With 22 World Cup wins, 81 World Cup podiums, three World Cup Series wins and three World Championship wins, South Africa’s Greg Minnaar is the undoubted king of downhill racing. On 13 November 2020, his 39th birthday, Minnaar looks back to his roots, when the ‘Fresh Prince’ raced for a pro team, but wasn’t actually a pro; and worked in a factory for his salary.
By Sean Badenhorst
It’s just over 20 years since I first interviewed Greg Minnaar. I was living in Durban and he was living 80km away in Pietermaritzburg. But not for long. He was about to head to England to start his full-time international racing career and I was about to head to Johannesburg to start a new job as editor of Ride magazine, at the time, South Africa’s only cycling magazine.
I have followed Greg’s career closely and written plenty about his achievements over the past two decades for various publications. In recent years, I have been as impressed as everyone else at his ability to extend his career in a high-risk racing discipline that generally offers a maximum effective career span of around 10 years – to the lucky ones. By effective, I mean able to perform at their very best. In Greg’s case, effective meaning able to challenge for podium positions. And wins…
Mountain biking and media have both changed so much in the past 20 years. The fact that we can watch Greg race live in High Definition on TV or online is a huge change from his early racing days when the Internet was still fairly new and we’d find out about his results the day after a World Cup race via a basic web page accessed slowly through a dial-up modem.
During this year, which has been derailed by government reactions to Covid-19, I have had more time to reflect on some of my older work. And with Greg’s incredible delayed, abbreviated 2020 season, I was motivated to find some of the early content that featured Greg.
Twenty years ago we never felt the need to publish content online. The internet was still chaotic and clumsy and the Dot.Bomb fallout seemed to confirm that the medium was unstable with limited benefits (well how wrong we were!). So we (media) just continued to document everything in glossy magazines or newspapers. Besides one full set of TREAD magazine, my own publication, which was printed from 2009 to 2016, I have never kept any magazines that I have worked on.
Fortunately, a gent named Ron Thompson, a fellow writer and a collector of classic and vintage steel-frame bicycles, has a mostly complete collection of Ride magazine (which is no longer published). So I visited Ron with my laptop and scanner and found some early Greg Minnaar content…
This was the first Greg Minnaar cover I published. I recall how hard it was to get high quality images from abroad back then. Digital photography was still in its very formative stages and sending large email attachments wasn’t straightforward. Greg was racing for the UK-based Animal Orange team during his first full season abroad. For those that don’t know, Animal is a casual clothing and watch brand and Orange is a bike brand.
This was my first full edition as editor. I cringe at the fact there’s an apostrophe on the South Africans Shine cover line. Groan. My responsibility. My error.
This is the article in this Oct/Nov 2000 edition describing Greg’s impressive first season as a pro. Although he wasn’t actually a pro, as he explains below. How did I let his name be misspelled in the headline, but correctly spelled in the copy? Groan again. The mugshot of Greg in the Oakley cap is what I snapped at that first interview in Pietermaritzburg earlier that year. With downhill action photos, you never see the rider’s face and I was trying to help get Greg to be recognised, literally, in his home country, where road cycling was huge and mountain biking, particularly downhill mountain biking, was somewhat fringe.
I ran a few questions by Greg this week about those early days. I haven’t met many people with as good a memory as Greg, so he’s great with detail…
How did you get drafted onto the Animal Orange team in 2000?
In 1999 I rode for the Kona team in South Africa. The Kona brand was distributed in the country by John de Pinna as was Tioga tyres. During that year Tioga helped me out when I was racing in Europe to get tyres. I had an offer from Nicolas Vouilloz to go to Vouilloz Racing and from Rocky Mountain. But neither of those deals materialised and I was left with not really having a team for 2000. I got chatting to the guys from Tioga and their main team that they supported was Animal Orange in the UK. They pushed really hard for Animal Orange to take me on.
Being quite a late decision by then, I still had to fly myself to the UK. It wasn’t a professional contract for me. They paid for all my racing expenses, but to earn money, I worked in the Animal factory. It was a clothing brand that also made wallets and belts and stuff and I used to go into the factory, when I wasn’t training, and put price tags and labels onto the clothing. That’s how I earned money that year and then I got some race incentive bonuses. I got two World Cup top 10 finishes, so the bonus money from those was quite good.
Hard to find old bike pics. Don’t think this is Greg’s bike, but it’s one of the 2001 Global Racing team bikes for certain.
What do you remember about your Orange race bike in 2000?
It was the first year Orange had made the 222 model. I ended up coming second in the British National Series, got two top 10 finishes at the World Cup and 11th at the World Champs. My relationship with Orange Bikes was set and we used Orange Bikes the following year when I joined Global Racing, when I won my first World Cup Series. That bike became pretty famous. Winning the World Cup overall on a single-pivot bike was quite a thing back then. It created quite a buzz. It was cool to be part of a bike model that launched in my year with Animal Orange.
Do you recall if you got homesick in that first year of racing abroad as a teenager?
For sure! It was horrible. I remember my first overseas trip in 1998. I had gone over to Switzerland as the UCI were helping me as an African development rider. Until then, no African rider had ever won any kind of UCI medal in any cycling discipline. They helped me while I was in Europe. It was possibly one of the hardest times. When you have made all these commitments, like leaving school at 16 to pursue this dream. While I was in Switzerland I questioned if I could live there or even be there. It was too foreign. I couldn’t speak the language. I didn’t really know how to cook food. I remember phoning my Mom and holding the phone near the rice so she could tell me if it was boiling right. I was really struggling. That was probably one of the hardest times, those trips overseas in 1998 and 1999. I wasn’t quite getting good racing results. And I was struggling to be away from home for so long. It was definitely a point in my career where I thought I hadn’t made the right choices. I found myself second-guessing if this bike racing thing was something that I could pursue. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to make it.
