14 April 2014
It was action all the way at the opening round of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in Pietermaritzburg on the weekend. In the downhill, triple world champion Greg Minnaar had to settle for third place as the USA’s Aaron Gwin put in a flawless run to claim the victory.
South Africa’s Minnaar was returning to World Cup competition after undergoing knee surgery late last year, so was not disappointed by the result.
“I’m happy. I haven’t raced since Norway in September last year. I’ve only been on a bike just over a month, so I was really nervous up top and I was really struggling this morning. Finally, in the final run, I got the top the best I had and I can’t complain. I couldn’t have ridden the top better and I pushed as hard as I could down the bottom, and I had the legs, but I just didn’t have time on the bike,” he told SAinfo.
“It was hard. It is always hard,” he said of the lactic-acid inducing final third of the downhill run. “The crowd always lifts me up, and I know it’s close to the finish line, so I put down as much as I could down to the line.”
‘It couldn’t have gone any better’
Gwin, the only man to previously defeat Minnaar in Pietermaritzburg when he won in 2011, was thrilled with his performance. “It couldn’t have gone any better for me. It was a great run,” he said.
“I did everything I wanted to do, top to bottom, and I didn’t mess anything up, so I was happy. I knew I had the speed. But it is always so tough when it is race day, so it was good to pull through when it counts and get the win.”
A tough pill to swallow
For perennial runner-up Mick Hannah, it was a tough pill to swallow. For once he got the better of Minnaar, who finished third, but then Gwin, the last man down the mountain, snatched victory from the likeable, quiet Australian, becoming the only man to break four minutes with a time of 3:59.344.
“A bummer. I felt like I had a pretty good run at the bottom, but I made some mistakes at the top. At this level, you can’t do that,” Hannah said.
First World Cup win
Great Britain’s Manon Carpenter claimed her first World Cup win in the women’s downhill, comfortably relegating fellow Brit Rachel Atherton, who had won the World Championships in Pietermaritzburg in 2013, to second place, with the USA’s Jill Kintner in third.
“I was pretty nervous coming into this race. I know I can do well here, but it was about getting it right on “the race day, trying to keep calm, not getting stressed, and trying to make it down,” Carpenter told SAinfo.
“For the past two years, I’ve been near the top, so it’s nice to come out here and to have done it won now.”
There was a tight battle for the men’s honours in the cross-country between world champion Switzerland’s Nino Schurter and two-time Olympic champion Julien Absalon of France before Schurter punctured on the fifth of six laps and had to ride half a lap on the undulating course before being able to change his back wheel.
Absalon rode superbly to go on to victory in 1:38:05, 34 seconds clear of Manual Fumic, who was also second at the Cascades MTB Park last year in the World Championships. Third place went to Absalon’s compatriot Maxime Marrotte, 20 seconds behind Fumic.
It was Absalon’s 27th career World Cup victory.
Reversal of fortune
“I’m really happy,” he said afterwards. “It’s great to win the first World Cup, especially with it being here in South Africa where I crashed twice and broke ribs at last year’s World Champs.
“I wasn’t the fastest downhill and I arrived a little bit stressed after my two crashes last year. I wasn’t really feeling comfortable in the Tree House rock garden, but I did a safe line, maybe not the fastest, but a safe one, and the feeling and shape was good, so I was happy.
“I used a lot of energy during the first lap to overtake about 15 guys. Once I got up to Nino it was a nice fight though. He was very fast in some of the technical sections, but then he got a flat tyre.”
Despite his mishap, Schurter still managed to come home in six place.
Elite win on first try
The women’s title went the way of Swiss star Jolanda Neff in her very first elite women’s World Cup race. In 2013, she had won the under-23 World Championship title in Pietermaritzburg.
“I feel a lot stronger on the bike. I had a really good ride last year at World Champs here, but the rest of my races last year were not 100 percent. I had really good training over the winter and I feel a lot stronger now, and I’m really happy that it has come together now at the race,” she told SAinfo.
Neff also gave a thumbs-up to course designer Nic Floros’ circuit. “It’s a lot of fun. I also liked the old track a lot because I became world champion on that track. The new one is a lot of fun as well, and has some really cool sections in there.”
Norwegian wonder, Gunn-Rita Dahle, now 41 years of age, placed second, 25 seconds behind Neff, in 1:38:25, with Neff’s team-mate, Poland’s Maja Wloszczowska taking third place after a fascinating duel with Absa Cape Epic winner Annika Langvad of Denmark.