Cycling: Greg Minnaar goes downhill to the top

Greg Minnaar claimed the biggest prize in downhill mountain bike racing earlier this month when he won the International Cycling Union's Mountain Bike and Trials World Championships in Leogang, Austria. Now he is hoping to defend his title successfully on home ground next year.

"A back-to-back title has to be on the cards, especially because the 2013 world championships are in Pietermaritzburg," said the 30-year-old, who grew up a kilometre from the city's course. "I'm looking forward to it – it would be another dream come true to win the world championships at home."

But contrary to popular belief, racing at home does not necessarily constitute an advantage.

"I feel it's more of a disadvantage and I try to stay out of town leading into the event. Too many people and media want a piece of you and all I want to be doing is focusing on my race. My team are really supportive and protective of me when racing at home; they know the pressure behind the scenes. When 20000 to 30000 people come out to support, it's a few."

This weekend, Minnaar will don his recently earned rainbow stripes when he races in the last round of the World Cup in Norway. "I start this race in the world championship jersey. It's been a while since I last wore it. I feel good. I'm lying second overall in the World Cup series and I need a fairly good race to end off in second place," he said.

Minnaar started racing as a teenager when his parents bought a cycling shop in Pietermaritzburg.  He regularly hung out behind the shop, making small tracks and doing jumps on his BMX. He tried his hand at motocross racing before opting for downhill mountain biking.

Crash and Dash
"My first race was in Ferncliff in Pietermaritzburg in the rain and mud.  The race was called the Crash and Dash. I don't remember too much of it; all I remember was that it was cold and muddy and I had a blast."

Minnaar now has two world championship titles and eight world championship medals to his name and that is not where he wants it to stop. "I want to win a couple more World Cups," he said. "I'm two wins away from being the most winningest rider in downhill."

He attributes his success to perseverance, adding that his parents played a big role by believing in him and giving him the opportunity to chase his dream.  

"I've decided it's time to thank them for all their hard work and I'm sending them into early retirement and taking over the shop, which one of my good friends is running for me because I'm travelling a lot still and have other business interests in the United States, which I need to take care of, as well as continuing to race the World Cups. This is life in the fast lane, especially now [after] being crowned world champion."

Wide-awake Sleepy Hollow has a lot going for it

It may be known as Sleepy Hollow, but in the world of international cycling Pietermaritzburg is a destination of note.

Since 2008, Alec Lenferna, events director of Real Events Management, has worked with the International Cycling Union (UCI) to create a "bike city" for Africa –a one venue on the continent at which all major international cycling events will take place.

High-profile Melbourne and Copenhagen are the two other bike cities in the world, but in South Africa it was the relatively low-key Pietermaritzburg that was chosen.

"We looked at a few other cities like Port Elizabeth, Potchefstroom and East London, but when we investigated Pietermaritzburg more we ticked more and more boxes and hence this is where we have been staging things since 2009," said Lenferna, whose company organises the events under the auspices of Cycling South Africa.

"The MTB [Mountain Bike] World Cup has been here in 2009, 2011 and 2012. We missed out in 2010 because the UCI did not award any events to countries outside Europe for that season."

He said Pietermaritzburg was well suited for high-profile cycling events for several reasons. "It's geographically well positioned, it has a good terrain for cycling events in all disciplines, it's large enough to handle but small enough to need events like this and it also has a willing and incredibly helpful regional-provincial government."

Lenferna said that top riders such as Steve Peat and Aaron Gwin were positive about it too. "As a competition venue we have always received very positive reports on the event and the course. Our course here is a bit more 'pedally' than a lot of courses in Europe, meaning that there are some places where riders do need to pedal, but most European courses are on ski resorts and in the Alps and therefore on much steeper terrain."

And what about the residents of Sleepy Hollow? "We have always had a fantastic vibe at the events, especially for the downhill. The concept is pretty easy to understand in that the people going down the hill the quickest are the winners and this is why a lot of non-MTB fans come along to see what's going on, stand on the mountain and scream and shout and have a good time. The past three MTB World Cup events have averaged approximately 12000 to 14 000 spectators."

Local boy Greg Minnaar's achievements in downhill mountain bike racing have also helped to generate an interest in the sport, Lenferna said.

"The fact that he has won here twice and been second once in three years means he is very much the local hero and this is enhanced by the fact that he is a local PMB boy and can be seen riding around when he is here in SA, and he takes time to speak to the juniors and other riders and give advice, so his reputation has certainly become more consolidated.

"His 2012 MTB World Championship win is huge for him, but also huge for us here too. We will have the defending world champ here at our event and not only is he South African, but he comes from only 1km from the course." 

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