Words by Matilda Price | Photo by A.S.O/Alex Broadway
Switzerland isn’t a country that should need putting on the cycling map. It has all the ingredients to produce great cyclists, even before the UCI decided to call Aigle home. The reality, though, has been a sprinkling of strong individual riders, the occasional promising generation, but rarely a stray turnover of talent. Compared to its European neighbours, Switzerland has been flying decidedly under the radar. But in 2022, with the formation of the first Swiss Women’s WorldTeam, an emerging generation of riders coming from the track, and an Olympic podium whitewash, it looks like Swiss cycling is ushering in its best era yet.
In the 1950s, Ferdi Kubler, Hugo Koblet and Carlo Clerici pushed Switzerland into the top echelons of cycling, together winning two Giro d’Italia titles and two Tours de France in the space of four years. Koblet is likely the most famous of Switzerland’s prolific 1950s generation, but it’s important to remember that 1950s Swiss cycling wasn’t just the unforgettable Pédaleur de Charme, but a significant crop of talented riders.
The problem was, it didn’t stick. After four wins in four years, it would be another four decades until the next Swiss rider won a Grand Tour. There were good moments in those intervening years – Erich Mächler and Josef Fuchs won Monuments, a handful of Swiss stage wins at the Tour de France – but the 1990s was a level above. Tony Rominger and Alex Zülle dominated the Vuelta a España, winning five editions between them, plus a Giro win and three runner-up spots at the Tour. In 1996, three Swiss cyclists achieved something rarely seen in the post-war era (or at least rarely achieved by nations other than France, Spain and Italy): they filled all three podium places of a Grand Tour as Zülle and Rominger sandwiched Laurent Dufaux at the Vuelta.
After the Zulle-Rominger-Dufaux era, we didn’t have to wait long until the next great Swiss rider arrived. Fabian Cancellara’s wins in Monuments, Grand Tours and at the World Championships make it hard to argue that Switzerland doesn’t produce great cyclists. Cancellara’s success over two decades was enough to make you forget that there hadn’t been a Swiss Grand Tour winner since 1997, and believe that Switzerland’s place in cycling’s pecking order was secure.
At the time of his retirement in 2016, Swiss cycling wasn’t full of excitement but fast forward six years, it looks to be on the verge of it’s next great era. With the current crop of new riders – from road to track to mountain biking – this is possibly the fullest generation the nation has produced in a long time. And it’s not just one Koblet or Cancellara; there’s real strength in depth and numbers. Looking at the 2022 men’s WorldTour, Gino Mäder’s Vuelta performance has pencilled him in as one of the next generation of stage racers, whilst Giro stage winner Mauro Schmid is only just getting started as he makes the move to Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl. On the U23 circuit, Alex Vogel is developing an engine to match Stefan Bissegger. And when he finally – hopefully – returns to full health and strength, Marc Hirschi will surely be hoping to repeat the impressive ability he showed in 2020.
We might be missing a great Swiss sprinter, and it may be a few years yet until the next Grand Tour win, but these are riders who could win on pretty much any type of terrain or any type of race.
Perhaps the most exciting developments in Swiss cycling are happening on the women’s side of the sport, where we’re seeing a whole host of ‘firsts’. 2022 sees the arrival of the first Swiss Women’s WorldTeam, in the form of Roland Cogeas Edelweiss Squad. Though the team has only just switched its registration from Russia to Switzerland, half-Swiss owner Ruben Contreras is keen to foster a Swiss identity in the team – hence the ‘Edelweiss’ moniker – and develop domestic riders. This year, five of their 12-rider roster is Swiss, including two neo-pros. It remains to be seen how the team will balance their Swiss interests with their new-found partnership with Israel Start-Up Nation, but if their plans for an additional development team come to fruition, it could be transformative for women’s cycling in Switzerland.
