision and was it a big jump in racing level for you?
I was quite confident in the decision. In 2015, I won every U23 World Cup and if had stayed in the U23 category for my last year I would have been too comfortable. I felt like I needed a challenge. It was challenging, but you need challenges to improve.
You generally ride the 650b wheel size. Is this because you feel the smaller wheels are a better fit for someone your size? Will you be riding 650b or 29er at Epic?
When I joined the team the 27.5 was the best possible bike, the 29er was not as developed as it is now. The design has improved so much, now the 29er is the bike to go for. I’ll be riding the Cape Epic on a 29er. I tried it over the winter, and I feel comfortable on it. I hope it will stay comfortable.
The bike you have here for Cape Epic has a dropper seat post on it. Is that new?
Yes, I tried it once or twice on my Genius enduro bike. Now I will give it a try during the Cape Epic, and see if I get into it. For me, it’s yet another thing to think about before I drop into a rock garden as I need to spend a second or two thinking about dropping the seat. The goal is to get this to come automatically, but I think it’s a matter of time which is why I’ll try it out next week. If it works, I will keep it on for the season.
Will you makes any changes to your race bike for Epic compared to your cross-country bike?
We run a little bit higher tyre pressure. The experienced guys know that there’ll be a lot of flat tyres out there. We were discussing tyre choice last night but still haven’t come to a decision there.
Being so successful at an early age: How will you manage your career to make sure injuries or burnout do not become an issue?
That’s one of the reasons I prefer to train at home during the winter. For example, I didn’t come out here for the team training camp in February. I needed that time at home, I need that to reload and build up again. I try to handle it as best I can and have good people around me.
If you weren’t a mountain biker what would be plan B?
I like to write, so maybe journalist? I love writing. But I also think the body is interesting, so maybe Sports Science or physiotherapy is something that I would like to get into.I believe in having fun. I think it’s really important to keep it fun, that’s why most people start to do something. I started to ride a bike because I thought it was fun and if you lose that you are not going to get results. And results are fun too.
Is there a story behind your new haircut?
I think it’s cool, it's something unusual. I don't really like it, but it's unusual. My hair was very damaged from being dyed, so I have to start from scratch, and I save some grams as well.