SA shines at Maritzburg MTB Cup

14 April 2009

Enthusiastic crowds, way in excess of the organisers’ expectations, ensured the opening round of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in Pietermaritzburg was a huge success, and local favourite and world downhill champion Greg Minnaar thrilled the fans by racing to a sensational victory in the final event of the weekend.

Minnaar was not the only South African to excel. Burry Stander, from Port Shepstone on the KwaZulu-Natal south coast, turned in an outstanding performance in the men’s cross country to finish third overall and first in the under-23 category.

‘Sleepy Hollow’

Known as “Sleepy Hollow”, Pietermaritzburg, when it comes to cycling, is anything but sleepy. It has hosted many of the world’s leading road cyclists in recent years in the World’s View Challenge. Now, it has enjoyed success in the Mountain Bike World Cup and, coming up in August, it will host the UCI BMX World Cup.

In 2010, Pietermaritzburg will host the UCI BMX World Championships and the following year it will again be a BMX World Cup venue.

Men’s downhill

In mountain biking, the most adrenaline-pumping of all the events is the downhill, which features technical challenges, plenty of jumps, and speed, speed, speed. With Minnaar having won his third overall World Cup title in 2008, the Pietermaritzburg supporters expected him to rise to the challenge posed by the course in the Ferncliff Forests and he did.

Minnaar had qualified second fastest for the final behind Australia’s Mick Hannah. It was, he said after his victory, a blessing in disguise. Minnaar explained that it meant he had to ride an offensive race in the finals instead of defending his time.

The riders set off in inverse order from the times they set in qualifying. That meant Minnaar would be the second last man off. With a big field of 82 men taking part, it gave the crowd, many armed with vuvuzelas, plenty of time to take in the action from different viewpoints. It also allowed the excitement to build.

Four-minute barrier

In qualifying, four minutes had proved to be the barrier that separated the top guns from the rest, but in the final 28 men went under that time. As the time approached for Minnaar and the rest of the leading riders to make their runs, so a large number of spectators began to make their way to the finish.

New Zealander Cameron Cole set a time of 3:53.20 that stood as the mark to beat for a while, but Gee Atherton and Sam Hill both bettered it and Minnaar’s Santa Cruz Sydnicate team-mate Steve Peat took the time to beat below three minutes and 50 seconds with a run of 3:49.25.

Minnaar then flashed down the course in an astonishing 3:43.44, exhibiting his trademark silky smooth riding style, while loudly supported by the partisan home crowd all the way along the route.

A very popular winner

That left only Hannah with a chance of beating the South African star. He, too, flew down the course, but his time splits, shown on the big-screen television at the finish suggested he wouldn’t beat Minnaar. He didn’t, clocking 3:45.69, which left Minnaar a very popular winner by just over two seconds.

Speaking about his victory on his home track, Minnaar said: “Man, I got great support today! All the guys up on the top of the course, and all the way down, they gave me the support I wanted. It was good to have so many home fans here, and they weren’t going to accept a second place,” he smiled.

Andrew Neethling also flew the South African flag high, finishing in fourteenth place.

Women’s downhill

In the women’s event, Great Britain’s Tracy Moseley celebrated her thirtieth birthday in style by capturing the title by finishing more than six seconds faster than second placed Emmeline Ragot in 4:20.15 seconds.

“It was totally wicked!” reckoned Moseley. “I thought the course would never end. It was tough up towards the top – really technical.

“I would’ve preferred the whole course to be like that. None of us like pedalling! We’re downhillers! But it’s the best thirtieth birthday present a girl could wish for.”

Sabrina Jonnier claimed third to give France two riders on the podium, while South Africa’s Joanna Petterson finished in tenth place, with fellow South African Anke Martin ending twelfth.

Men’s cross country

In Saturday’s cross country, Burry Stander gave the local crowd, many of them displaying “Go Burry!” placards, plenty to cheer. Throughout the race his position on the course could be gauged by the yelling of the crowd.

He was part of a group that set the early pace. It included current world champion Christoph Sauser of Switzerland, with whom he had recently team in the Absa Cape Epic. Others in the group were four-time world champion and Olympic gold medallist Julian Absalon, world number five Jose Antonio Hermida, and Swiss under-23 star Nino Schurter.

Just past the halfway mark, the two Swiss riders, Sauser and Schurter fell off the pace, which left Stander, Hermida, and Absalon pushing the pace.

On lap six of the brutal seven-lap race Hermida managed to open a gap on Absalon and Stander. The Spaniard, despite the heat and very tough climbs, powered through the final lap to take victory, with Absalon finishing 30 seconds behind him and Stander a further 22 seconds later to huge cheers.

‘The support was incredible!’

Racing in South Africa against the world’s best proved to be a memorable experience for him. “The support was incredible!” exclaimed Stander. “The crowds made so much noise for me, I couldn’t hear myself think!

“It’s amazing to race a World Cup in my own country and to have such huge support. Thank you to everyone who came out to support me and to support mountain biking in South Africa.”

Women’s cross country

Victory in the women’s cross country went to Austria’s Elisabeth Osl who dominated the race, leading from start to finish, to win a World Cup event for the first time in her career.

A field that included Olympic champion Sabine Spitz of Germany and world champion Margarita Fullana had no answer to the diminutive Austrian as she continued to build on her lead throughout the race.

By the end she was over two minutes clear of the second placed Russian Irina Kalentieva, who ended 39 seconds ahead of third placed Lene Byberg of Norway.

‘The course was great’

“It was fantastic,” enthused Osl after her win. “The course was great. The long uphills hit the body constantly.

“It was great to go the front so early from the start, as last year I was having problems with my start, but today I hit the front and looked back and no one was coming. I felt comfortable, but kept pushing.”

Four-cross

The four-cross events also produced excellent racing. The men’s title went the way of Jared Graves on one of the longest four-cross tracks in the world.

A former world championship silver medal winner, Graves faced former two-time world champion Michael Prokop of the Czech Republic, current world champion Rafael Alvarez de Lara Lucas of Spain, and 2008 World Championship silver medallist Roger Rinderknecht in the final, all three of whom had been beaten on the way to the title-deciding race.

In the final, Graves made a blistering start and raced a superb race to relegate Prokop to second, with Lucas in third and Rinderknecht finishng fourth.

‘I’ve got my confidence back’

A relieved and ecstatic Graves said afterwards: “I started thinking that I was incapable of winning the big races. But now, after today, I am relieved. I’ve got my confidence back.

“The course was great. It really suited me – high-geared and flat-out. I like that kind of riding!”

In the women’s event, Anneke Beerten of the Netherlands showed why she is ranked number one in the world by taking victory. Great Britain’s Fionn Griffiths was second, with the Czech Republic duo of Romana Labounkova and Jana Horakova finishing third and fourth respectively.

Additional reporting: MTB World Cup SA

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