28 April 2011
Home town favourite Greg Minnaar narrowly missed out on repeating his success of 2009 when he placed second in the downhill at the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in Pietermaritzburg on the weekend, just 0.241 seconds behind American speedster Aaron Gwin.
Gwin, who victory was his first in a World Cup event, stunned the massive crowd that crammed into the forest at the Cascades mountain bike park with a time a full four seconds faster than the 4:12 that was being tipped as a title clinching mark.
“I can’t understand why I was so fast today,” said an elated Gwin afterwards. “I was so calm at the start. Usually I try to shy away from people talking to me, but today I felt like I needed someone to wake me up.
“Maybe that what you need to do on a course like this – stay really calm otherwise you blow up,” he said.
Most of Gwin’s challengers did exactly that. Australian Mick Hannah, the fastest man in qualifying and the last man to have a shot at racing inside Gwin’s blisteringly fast time, crashed heavily early on, breaking his bike stem and ending the competition in a moment of high drama.
Before him British world number one Gee Atherton and World champ Sam Hill failed to match Gwin, and South African Andrew Neethling, who qualified tenth fastest in the field of 80, saw his challenge ended in a crash high up on the course.
Even hometown hero Minnaar couldn’t upstage Gwin, despite riding a tidal wave of hysterical support and vuvuzelas from the thousands of fans packed around the course.
“I made a couple of silly mistakes early on and was trying to catch up all the way,” said Minnaar.
“I can’t thank the crowd enough. Their support was unbelievable and made a huge difference to me on the day. I am sorry for the second place,” he added.
For much of the men’s downhill final veteran downhiller Steve Peat occupied the leader’s hot-seat, and looked set to provide an upset result until Gwin blitzed the course.
The American, who hails from California and races with the Trek World racing team, is a relative newcomer to downhilling, after converting from BMX and Motocross racing after a succession of serious injuries.
Earlier in the day, the women’s title fell to British women’s downhill pacesetter Tracy Moseley, who was pushed all the way by her fellow countrywoman Fionn Griffiths.
“This is the toughest track I have ever raced,” said Moseley. “I was just hanging on for dear life, after pedalling flat out through the flat section following a great start.”
Moseley heard the on-course commentator say that her split times were very close to those of Griffiths, as she raced down the course.
“I was done,” said Moseley. “It was so tough. The course was horrid – hard and fast – and I was finished at the end.” Griffiths was second, followed by a trio of French youngsters – Emmeline Ragot, Sabrina Jonnier and Floriane Pugin.
Earlier in the day, rising Swiss star Andri Frischkneckt posted a comprehensive victory in the junior men’s cross country title decider, romping home to a one-sided two minute victory over local challenger Gert Heyns, with French teenager Cyril Grangladen a minute further back in third.
The all South African junior girls’ cross country race was won by the current national and African champ, Ashleigh Parker-Moffatt, almost a minute and half clear of Linda van Wyk, with Simone Vosloo making up the balance of the podium places.
Nino Schurter of Switzerland and China’s Chengyuan Ren stole the limelight on the penultimate day of competition when they lifted the men’s and women’s cross-country titles.
In the elite men’s event, Schurter showed just why he is the current world number one, looking calm and in control throughout the exhausting race on his way the third World Cup victory of his career.
“It was such an awesome race! I’m very happy to have finished ahead of Julien (Absalon) and its really great to have won the first World Cup of the year,” said an exhausted Schurter.
“The win will give me good momentum so hopefully I can just keep my shape in the next few races,” he added.
The trio of Schurter, Julien Absalon of France and the Czech Republic’s Jaroslav Kulhavy got off to a dream start and set a blistering pace from the opening lap. They went on to occupy the top third positions on the podium.
It was a day to forget for South Africa’s Burry Stander after his hopes of a home win were dashed by a mishap early on the first lap and another spectacular crash on the last which saw the team Specialized Racing rider cross the line in a disappointing eleventh place.
“I got off to a good start and was part of the lead group, but I just lost concentration for a second, my wheel slipped out and over I went,” said Stander. “I damaged my derailer and only had three gears for the rest of the race!”
“I managed to hold sixth place for most of the way, but I could feel the guys getting close towards the end there and with the added pressure I went over again in the rock garden and I’m just happy to have finished in one piece!” he reckoned.
Sliced through the field
In the women’s race, the day belonged China’s Chengyuan Ren, who sliced through the field from the second last row of the grid to the front where she held off a strong challenge from Julie Bresset of France and take the win. Russia’s Irina Kalentieva finished third.
Elisabeth Sveum of Norway claimed the women’s under-23 title, ahead of Poland’s Paula Gorycka, with Hungarian Barbara Benko in third place.
Italian Gerhard Kerschbaumer took the men’s under-23 cross country title after a thrilling duel with Austrian Alexander Gehbauer, who led for most of the race. Pole Marek Komwa ended third.
South African Rourke Croeser has a bad start and lagged in the bottom half of the 55-rider field before powering his way through to 13th place.
Australian world champion Jarryd Graves annexed the four-cross title, while Dutch star Anneke Beerten won the women’s four-cross.
The event, as it did in 2009, drew thousands of MTB fans.
The event organisers have lodged a very strong bid to host the 2013 World Championships at the same venue, and are bullish about their chances of winning that bid when it is decided in the coming weeks.
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