1 September 2013
South Africa’s Greg Minnaar gave the big home crowd what they had been hoping for on Sunday, the final day of 2013 UCI MTB & Trials World Championship, when he blasted to victory in the men’s downhill race at Cascades MTB Park in Pietermaritzburg.
Only France’s Fabien Barel in 2004 and the USA’s Greg Herbold at the very first World Championships in 1990 had previously won the downhill title on home soil. Minnaar did it in his home town.
“I have to thank South Africa for backing me. It wasn’t just ‘Maritzburg. People travelled from far and wide to be here,” he told the media after successfully defending his World Championship title and capturing the prestigious rainbow-striped jersey for a third time.
The South African superstar was the third last man down the mountain. He led at the first split, but was just down on Mick Hannah, who was in the hot seat, at the second split. The crowd was in a frenzy and the hometown boy was not going to let the opportunity of becoming a world champion in his home town pass him by.
With bells, vuvuzelas, horns and cheers urging him on, he dug deep. With the finish in sight, he punctured, but that became evident only after he had finished as he maintained his speed through the Money Maker and down into the bowl at the finish, firing across the finishing line just 0.396 ahead of the powerful Australian.
It wasn’t over yet, however, as Steve Smith, the winner of the last World Cup event in Canada and World Cup standings leader Gee Atherton were still to come.
Smith, though, crashed out early on his run and his challenge was over almost before it began. That left Atherton, a big and smooth rider, much in the mold of Minnaar, as the only man who could end the South African fairytale.
At split one, he trailed Minnaar by 1.536 seconds, but was still in contention. When the timing board showed he was 4.399 down at the second split the crowd roared, and when the Great Britain star came into sight of the finish and Minnaar’s time was out of reach the Cascades MTB Park went crazy.
It wasn’t long before Minnaar was swamped. His band of close friends, the One Life Crew, led the way, lifting him up and tossing him into the sky, his South African- themed helmet bobbing clear above the masses below.
Describing the helmet at the post-race press conference, he explained that it had been based around former President Nelson Mandela. “Madiba is an inspiration for all of us South Africans,” he said. “As a country, we have been through a lot and he has definitely pulled us through some rough times. “
Minnaar admitted that he had “a terrible practice” on Sunday morning, but after his chiropractor worked on a troublesome right hip, he felt better and ready to race.
“On the trainer at the top [of the downhill course], I felt I was going pretty good. I got out of the gate and I went pretty hard.”
After getting through the technical sections high up in good shape, the course began to bite. “I was empty,” Minnaar revealed. “I really had to dig deep to get through that middle section.”
‘I could hardly breathe’
Near the bottom, he said: “My legs were on fire. They were burning. I could hardly breathe.”
Thankfully, at that point, he was within reach of the electric crowd awaiting him along the lower reaches of the track.
On the last rocky section, he suffered a puncture, but he kept charging. “I could feel it was down, so through that last section I straightened the bike up as best I could. I knew I would carry speed on that flat wheel through the lines. I didn’t want to risk anything.”
Hannah, second in the 2009 World Cup in Pietermaritzburg, the fastest qualifier in 2011 before he crashed out in the final, and third in 2012, finished as the only other man to crack four minutes and picked up the silver medal, while his fellow Australian Jarde Graves took the bronze.
Rachel Atherton has dominated the women’s World Cup downhill scene in 2013 and she carried that same form into the final, which preceded the men’s event.
Australians Tracey Hannah, the winner of the UCI World Cup Pietermaritzburg in 2012, and Caroline Buchanan, led the standings until late, before the USA’s Jill Kintner passed Buchanan and then France’s Emmaline Ragot, a two-time world champion, nailed her run to finish four seconds up on Hannah.
Atherton, the final rider down the course, was a class apart, though. She was 1.73 seconds up at the first split and by the second split that advantage had ballooned to 8.108 seconds. She maintained her advantage to the end to win by 8.632 seconds over Ragot in 4:28.043. Hannah picked up the bronze medal.
‘It was a shock’
It was Atherton’s first time competing in South Africa. Previously injuries had kept her away. “It was a shock,” she said, about the Cascades downhill course. “The track was wild and it was very hard and that was unexpected.”
Asked if her brother Gee had given her any advice, Atherton said no. “We’re separate people and it’s a tough race and we’re pretty much in our own zones. We know what we’re doing, or I do anyway,” she said jokingly to loud laughter.
Women’s cross country eliminator
Sweden’s Alexander Engen was successful in her defence of the women’s eliminator title, holding off Jolanda Neff, who had been very impressive in her three races leading up to the Big Final to take victory. Linda Indergand came home in third to give Switzerland two riders on the podium.
Neff, the winner of the under-23 cross country title, had an extra day of recovery over the Swede, but Engen afterwards said of racing on successive days: “It was good. I don’t think it made me slower. But I am really happy.
“I mean the Swiss ‘Mafia’, they are so fast and so good. It’s not easy taking them, so I am really happy.”
South Africa’s Mariska Strauss, the eighth place finisher in the women’s under-23 cross country, was in position to qualify for the semi-finals before taking a spectacular fall within sight of the finishing line. With her front wheel punctured, she ran her bike across the line to sympathetic clapping from the pro-South African crowd.
Men’s cross country eliminator
Australia’s Paul van der Ploeg took out the men’s title ahead of Austria’s Daniel Federspiel and Argentina’s Andres Soto after making a memorable move to snatch the lead after the first tough ascent.
He explained his daring move afterwards: “With the eliminator, the start is super- important and I knew that Daniel is super-quick off the start. I just tried to get a little bit of a slipstream off of him going into that first right hand corner.
“In my time trial, I actually had to unclip because I washed out in that top corner and then in the semi-final, I found this inside line because it wasn’t really ridden by many people. It was grassy and I thought I’ll put it on the line in the final and see if I can make the overtake again in the Big Final and it came off.
“From there, it was just about defending and not looking back.”
- Greg Minnaar (RSA) 3:58.058
- Mick Hannah (Aus) 3:58.454
- Jared Graves (Aus) 4:01.391
- Sam Blenkinsop (NZ) 4:01.804
- Matthew Simmonds (GBR) 4:01.997
- Rachel Atherton (GBR) 4:28.043
- Emmaline Ragot (Fra) 4:36.675
- Tracey Hannah (Aus) 4:40.438
- Jill Kintner (USA) 4:41.468
- Caroline Buchanan (Aus) 4:41.655