Minnaar: one of South Africa’s greats

6 September 2013

It has been almost a week and I still get a buzz out of it. Just thinking back or watching YouTube videos brings a smile to my face. You see, I was there on Sunday, 1 September, when South Africa’s Greg Minnaar blasted his way to victory in the downhill at the 2013 UCI MTB & Trials World Championships in Pietermaritzburg.

That victory made him a three-time world champion. He’s also a three-time runner-up in the World Championships. In addition, Minnaar has won the overall World Cup title three times and finished as runner-up four times. He has more World Cup podium finishes than anyone in history.

All of those achievements put him in the conversation as one of South Africa’s greatest sportsmen ever.

Stars that come to mind in other sports include golf legend Gary Player; cricket all-rounder Jacques Kallis; batsmen Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards; rugby’s Danie Gerber, Naas Botha and Frik du Preez; swimmers Natalie du Toit and Penny Heyns; boxers “Baby Jake” Matlala and Vic Toweel; footballers Ace Ntsoelengoe, Lucas Radebe and Kaizer Motaung.

You can pick your favourite from whatever sport, but with a record like his, Minnaar has to be in the conversation.

A legend

Two years ago, Greg Minnaar was a great of downhill racing. However, by winning two World Championships and finishing runner-up in the World Cup twice since, he has become a legend of the sport.

There’s only other man in the conversation when it comes to the greatest downhill racer of all time, although Australia’s Sam Hill is a narrow third: France’s Nicolas Vouilloz. He won the World Championships a record seven times and topped the World Cup standings five times. At first glance this trumps Minnaar’s achievements, but Vouilloz was dominant mostly in the sport’s early days, when the competition was not as tough as it is today.

It’s the old story of it being difficult comparing athletes from different eras. Take the example of Sir Donald Bradman, by common consensus the greatest cricketer of all time. His batting average of 99.94 is way ahead of the number two man on the list, Graeme Pollock, who averaged 60.97. Yet only a fool would believe Bradman could achieve such dominance in this day and age.

It was Greg Minnaar who brought to an end Vouilloz’s run of five World Championship downhill titles in six years way back in 2003. It took him another nine years before he won a second rainbow-striped jersey, but in that time he narrowly missed out three times, when he finished second, and won three World Cup overall titles.

Like Federer

In some ways, in my mind, the way Minnaar wins reminds me of Roger Federer. The man from Pietermaritzburg is tall at 1.90m (6 foot 3), but he has a grace and technical brilliance, even in the pursuit of speed, that stands out and confirms his status as special.

Martin Whiteley, a highly respected long time team manager on the UCI MTB World Cup circuit recalled seeing Minnaar for the first time in an excellent video by Gary Perkin on Vimeo (http://vimeo.com/73418053): “I was doing a course walk late in the afternoon during practice and this rider went past me. It wasn’t the speed he went past at, but it was the way he shifted line from one side of the track to the other. It just caught my eye. It was just a beautiful riding style, so I took his number, looked it up later and saw that he was a junior from South Africa,” Whiteley said.

I have attended every UCI Mountain Bike World Cup held in South Africa. It has been easy, I have to admit, as the Cascades MTB Park in Pietermaritzburg is literally within walking distance of my home. I never want to miss one because they have been some of the best events I have attended as a journalist and a sports fan, and Greg Minnaar has been the main reason for that.

He has delivered

Each and every time there has been huge pressure on him to win and, as champions do, he has delivered. In 2009 and 2012, he won the downhill, while he was second in 2011, just 0.2 seconds behind the winner, Aaron Gwin.

This year, though, it was different. Ever since he was crowned the world champion in Leogang, Austria in 2012, the pressure was on because the World Championships were coming to his home town.

I bumped into him about four months before the Worlds, having not seen him since he had won in Austria. “Now you’ve done it,” I joked with him about the pressure he would face. He laughed in his typical, humble manner, but the truth was the pressure could not have been greater.

It’s worth remembering that his World Cup win in Pietermaritzburg in 2012 was also achieved under severe pressure. His father, Jeff, was in ICU in hospital at the time and it was uncertain whether Greg would race or not. He had not trained in a week, but eventually he took the decision to race.

With his father watching the event on a laptop in the hospital, Greg delivered another outstanding victory, giving dad Jeff a huge boost as he made his recovery.

It was going to be alright

So onto the most recent event, the 2013 UCI MTB & Trials World Championships: throughout its duration, everything was building towards the men’s downhill, the last event on the final day of competition. And while European athletes were racking up the medals and leaving South Africa’s best in their wake in the trials, cross country and cross country eliminator, there was always this feeling within me that it was going to be alright because South Africa had Greg Minnaar.

On the Saturday at the World Champs, the song by Duck Sauce, known as Barbra Streisand started playing over the massive sound system at the Cascades MTB Park. Instead of saying Barbra Streisand, though, the words were Greg Minnaar, and I am sure they sent a small shiver of excitement through all South African supporters.

The big build-up was on and the song began to be played frequently. By Sunday, the air was electric. The pressure must have been immense on Minnaar, who would be the fifth last man down the mountain.

‘Sick Mick’ on the hot seat

Australia’s Jared Graves occupied the hot seat for a long time with the fastest time before being dethroned from the top spot by his compatriot Mick Hannah as the event neared its completion. “Sick Mick” put together a superb run, smashing Graves’ time by three seconds to become the first man to dip under four minutes.

The powerfully-built, square-jawed Hannah is an ideal fit for the Cascades downhill course and his time would be hard to beat. Minnaar, on his run, was close at the first split, but on the second split was 0.866 down, less than 40 seconds from the end.

That was a massive margin to make up, but Minnaar, wearing a helmet emblazoned with Nelson Mandela’s face, pulled something out of the bag to somehow cross the finishing line 0.396 ahead of the likeable Australian. And he did it with a back wheel puncture he had picked up on the last rocky section! That was what a champion does.

Steve Smith, the winner of the previous World Cup stop in Mont-Sainte-Anne in Canada crashed out as he attempted to match the South African superstar. Aaron Gwin, the overall World Cup winner in 2011 and 2012, also crashed and Gee Atherton, the World Cup standings’ leader, simply couldn’t match Minnaar’s pace. He had defended his world title.

I was walking proud

Being there, feeling the patriotism, the pride of being a South African watching a legend is action is hard to describe. The cowbells, the vuvuzelas, the horns, the cheers, the yells of joy seemed to go on forever. As a South African, I was walking proud, thanks to Greg Minnaar.

He’s a humble, down-to-earth, special talent. I’ve been in sports journalism for 17 years now and he carries that assurance, confidence and humility I have previously witnessed in only those sportsmen and -women at the very top of their disciplines.

Because of him, I am already looking forward to the 2014 UCI World Cup Pietermaritzburg. I wouldn’t miss it.

My advice to you: if you have not been to a World Cup at the Cascades MTB Park before, make a plan to be there and see this superstar in action. You won’t regret it. If you’ve been there before, the chances are good you will be there again.