Interview: Downhill racing star Greg Minnaar

Joining Greg Minnaar on his home trails

Any downhill fan knows Greg Minnaar – he’s been one of the world’s top riders for more than a decade. We join him on his home trails around Pietermaritzburg to see where the legend began...

Hi... I’m Greg,” says a tall, smiling cat in Oakleys, reaching out a tanned paw. I’d been guarding my Cannondale bag nervously in the arrival hall of Shaka Zulu airport in Durban, trying to spot Greg and photographer Gary Perkin, who now both stand before me.

I’ve convinced them to go riding with me in Minnaar’s stomping ground of Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. This area was the site of first round of the UCI World Cup, so it really is a killer opportunity.

Gary, or ‘Flipper’ as he’s widely known, and Greg are Pietermaritzburg locals, who not only rode together when they were younger, but also currently hop round the world making a good living from this great sport. There’s an easy air between them and by the time we’re back from the airport, I feel like I’m hanging out with a couple of mates.

Burning trails

Early the next day, we jump into Greg’s Toyota truck and head off towards Ferncliff Nature Reserve for some trail riding – this amazing place is just a four minute drive from Greg’s house. The city of Maritzburg is nestled in these massive rolling hills, caught between the tropical Durban and the dry landscape of Msasa trees and African bush higher up.

Although some people believe Greg’s fearless and smooth riding style comes from his early forays into MX, it seems obvious to me that a major contributing factor was simply growing up in this biker’s paradise. Greg’s dad started a BMX track in Pietermaritzburg, so Greg started racing at the age of five. But all he wanted was motocross, which he did for 11 years competitively. “I won a couple of MX championships but in my later years I was losing it due to lack of track time. I started riding MTB with mates because I didn’t need my parents to go to the track.”

Of course, the ascension from riding round this playground with his mates to becoming World Champ is a longer story than the space this article allows, but Greg tells me the pared down version, citing an important early influence: “South African rider Robin Rumbelow was the first to make it in Europe with Team Heavy Tools. He came back to South Africa for the National champs and the race was on. I was 15 or 16, on a fairly decent track here and I pipped him in the race. From then on I knew I could do it."

“Transitioning to Europe and the States was actually really hard,” he reflects. “The tracks in Europe and America are much smaller, tighter and less technical, but certainly the endless trail freedom of this area helped.”

We stop to shoot Greg carving a turn, flicking countless roosters into Gary’s face, something Flipper tolerates with surprisingly good humour. “OK that’s good,” he says, coughing and spluttering. “Let’s see if we can nail that spot just there?”

The surrounding dusky green valley contrasts against the pungent fire-blackened pine. Greg’s flouro T-shirt cuts through the shimmering heat as he flashes over a jump in the distance. The truth is, I’ve never seen anyone bomb down a hill with such vicious speed and style – when you get up close it’s quite an experience. I spend much of my time either sitting awestruck, or having a blast at lower velocities in this raw landscape, criss-crossed with red earth downhill tracks.

The area boasts hundreds of trails, all free from riders, ramblers and twitchers. They’re free from fees too, and are sunsplashed 90 per cent of the time. The local trails of Ferncliff, World’s View, Hilton and Cedara are all rideable from Greg’s backyard, and Karkloof, Giba and Howick are no more than an hour from central Pietermaritzburg.

“You have to understand, this is Africa though,” Gary says. “When you come here, hook up with some locals at a bike shop and ask them to take you riding. It’s a friendly town with biking in its blood, you’ll always find someone who’s keen.”

I can testify to the quality of the singletrack here, most of the riding is amongst pine and gum trees, some of it in slightly more sheltered forest rides, in Giba for instance. I’m keeping one eye out for the super poisonous ‘boomslang’ snakes that Gary assures me drop on to cyclists from the trees.

By late afternoon, Greg was jumping a good 3m into the air off a roller jump and landing it, over and over and over, with immense MX style. The roller jump in question will most likely form the hysterical crowd-infested finish arena of the World Cup downhill course later this month. I asked Greg if the officials consult him on the course. He’s adamant he will not allow it: “Although it might contribute to a better track, I don’t want the guys starting to say: ‘He has an advantage... blah-di-blah.’”

