Sitting down opposite Jan Christen, there’s more than a whiff of Tadej Pogačar about him. The hair cut short, the mischievous smile, and the hushed tones that seem to mask a desire to burst out laughing. You see it in the way he rides, too, his aggressive position on the hoods, and his natural tendency to spring out the saddle and rock the bike from side to side. It’s no surprise then that the Swiss 19-year-old who once rode for the junior Pogi Team declares, “Tadej is my hero. I like his riding style; it impresses me. It’s like how I want to ride races: not to sit back and defend the jersey, but to attack, to make bigger gaps, to start the race with 100km to go – that’s what I want to do. But in the end, I don’t want to copy him. He is Tadej. I am Jan.”
And Jan, who signed to UAE Team Emirates last summer to great fanfare, is also very different to Tadej. As a boy growing up just five kilometres from the Swiss-German border, Christen threw himself headfirst into every sport he could access. As a footballer, “I had opportunities in the youth academies of FC Basel and FC Zürich around the age of 12”, but when two of his country’s biggest footballing powerhouses didn’t take a punt on him, he switched to athletics. “The guys I was competing with are now some of the best in Switzerland and they’re going to European and World Championships.”
At the same time, inspired by his grandfather Hans Schleuniger who rode and finished the 1960 Tour de France, Christen was also a cyclist, dabbling in road, track, cyclocross and mountain biking. But still he had energy for more. “At U17 level I merged cycling and triathlon, and because I came from athletics and cycling I was pretty good. Well, except for swimming. That was good, but not perfect.”
Eventually, he committed to two wheels, but not before becoming national champion in all four aforementioned disciplines in 2022. “I think I was good at all of them because I had an engine, and I enjoyed doing them all.” But since 2023, and after first joining Hagens Berman Axeon before penning a contract with UAE last summer until the end of 2028, he has finally settled on one discipline and one sport: road cycling. For now. “In the future, if the team give me opportunities, maybe I can do mountain biking and cyclo-cross. I think it’s good for my head to change the bike sometimes, especially in training. I like to play with the bikes, to switch. But for now I want to focus on the road.”
UCI MTB World Championships 2022 (image by SWPix.com)
In the past few months, however, he hasn’t been allowed to only have one focus, for every Swiss man is obliged to undergo basic military service for 18 weeks between the ages of 18 and 30. Christen’s autumn and winter has often been spent in army barracks, and, he stresses, in “army dress all of the time.” Basic military education, warfare tactics and weapon training have all formed part of the rider’s service that officially finishes in March. “The first six weeks were quite hard. We were waking up at 4.30am, having a full program all day, then I’d train on the rollers for three hours, and then we’d be in bed by 9pm. Some days we were walking more than 50km with a 20kg backpack and then sleeping outside. That was quite fun. Other times we were taught how to use guns.”
As a professional athlete, and one of his country’s rising stars, Christen has been given some leeway with his mandatory conscription. “I’m more free than other athletes. Those in athletics, for example, can’t go to Spain to train because the army says they can train indoors. But they understand that it’s snowing and freezing in Switzerland, so I need to train in Spain. It’s been a good experience, but I prefer to train!” He really does: he even forgo a family Christmas back in his hometown of Leuggern to train in Gran Canaria with his cousin and brother, 21-year-old Fabio, who rides for Q36.5.
According to Christen’s website, which is illustrated by his own sleek signature, his motto derives from the Swiss ski freestyler, Andri Ragettli: “Attack your dreams.” And Christen has plenty of those. “For sure I want to be a GC rider,” he says, declaring the Tour de France as his ultimate goal, but adds, “I also want to win one day races.” He’s the epitome of a modern-day rider. “Strade Bianche is my favourite race because it’s 180km long and it kicks off at 140km to go. All day it’s full gas and that's what I like with the gravel, up and down the hills all day, pff, I really enjoy this type of racing.”
Jan Christen (left) with his UAE Team Emirates team-mates at the Tour de Luxembourg in 2023 (Image by Getty)
And he’s especially confident. “Yes, yes, yes,” he responds when asked if he’s optimistic about his chances. “I trust in myself. I know what has worked for me in the past. I think cycling has changed a lot in the past two years: even more young riders are progressing earlier. I don’t want to stress myself and I know what I could achieve, but first of all I just want to help the big guys win big races, to learn and to enjoy cycling. And then I want to also win races, and take my own opportunities.”
In his first full season, he’ll be kept back from Grand Tours, but will be at major races like Milan-Sanremo, Il Lombardia and Clásica San Sebastián. The latter seems tailor-made for Christen’s style, but Remco Evenepoel’s stamped his mark on it with three wins in four editions. “Maybe not anymore,” Christen says with a smile. “In the future that race will be mine.” He’s in pursuit of plenty more as well.
*Cover image by SWPix.com