Zahner on a slippery, snowy turn. Courtesy of Simon Zahner

Zahner on a slippery, snowy turn. Courtesy of Simon Zahner

by John McComisky

It looks like the fury of the 2013 World Cyclocross Championships in Louisville has all about died down, and I thought it would a good opportunity to seek out my own personal favorite racer of the year, Simon Zahner.

The 29-year-old Swiss rider really caught my eye earlier in the season, purely due to the blue and white EKZ Team Cycling kit that really stuck out against the combined forces of Telenet-Fidea and the BCKP garb. In a sport always surrounded and steeped in Belgium folklore, it was nice to see a former great ’cross nation such as Switzerland gaining a foothold again.

I followed the progress of Simon through the live feeds and checked his progress on the run up to Worlds. His season highlight was his incredible ride in the snow at the GP Adrie van der Poel in Hoogerheide. The race saw a total lock-out for the Belgian riders, almost unheard of these last few seasons.

And after a strong fight in the snow, Simon managed a stellar third place behind Rabobank’s Lars van der Haar and Czech ice king Martin Bina from the Cyklo Team Tabor.

Then, it was onward to Louisville, and it looked like the popular Swiss would revel in what looked like similar conditions. The thawing course did not help his efforts though, and after a strong ride, he ended up in 13th place, less than 60 seconds from the top ten. 2013 can only hold more from the second-ranked Swiss rider in the UCI standings. We here at Cyclocross Magazine managed to find out a little more from the man.

JM: Hi Simon, great you could do this interview. I hope you are well and back seeing the family after all of your travels. First up: what did you make of the USA World Championships, and how did you think your race went?

SZ: I enjoyed the time in the States a lot. I’ve been traveling with Julien Taramarcaz and our mechanics for ten days before Worlds to have enough time to get over jet-lag issues. We had a great time out there and could concentrate on preparing the race. My race was not too bad, but not super good either. We’ve seen in these ten days that the weather is going crazy in Louisville, so it was a case of gambling and hoping for good conditions. Unfortunately the course started melting two hours before our race and the Hoogerheide-like conditions turned into a muddy mess, something I’m not especially good at.

JM: You really only came to my attention by watching the ’cross races on the Internet; can you tell us a little more about your cycling career?

SZ: I started riding bikes at seven and racing MTB at 11, but only started to train and concentrate on it around 16. As a junior I started ’cross and road racing, and quit MTB at the same time. I was then a pretty decent u23 and Elite cyclocross rider and got better and better on the road as well, and that ended in me spending two years in a professional road team (BMC). In short, I’ve probably reached my limits in road racing there and I was away from home too many days to consider our family life, which is a good one so kind of went back to what I was doing before BMC.

JM: On the theme of cyclocross, what do you love about it so much?

SZ: The funny thing is that I started ’cross racing because always “bonked” in my MTB races and someone told me that ’cross races are usually over before my power starts to fade. I think an hour is a very good amount of time for intense, action filled racing that one can watch live or TV. I like that the material part is very important: gears, weight, tubular tread patterns and air pressure. You can’t be an idiot with only a decent pair of legs and be good in cyclocross.

JM: For 2013, what are your race plans? Will you get a well-earned break or is it quickly back into training?

SZ: One weekend of races left (Valkenburg and Oostmalle), then I’ll take a short break before starting training for the road season with the EKZ racing team (a Swiss elite road team). I will try to be good on the road, but always with an eye on the ’cross season which will start in September. My racing calendar there will be pretty similar with the World Cups, Nationals, Worlds and hopefully at least one of the racing series in Belgium.

JM: The EKZ Cycling kit stood out well this year; people over here won’t be that familiar with the team. What is the set-up like, and will you ride for them again this season?

SZ: EKZ is an electricity company from Zurich, Switzerland’s biggest city. They sponsor the road team that my coach has been running for years (under other names since 2004). Many of the guys are really young, and some of the priorities are education (tactics, training) and that they don’t quit cycling after the u23 category. There’s no pro team in Switzerland, so there’s no guarantee that the three or four best u23 will get a pro contract after every season.