At the same time, his resolve is clear. When asked who is going to win the World Cup round, he replies: “You mean who’s going to come second?” with a cocky smile.

Sleepy Hollow

Greg is not the only Maritzburg local who knows his stuff. For an old Victorian town affectionately known as Sleepy Hollow, it’s produced some world-changing MTB professionals. Local boy Patrick Morewood makes the bullet-proof Morewood frames and came first in the World Champs in 1989. Paul Walton mechs for Fabien Barel and Mike Van Zyl now works for SRAM. Burry Stander, the Specialized XC pro hails from just down the road in Umtentweni. And not forgetting Gary, who regularly shoots for the likes of Scott and Santa Cruz.

At the end of the day we go to check out an abandoned race track called Hesketh Circuit, where much petrol-headed craziness takes place. Greg and Gary enjoy a minor post-session Hansa or two (the local lager).

I ask Greg for a little wisdom to close off with: “I think that you really need to encourage more women to ride in the UK. I think there’s a lot of hungry-looking guys in the UK and with a few fitter looking women around the place, there’d be less hungry looking guys.”

He flashes Gary a mischievous look and we’re done for the day.

A day in the life of Greg Minnaar

A typical training day starts early for greg in Pietermaritzburg. How early? about 4am! He meets up with a riding group and goes for a three- or four-hour ride. Then it’s back home for breakfast and to the gym for an hour’s workout.

Since he’s up so early, Greg goes back to bed for another hour or two and then heads to the coffee shop for a latte. He cruises into town at around midday to knuckle down to some hard work. As well as the luxury vacation business, True Collection, he’s involved in a bike part importer, his dad’s bike shop, an earth removal company and he owns a few properties.

In the evening he’ll go for a run or practise some more downhill. He eats out every night, and likes Italian and steak. Greg divides his time between San Francisco and Pietermaritzburg. His girlfriend, Lila, joins him in both places.  

Pietermaritzburg profile

Getting there: International flights are to Durban only, about 78km away. Check local airline Mango for cheap flights (www.flymango.com). from there, get a taxi or hire car to Pietermaritzburg. it’s about an hour’s drive. A hire car will cost about SAR300 (£26) a day.

Profile: There are more than 150km of empty trails, mostly suitable for XC and trail riding.

Go to ride: Ferncliff (Cascades), Howick, Giba Gorge (trail centre), Karkloof, Hilton, World’s View and Maritzburg itself.

Greg’s advice for tourists: “Hire a car and find a bike shop, somebody will want to ride with you – or make a connection online beforehand. Remember this is Africa – free but fierce, so keep your head screwed on.”

Bike shops: Jowetts, Hattons, Cycle Lab and Adrenaline Cycles in Howick for Karkloof trails.

Big competitions in the area: Karkloof Classic, UCI world Cup, Hilton Classic, Sani2C.

Where to stay: I stayed at Clover Cottage, a local guest house, and the owners welcomed me into their home like a member of the family. For more info email Nicky on nickymalherbe@telkomsa.co.za.

Pietermaritzburg’s Mr Consistency

It’s easy to forget just how long Minnaar has been at the top of the game. in 1998 he won the South African National Champs and hasn’t stopped winning since. His first World Cup win was in 2001, aged 20 – he went on to win the overall that year.

In 2003 he broke Nico Vouilloz’s iron grip on the World Champs by claiming the rainbow stripes as his own in Lugano. In fact in both 2008 and 2010 he never missed a podium finish at the World Cups, winning the overall in the former and only narrowly losing out to Gee Atherton in the latter.

What makes Greg so special as a racer is his ability to go fast on any track in any conditions – week in, week out, you know he’ll be right up there. With 12 World Cup wins already to his name (Peaty’s record stands at 17) there’s a real chance Greg could go on to become the sport’s most successful rider.

Helping kids out

Greg works closely with a business called True Collection (www.true-collection.com) who create and sell bespoke outdoor experiences. The organisation encourages its partners to volunteer with local charities, and as Greg has helped out underprivileged schools in the area before, this role was a perfect fit for him.

Recently Greg helped the company put together an event and invited stars including downhill riders Cedric Gracia and Josh Bryceland and world champion skier Chris Davenport, who played games with the kids and helped raise money for a school to buy books. Ultimately, they want to build a library for their school. 

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