This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
To the delight of hometown fans who packed the mountainside, Greg Minnaar (South Africa) defended his downhill world championship title in the final event at the UCI Mountain Bike World Championship on Sunday afternoon in Pietermaritzburg. The Australians had a good day, too, with Mick Hannah in second spot and Jared Graves in third.
"Thanks to South Africa for backing me. It wasn't just Pietermaritzburg - people travelled from all over South Africa," said Minnaar, who owns a bike shop almost next to the course.
"I had a terrible practice this morning. I've been battling with a hip injury all year, and my right leg hasn't really been working. I went back to the house after practice, and the chiropractor helped me."
"At the top of the track during my run, I felt I was going pretty well. The marshalls were shouting my name - that's a lot of pressure!"
Johan Potgieter (South Africa) got the fans warmed up by setting an early best time of 4:13.719 as the seventh man down the mountain on a dusty, dry, pedally track on a cool afternoon.
Next to assume his position in the hot seat was Australian Graves, who knocked a whopping 12 seconds off Potgieter's time. Graves, who has been busy competing in the enduro World Cup this year, actually raced his enduro bike rather than a downhill bike.
"I decided to race my enduro bike here today about five months ago. I knew I would be busy racing enduro all year and not have much time to ride my downhill bike this year," said Graves.
"I did the downhill World Cup in Fort William earlier this year and never felt comfortable on my downhill bike. I didn't want to spend all this week setting up my downhill bike. If there is one track you can get away with a slightly smaller bike, it's this one. I knew I'd lose time up top, but I figured I'd make up time at the bottom. It paid off."
His ride was so impressive that it held up as the fastest until the sixth to last rider of the day. In between, Steve Peat (Great Britain), Nick Beer (Switzerland) and Matthew Simmonds (Great Britain) would come close by placing second best times at the moment of each of their runs, but none could unseat Graves.
Peat was racing his 21st consecutive downhill world championships.
Several riders seemed to be doing well at the first split, but then would loose time in the middle section leading up until the second split - usually so much it would cost them any chances at the podium. The pedalling was taking its toll.
Two favorites crashed out of contention: Danny Hart (Great Britain) and Aaron Gwin (United States). The latter, although he gingerly rode the rest of the way down the track, appeared to have a significant shoulder injury and was immediately attended by medics after finishing.
Mick Hannah (Australia) was the next man to occupy the hot seat. He was four seconds up by split 1, then 3.9 seconds up by split 2. He had been the fastest rider during the time session and was clearly flying all week. He finished in 3:59.454.
"It was encouraging to see Tracey do so well after some rough months," said Hannah of his sister, who medalled in the elite women's downhill.
"A couple of years ago, I was having a rough time. I signed with my current Hutchinson United team, and my goal was Worlds in South Africa. It was a three-year plan. As I got into it, I started progressing everywhere else, and this became just just another race."
Hannah also said he appreciated all the crowd support during his run.
First-year elite Loic Bruni (France) was not fast enough to make the podium and Sam Hill (Australia) was already down by seven seconds when he did a superman and took a huge crash.
The crowd roared to life as the third to last rider, Minnaar, took to the start. He looked good on the upper portion of the track and was up by 1.049 seconds at split 1. The crowd got very quiet and held its collective breath when he was down by 0.866 at split 2, but unlike the other competitors on the day, Minnaar made up time on the last section to set a new best time of 3:58.058.
"I got through the first technical section pretty good," said Minnaar. "Mid-way down, I was empty on the tabletops. Coming down to the bottom, my legs were on fire and were burning. I could hardly breathe, but I knew I didn't have much track left. I dug deep in that last section."
The second to last man, Steve Smith (Canada), couldn't keep his winning ways going from the Mont-Sainte-Anne World Cup a few weeks ago and crashed almost right out of the gate on the first corner. His chances at a medal were over quickly.
Finally, Gee Atherton (Great Britain), a former world champion, took to the start. He didn't look nearly as smooth during his run and by split 1, he was slower by 1.536 seconds. At split 2, he was 3.533 down and seemed unlikely to make up enough time to upset Minnaar.
As confirmation came in that Minnaar did indeed have the best time, the crowd went wild, just beginning the celebration of his third world title and guaranteeing lots of partying would happen across Pietermaritzburg tonight.
Remarkably, Minnaar flatted during his run, but even he didn't feel it at first.
"I think I flatted in the last rock section, but I only felt it over the Moneymaker and came into the last jump," he said. "Through the last section, I straightened it up as best I could. I knew I could carry speed and didn't want to risk anything."