On the road, Marlen Reusser (pictured) is Swiss cycling’s most promising prospect, and has made an astounding rise from amateur to one of the most talented riders in the peloton. Reusser only started racing in her mid-twenties, and admits it wasn’t even something she saw as an option. “I didn’t know anything about cycling,” she says. “When I thought about cycling, there was always only male cyclists that came into my head. I didn’t even know what it was, and if there were women doing it. So I learned this first. And then I was like, okay, women are doing it, but nobody has any idea about it.”
Reusser’s first UCI team was the WCC Team – based at the World Cycling Centre – and she remains the only Swiss rider to have ridden for the squad in its five year history. The fact a Swiss rider joined a team intended to develop and showcase talent from underrepresented cycling nations tells us something about what options there are for female riders in Switzerland. Both of the best Swiss riders in the current peloton, Reusser and Elise Chabbey, had similar, relatively late in life moves to cycling. Reusser went from amateur to second-best time trialist in the world in just three years, whilst Chabbey converted from Olympic kayaking and a medical degree to national champion and one of Canyon//SRAM’s most exciting riders. Both their stories are impressive, but they also raise questions over what other untapped talent there is in Switzerland. Hopefully, teams like Roland Cogeas Edelweiss and their proposed development team will help bring women’s cycling in Switzerland to the level it’s capable of.
If it’s clear that Swiss cycling is going through a purple patch, the next question is ‘why?’ Despite Switzerland not being known as a notably strong track nation, the velodrome has proved fertile breeding ground for road riders. Dillier, Kung, Mader, Schmid and Stefan Bissegger all started in endurance racing, and much of the current Swiss Racing Academy are balancing their time across track and road. Aline Seitz, possibly Roland Cogeas Edelweiss’s most promising home-grown talent, is a track racer whose road potential has earned her a spot in the WorldTour. The other key thing about development in Switzerland is that young riders aren’t confined to one discipline. Mauro Schmid has spoken about riding both cyclocross and mountain biking alongside track and road, which not only allows riders to find the discipline they excel at, but also develop skills across different terrains, something which is becoming more and more useful in the WorldTour.
Maybe the most important thing for Swiss cycling is visibility. As Marlen Reusser said, cycling wasn’t even something she knew women were doing in Switzerland, revealing an obvious barrier to Swiss cycling reaching its full potential. Big wins add to this visibility, and it’s arguably women’s cycling which has done the most in this respect: Jolanda Neff, Sina Frei and Linda Indergand’s mountain bike podium white wash in Tokyo made headlines the world over. The last few years have also seen more new women’s races created in Switzerland than men’s. Women’s editions of the Tour de Suisse and the Tour de Romandie, as well as the Nations Cup races that are popping up, help to elevate the sport in all areas. Moreover, the involvement of big brands like Roland (who also sponsor Jolanda Neff – her face is on biscuits in Swiss supermarkets) is offering not only financial support to cycling, but placing it firmly in the national conversation. If Switzerland doesn’t need putting on the cycling map, maybe what they do need is to put cycling on the Swiss map.
It’s impossible to say whether this era is another Koblet-Kubler-Cerici or Rominger-Zülle-Dufaux, a golden generation destined to leave a gap once it’s gone, but the depth and breadth of talent suggests this positive trajectory could be here to stay. For now a comparatively small group of Swiss riders are proving themselves at the top level, but the important thing is the foundation they’re standing on: high-level domestic races, effective development programmes, finally some much-need investment in the women’s peloton. Maybe we’re not yet looking at the next Cancellara or Koblet, but maybe Swiss cycling finally has what it needs – not just a flash in the pan, but something that will last.
Matilda Price is a freelance writer and digital producer based in the UK. She started writing whilst studying modern languages at university, and has since covered everything from the Tour Series to the Tour de France. These days, Matilda focuses most of her attention on the women’s sport, writing for Cyclingnews, the Women’s Cycling Weekly newsletter, and working on women’s cycling show The Bunnyhop.