JM: As most of us racing at an amateur level have family and commitments, what are the hardest challenges facing you in order to compete with the new wave of ’cross pro riders?

SZ: Getting everything done in the 24 hours that you have every day can be pretty tough, but it has gotten a lot easier since I’m no longer in a pro team on the road (where I had to spend weeks and weeks in Belgian hotels only because they told me the flight to Zurich is too expensive). I have a very lovely and helpful wife who puts her own plans to the side a lot of times for supporting my cycling business, and I’ll certainly try to return that once done with racing professionally. It’s also more important to me that I try to have our situation under control instead of wondering if rider XYZ has an easier situation because he doesn’t have four kids …

JM: What do you think can be done to enhance the sport of cyclocross even more in the coming years?

SZ: From my perspective as a non-Belgian/Dutch rider I think that they need to have more of these big races abroad. 20 years ago they had Superprestige races all over Europe, now there’s one in the Netherlands and everyone hates travelling there. Most of the rest is held on some fields in Flanders. There are tons of attractive places near city centers (Rome, Louisville, Namur to name a few), it’s easy for people to go there and watch the race. Having more of these venues in different countries would help attract non-cycling-media and that’s what we need to attract people.

In Belgium you have 15,000 people at a race. 12,000 go there to have a good time and drink a beer, 3,000 are hardcore fans who visit every race. No other country has 80% spectators who are there for beer and fun. In Switzerland, we have 500 guaranteed spectators, no matter what the weather’s like, but we struggle to bring a lot more to races because the average Joe doesn’t really know when and where the races are.

There’s a new race in Baden (Switzerland) that perfectly demonstrates this, a big part of the spectators wanted to go for a walk with their kids and dogs on this hill next to the city center. After they arrived there they realized that there’s a bike race, they stayed, watched and enjoyed. They’ll probably return next year and their children will compete in the kids races hopefully.

JM: Switzerland was at the forefront for cyclocross for years, but lately the Dutch and Belgians have a stronghold over it. Do you think this can change and other nations will be able to compete shoulder to shoulder?

SZ: After this season I have to say that it’s really difficult to have the same level of support and infrastructure as the Belgian guys. It’s not their fault that they live close to most of the races, the bigger problem is that the organisers don’t really care. Superprestige is sponsored by a bathroom and shower company. But for everyone without a mobile home, the shower is either a long way from the course/riders parking. It’s in some farm building next to cows and pigs or just non-existent.

If I drive with a mobile home to every Belgian race from Switzerland, I need an extra day more for travelling. If I rent the car in Belgium, I need someone who takes care of it and need to be able to pay plane tickets because I can’t live in Belgium full time, having a house, a wife and four kids at home in Switzerland.

I’m very glad that I have a lot of people helping me with stuff when I’m in Belgium, and working on it to organize that even better. For me, it’s just not an option to stay over there for the full season. My family and my sponsors want to see me race in Switzerland, too, and I’m performing better if I do something that the Zahner family really likes instead of doing what someone else says is better.

JM: If you were not racing cyclocross, what do you think you would be doing?

SZ: My uncles were sidecar motocross racers; they had to stop because of injuries. I was about to buy a motocross bike to go to races with them and be able to ride a bit, because our family was visiting these races all the time. For me I can’t imagine not riding and repairing bikes, but I consider Nordic skiing (skating, biathlon and so on) a very attractive sport, and since we get a good amount of snow here every winter, I’d maybe do something like that.

For sure, I would do some sort of competitions, I love the whole process of preparing for a race, getting it together in my head and measuring my form against others.

JM: You have been really great in helping set this interview up and we here at CXM wish you all the best for the year, and will continue to shout at the TV screen until we make it to a race in Europe. All the best.

SZ: Thanks for the interview, and thanks for the support in front of the TV, computer or on the course. If any of the readers are in the area of Zurich and need help, spare parts or wants to know where to ride bikes, just ask. always happy to help!