With this year's UCI World Cup kicking off in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, next weekend we quizzed the country's first downhill world champion, Greg Minnaar, on his favourite race tracks, representing Africa and Old Spice. You can meet him for yourself at BikeRadar Live in May.
What is downhill racing all about then?
For me it’s always been something I really enjoy – but if I’m asked what racing itself is all about, I’d say it’s about the preparation and aiming for the perfect run.
We don’t race shoulder-to-shoulder as you do in other disciplines, so you can’t be distracted by your opponents. It’s all about the best run you can put together.
Does that make it more of a mental battle with yourself then?
I feel it’s more mental then physical – as you might not be in tip-top shape but if you’re mentally strong you’ll still be able to pull off a good race result now and then.
Do you spend more time preparing for the season on a bike or in the gym?
I spend way more time on the bike than in the gym. I have to be honest here – the gym for me is as boring as going to the local library.
You’re clearly really into your riding – do you think the risks are high?
I don’t think so. I mean sure, you can get injured doing it, but no more so than many other sports.
But you must have had a few injuries?
Again, sure, but not too many. I’ve had problems with my shoulder which was an issue for me in 2007 but that’s all sorted now. I’ve also done my collarbone, way back in 2002.
You’ve been on the scene for a fair while now – tell us about your greatest biking moment...
It’s always hard to answer this one, because winning my ﬁrst World Cup overall and beating a legend – Nico Vouilloz – was pretty amazing. But then it’s hard trying to explain to people what it was like to win the World Championship for the ﬁrst time – for Africa.
Is there a big mountain bike scene in South Africa?
We don’t have the numbers you get in the UK but hopefully some day we will – it’s growing all the time. With the World Cup coming to South Africa it may well boost the downhill scene.
The scene must have been small when you started riding – how did you get into downhill mountain biking?
Well, I was doing motocross from when I was ﬁve years old, then when I was around 12 or so my parents bought a bike shop and got busy with that.
So I decided to give mountain bikes a go – it wasn’t long before I was hooked on downhill and was watching the Grundig World Cups on TV.
It’s pretty amazing for me to see where I am now – it’s like a dream sometimes, and I never forget how privileged I am to do this for a job.
You’re lucky enough to travel lots with your job – where are your favourite race tracks, and what makes them so good?
I like to be physically tested, I like to jump and I like it when the fans get into what we’re doing – so for me it’s got to be Arai mountain in Japan and Fort William in Scotland.
Take us through a typical race from your perspective…
I like to get to the race site at least the day before walking the course – especially if it’s a new race so I can get myself sorted as to where everything is.
I like to walk the course with teammates and mechanics which gives us a chance to discuss bike setup for the ﬁrst training session. Then training is all about ﬁnding your limits, trying new lines and ideas and getting the bike set up right.
These days the semi ﬁnal is as important as the ﬁnal, so now we have to be ready for two races over a weekend instead of one.
You’ve always ridden on fairly large teams – does this help?
I like having teammates, and I like a really good social atmosphere off the track. When you have a lot of mates around you it helps make the time away from home – which for me is more than six months each year – a lot easier to cope with.
The Santa Cruz Syndicate is an inspiring team to be on – how would a young racer get to your level and get a deal on a big-time team?
It’s hard to answer because there’s no one route to the top. Usually though it means a lot of training, travel and a bit of luck to get spotted. When kids ask me this I just tell them to enjoy the sport, work hard at training, and the rest will follow – if it’s meant to be.
So who’s the harder challenger – the young upstart with something to prove or the older seasoned pro with years of experience?
Anyone ahead of me on a result sheet when I’ve had a great run and reached my goal for the day deﬁnitely wins my respect. I don’t look at it from an age perspective.
Unlike some other downhill riders, you don’t seem to have a weakness on any kind ofcourse. Many consider you the best racer of our generation…
Consistency has always been key for me. There are some tracks where my style is not as suited, but I can still give the guys who ram over stuff a good run for their money. I’m a pretty competitive person, so when a track doesn’t suit me I like to try and rise to the challenge.
Who are the strongest challengers out there right now?
Of course it’s mainly the other guys on the World Cup overall podium with me in 2008. Gee Atherton, Sam Hill, Steve Peat and now I have to watch out for Sam Blenkinsop.
Fabien Barel is tough at World's and then there are always guys like Chris Kovarik and Matti Lehikoinen who can pop a good one.
When would you say most riders peak? Have you yet?
Hopefully not yet! I think when you look at my teammate ‘Old Spice’ [Steve Peat], there’s hope for all of us! There’s no real peak in downhill like there is in endurance events – I won the World Cup overall at 19, and then again this year at 26. And you surely can’t tell me Peaty is getting slower – he’s up there week in week out!
- Greg will be racing in the Mountain Biking UK Eliminator dual slalom at this year's BikeRadar Live festival on May 30-31. To find out more, visit http://live.bikeradar.com.
- You can follow Greg and the Santa Cruz Syndicate throughout the season and check out their bikes and tech at www.santacruzmtb.com.