15 January 2003
Sitting down to lunch with Greg Minnaar, I am struck by the sparkle in his eyes. From that light within it is easy to deduce that he is a young man who enjoys his life – and especially outdoor sports. He is tanned and relaxed, and the 2003 mountain bike downhill world champion is good and interesting company.
Greg’s initial sporting interest was in motocross, but that meant his parents, who owned a bicycle shop, needed to take him to the motocross track and sit with him while he practised. Because of the constraints of work, Greg was unable to practice motocross as often as he would have liked.
What he could do, however, was to take his mountain bike out into the forests around World’s View, just north of Pietermaritzburg, and enjoy the adrenaline thrill of flying downhill at speed. So it was that downhill mountain biking became his first choice in sport.
Truly a relaxed individual, Greg Minnaar’s exterior hides the fact that he whatever he chooses to do, he wants to do well – not just compete, but challenge for wins. That showed early when he demonstrated excellent downhill racing ability from a young age.
World Cup at 16
In 1997, Minnaar was given the opportunity to attend the World Cup in Switzerland, even though he was just 16 years of age. Incredibly, he managed to qualify twelfth. Unfortunately, in the race proper, Greg took a fall. Despite that setback he still managed to secure 51st place – a decent performance if one takes his tumble into account and, of course, the standard of the competition.
More important than his placing, though, was the impact that being at the World Cup had on Greg. Being around his heroes, those stars he had previously seen in magazines only, convinced him that this was what he wanted to do, what he wanted to be: a professional mountain bike downhill racer.
Convincing his parents was, naturally, tough because he wanted to become a professional there and then. And he hadn’t yet finished school. They said no to his pleas.
Fortunately for Greg, he found an unlikely ally. The headmaster of Alexander High School was asked for his thoughts on Greg’s aim to turn professional immediately. Go for it, he said, Greg could always complete his schooling at a later stage if he chose to do so. And so Greg Minnaar left school early to become a professional downhill racer!
He managed a 28th-place finish when the World Cup came to Stellenbosch in South Africa but, admits Greg, “it was a home course and I had the advantage of knowing it”. His next outings saw him place “nowhere”. He persevered.
Questioned his decision
Minnaar admits that during his first year overseas he questioned his decision to turn professional and race so far away from home. He missed his family and friends, and found the going tough. Nonetheless, the results started to come, and he settled down to the grind of travel and being part of a big team where discipline was strictly enforced.
“I don’t mind discipline”, says Minnaar, “but I found it tough being told the same thing 20 times”.
In 2001 he tasted victory for the first time, winning in Kaprun, Austria. This was both a good and a bad thing; bitten by the victory bug, Minnaar wanted more. “I pushed too hard the next year, in 2002”, he admits, “and because of that I came short. My strength is my consistency.”
Luckily, Minnaar learnt his lesson and adapted his racing to his strengths. In 2003 his consistency came through. Though he won only one race, he finished in the top five often – often enough that, when the points were finally tallied, he was the world champion.
Making it an even more remarkable year is that Minnaar also won in North America, capturing the Norba title with much the same approach: consistency over a “go for broke” mentality.
He told me about the two competitions, explaining that the World Championships require more technical skills, while the Norba racing tends to be less demanding technically. Because of the difference, it’s quite a challenge.
Minnaar was also honoured at home when he was named the South African Mountain Bike Cyclist of the Year for 2003. No surprise there .
I asked him about 2001, when he won his first World Cup event but was overlooked in the cyclist of the year balloting, with Robbie Hunter being honoured. Sure, Hunter was on a top professional road team, but Greg had won a world title.
He admits he was angry, and says it still seems that road cyclists are given greater respect than mountain bikers. There are many who would agree with him.
When one considers how close racing is at the top, where every tenth of a second is vital, it comes as quite a surprise to me that Greg describes his approach as “conservative”.
Frankly, though, what he considers conservative would likely strike Joe Public as suicidal. He might think he’’ conservative, but the crowds of 20 000 to 40 000 that watch the mountain bike downhill racing all around the world would disagree. Why else would they be drawn to the racing? It is fast, furious and exciting.
Greg’s world title came when he was riding for the Haro/Lee Dungarees team, and he definitely made a good impression on the team. However, he was approached by a number of other teams after his successful season, and after consulting the Haro/Lee Dunagrees team an amiable split was agreed upon so that he could join the Team G Cross Honda.
He admits that in the short term he could have made more money staying with the Haro team, but with Honda – although a formal contract stating as such has not yet been signed – Greg reckons he stands to make more financially over time. He says he could spend 10 years with the team, and what is really exciting is that they want him to be the face of the team, which is new for 2004.
Make no mistake, Honda is a big name that is recognised the world over. And, as Greg explained to me, they do things thoroughly, their approach being that your equipment is either 100% ready for racing or you don’t race at all.
“Yeah, it’s pretty exciting”, he says of the testing that Honda is doing on his bike for 2004. For the first time in his career his team will be building a bike with only one person in mind: Greg Minnaar.
Chatting to Minnaar, it is clear that he loves what he does. “If you like something you’ll do well in it”, he says. Also clear is that he has real fun in his career. He enjoys the adrenaline thrill. “I get bored cycling on the road”, he says.
In fact, just before he joined me for lunch, he had been out learning how to do a backward somersault on his motocross bike, and I could see the sense of achievement he felt after getting it right on just his third attempt! He was on his way back there afterwards to mess around some more.
Amazingly, Minnaar believes that until 2003 he hadn’t yet applied himself fully to his sport. Now, with a new team that is most definitely focused on rocketing to the top, and the knowledge of what his whole-hearted effort can achieve – a world championship – Minnaar is hoping for a 2004 season that is as successful as 2003.
My personal thoughts: he’s a humble, nice guy and I hope he reaches those heights again.