Mountain bike mania in South Africa

19 March 2012

The UCI Mountain Bike World Cup Pietermaritzburg ended on a fairytale note on Sunday as local hero Greg Minnaar, the last man off in front of an expectant crowd, produced a stunning run to snatch the downhill title – putting an exclamation point on another very successful event for South Africa.

Burry Stander battled Switzerland’s Nino Schurter for the men’s elite cross-country title before having to settle for second place, while James Reid, who had targeted a top-10 finish in the men’s under-23 cross-country ahead of the event, produced a stunning ride to capture fourth spot.

The team title went to Team Hutchinson United Ride for the first time ever, competing on Morewood bikes, manufactured locally in Pietermaritzburg.

On a laptop in ICU

The final day was all about Minnaar, whose participation had been in doubt, with his father very ill and in ICU in a local hospital. Dad Jeff, however, had urged his son to race. He didn’t miss out on the action either and, despite his poor condition, he took in the spectacle from his hospital bed thanks to a 3G card and a laptop.

After some overnight rain, the downhill track was in ideal condition as the first of the 80 finalists set off, with the slowest qualifier going first and the fastest qualifier last. As the field headed towards the runs of the big guns, Frenchman Julien Camellini occupied the leader’s hot seat for some time with a splendid time of four minutes, 3.58 seconds.

South Africa’s Andrew Neethling, the tenth fastest qualifier, then gave the crowd a huge lift by turning in the fastest time and taking over the hot seat. His stay there, though, didn’t last long as Jared Graves improved the mark to beat to 4:02.41.

‘Sick Mick’

His fellow Australian “Sick” Mick Hannah, the sixth from last man to go down the mountain, then shattered the leading mark with a stunning run, clocking 3:58.97, faster than anyone had gone in qualifying.

Troy Brosnan, Gee Atherton and Steve Smith couldn’t improve on that, leaving just world number one Aaron Gwin, the winner in Pietermaritzburg in 2011 to go, followed by 2009 Pietermaritzburg winner, Greg Minnaar. The atmosphere in the crowd was electric, withy the end of the competition about to take place with a showdown between the two big guns, as if written by a Hollywood scriptwriter.

Gwin, the winner of an astonishing five World Cup titles last year, went first. On the lower regions of the course he found an extra gear to somehow better Hannah’s superb marking, crossing the line 3:58.61.

Minnaar’s run

That left only Minnaar to go, and the tension in the massive crowd was through the roof. Just one little slip could cost the man they wanted to win victory.

The Santa Cruz Syndicate ace blasted off the starting line, but the news at the first split was not good. The home town hero was two seconds down on the fastest time. However, at the next split, he had made up a second. The vuvuzelas blasted and the cheers rose to a crescendo as the crowd willed Minnaar home and to victory.

Incredibly, he took 1.6 seconds out of Gwin over the final split to cross the line in 3:57.98. Realising he had won, Minnaar let his bike slide out from between his legs and lifted his arms skywards before being swamped by an ecstatic crowd.

“When you cross the line, you’re never sure where you are, there’s no scoreboard in front of you,” said Minnaar. “I normally look for [team-mate] Steve Peat because he’s the first to jump over anywhere. I just saw the fencing starting to move, and as I came closer and closer it just collapsed, and I knew I had won it.”

‘It was a catch-up game’

He admitted that he made a mistake or two near the top of the course, which had cost him time, but that spurred him on to victory. “Maybe those mistakes helped me because then I decided that I could not afford to sit down till I got to the finish. It hurt a lot and my legs were burning but I knew I had to make up that time,” said Minnaar. “It was just a catch-up game, and I think that’s what got me down the bottom slightly quicker than these guys. I had to fight the whole way through to the end.”

Aaron Gwin was generous in his praise for the winner: “Greg always finds another level at the bottom and digs deep, so it’s always tough racing him, especially on this track. It was awesome. I was really happy for him. He’s had a crazy couple of weeks, so for him to be able to pull it together here in front of his hometown crowd, it must be special for him, so I’m happy with second today, for sure.”

With his win, Minnaar equalled Nico Vouilloz’s record of 16 World Cup victories. It also took him to a record 53rd World Cup podium.

Men’s cross-country

On Saturday, Stander and Schurter raced at an incredible pace to break away from the rest of the field on the difficult and technical cross-country course. Not even Jaroslav Kulhavy, who had won the previous four World Cup events and then the World Championships could stay with the duo.

Schurter, the winner in Pietermaritzburg last year, managed to break away from Stander on the last lap, to take a very impressive victory, but Stander’s second place was a welcome return to form for the South African.

“Coming here last weekend [for the Momentum Health XCO Internationals] gave me good confidence. Second today, and just being in the mix again, it’s been a while since I’ve been on the podium, so second’s not what you aim for, you always aim to win, but I’m satisfied with what I did today,” he said.

Under-23 men

Earlier, Nedbank Team 360 Life’s James Reid turned in an excellent performance to take fourth place in the under-23 men’s race. He was ecstatic with his result and pointed out that fifth placed Andrej Cink had beaten him by six minutes at the World Championships late last year.

Victory went to Austria’s Alexander Gebhauer. “I loved the course. It’s like a BMX track,” he smiled. “And the rock gardens were very difficult but I had no problems. It was a perfect race for me.”

New Zealand’s prodigiously talented Anton Cooper crushed the field the capture the men’s junior title, finishing almost four-and-a-half minutes ahead of world champion Victor Koretzky.

Superb return

The women’s downhill win went to Tracey Hannah, sister of Mick, in a superb return to the sport after a four-year break. She was followed over the finishing line by British rider Manon Carpenter and French world champion Emmeline Ragot.

“I couldn’t be happier,” said Hannah, who was a member of the winning Team Hutchinson United Ride. “It’s amazing. I guess my goal was to be in the top three, but first! It’s amazing, I can’t believe it.”

Women’s cross-country

The women’s cross-country race developed into a three-way battle between Poland’s Maja Wloszczowska and Canadians Emily Batty and Catharine Pendrel. With the end in sight, world champion Pendrel fell slightly off the pace. Batty then tried to make a move through the rock garden, but Wloszczowska responded by trying a different line, previously unused, to hit the front and race on to victory.

“I’m so proud of myself,” she laughed. “I knew only the left line because my coach told me that ‘that’s the line you have to go’, so I kept to the left line the whole race and then when I saw that Emily took the left and I had no choice. I had to try to pass her on the right, so that was my best decision in the whole race today.”

Women’s under-23

The women’s under-23 and junior races were contested simultaneously in heavy rain. By the end, the riders were covered in mud from head to toe.

Russia’s Ekaterina Anoshina claimed the under-23 title ahead of Ukraine’s Yana Melomoyna and Austria’s Lisa Mittbauer. “I won because of the rain! My technical skill helped me. I am very happy,” said Anoshina.

Juniors

An all-South African field contested the junior title, with Hayley Smith taking the win ahead of Nicole Erasmus and Savannah Vosloo.

It was a remarkable victory for Smith, who explained: “I had a heart operation last year in April. And two weeks after that I broke my collarbone, so then I was out for another six weeks. So I am really happy just to be here and have made a comeback. I am really happy.”

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