After his impressive 2000 season, where he was a late addition to a moderate-budget team, Greg was hot property and there was a fair amount of speculation as to which team he would join for 2001. Turns out he joined a brand new team, Global Racing, set up by Australian Martin Whitely. We published this article in the April 2001 edition of Ride.
When Greg joined the Global Racing Team for 2001, his team manager, Martin Whitely, contacted me. He knew that Greg was becoming well-known internationally already but wanted to build Greg’s profile back home. So he asked if I’d be keen to run a Greg Minnaar column in Ride magazine, which would be a guaranteed way to raise awareness of Greg’s racing results in the South African cycling community.
Greg had just turned 19 and this was long before smartphones and fast internet, so the plan was for me to call Greg every few weeks on a landline to find out any news and then ghost-write the column for him. You wouldn’t say it now, but Greg was quite subdued back then (and still a teenager) and I really did struggle at times to get enough from him to write a full column. We called the column The Fresh Prince of Big Air, which was what some of the UK media called him because of his impressive jumping ability and a play on the title of the Will Smith TV Series, The Fresh Prince of Belair, which was popular in the 1990s.
This was Greg’s first column in Ride magazine, the April 2001 edition. Little did he know that he would not only achieve – but significantly surpass – his goals and win the World Cup Series overall and get bronze at the World Champs.
What was the highlight in that first year of racing pro for you?
Technically, 2001 was my first year I was on a fully pro team. I would say on Animal Orange in 2000 I was on a pro team, but I wasn’t earning a salary. My highlights that year were finishing second in the British National Series and my first World Cup top 10, which was in Kaprun, Austria and my second top 10 in Vail, USA.
My highlight the following year, 2001, my first year as a pro, was beating Nicolas Vouilloz for the World Cup title overall in Monte St Anne. To be 18 points behind Nico going into the final race and then having to beat him in the qualifying and the final. It was very overwhelming. Hard to explain really. That was the year that the Mont Sainte Anne course had this massive rock that all the riders were riding around. I managed to cut across some roots and get on top of the rock and drop off it. So I knew I had at least 2-3 seconds on Nico because nobody else could do this line to get on the rock and that definitely put the pressure on him. To beat Nico, the sport’s biggest name, as an 18-year-old was unbelievable!
Minnaar in action during qualifying during the UCI 2020 World Cup Series. | Photo: UCI MTB
You have raced professionally at the top level of DH for 20 years. It’s a remarkable and unusually long career. Other talented racers appear on the scene, have an impressive short spell and then fade or leave DH. What do you feel has given you the ability to stay so sharp as a DH racer for so long?
I’m not exactly sure what has given me this ability to be competitive in the game for so long. But if I had to choose something, I’d put it down to never being content with where I am and always feeling like I have never really mastered Downhill racing. I’m pretty hard on myself when racing and judging myself on my season. I still feel like I’ve never really got on top of everything. And maybe that’s what’s kept me hungry and always wanting to come back for more. I had the arm injury two years ago. Our marketing director at Santa Cruz came to me and said “how are you feeling, how long are you going to still race for?”. It was literally the day after I’d broken my arm. I said, “well I’m going the doctor to get this arm fixed and start with rehab as soon as possible so I can race again”. He asked if I wasn’t going to just wait for the arm to heal and I said it won’t just heal by itself I need to help speed it up.
It’s happening more now as I grow older. All these old injuries are tightening up my body in different areas. When I have an injury or finish a season, I scrutinise myself. And I’m looking at my bike trying to figure where I can get more time.
When I do finish as season and I say the bike was amazing and my body was great, that’s probably the time when I will pull the plug. Until then, I still need to master Downhill racing.
With such impressive results this season, you must be super motivated. Do you feel you have more than one year of podium chasing left in you?
It was a year I needed. I put a lot of effort into this year and it was kind of hard going through the lockdown. So many races being cancelled and schedules constantly changing. But the one race that gave me the confidence to know that I can still win was that second place by 0.17 of a second (the final World Cup race of 2020). I just need to squeeze a bit more out. The most motivating thing about this 2020 season was that second place. Sure, it was cool to get that win two days before, but I hate losing by such a little bit. To know I was that close and to have a win from this season, it’s the right combination to motivate me. That second place in the final race has lit the fire for this off-season.
At 39 you’re undoubtedly the OG of DH racing. Do you feel ‘old’ compared to your rivals, some of whom are almost young enough to be your sons.
Ha ha! I would have had to start young for that to be the case. Strangely, I don’t feel any older than them. I have a lot more commitments than them, but I have had for the last 10 years. I find that’s the toughest part. Most of these young guys are just racing. I’m racing and working on other aspects of life. I have a few business interests and commitments. They’re riding their bikes and recovering and back on it the next day. I think that was possibly the best thing for me this season was that lockdown in South Africa. Those five or six weeks. The first two weeks I tried to train through. As we saw the races getting cancelled and the schedules being changed I called my trainers and we had a meeting about it. We decided I should just take two weeks off and just relax. I think that’s what my body needed. After all these years of racing. I’m pretty active. If I go on holiday, I’ll either be training while I’m on holiday or if I go to the beach I’ll be surfing. My body just never gets time to completely rest and recover. I think those two weeks during lockdown where I just hung out relaxing and watching TV is something I haven’t done since I was about 16. My body just recovered. I have been battling with a lot of tension through my soleus (one of the calf muscles) for three or four years. My soleus just released during those two weeks. It was amazing. My body felt rejuvenated. That was really important. It also gave me an understanding of rest. To me normally, a rest day is go play golf or go surfing. And maybe that’s not good enough. Maybe a rest day needs to just be hanging out on the couch.
Other than that though, I don’t feel much older than anyone else I race against.