This past weekend, South African Greg Minnaar became the first rider to win a Downhill World Cup race on a 29-inch wheel bike. Not surprisingly, his record-extending success has been widely reported, but we wanted to find out more about the difference the 29-inch wheels are making. Here’s what he told us.
It’s his 17th World Cup racing season and South African mountain biking legend, Greg Minnaar, is still winning. The 35-year-old from Pietermaritzburg has been globally praised over the past few days for his emphatic victory in Round 2 of the 2017 UCI Downhill World Cup at Fort William, Scotland this past weekend.
The victory took him to 20 DH World Cup wins, a record he’s extending despite naysayers claiming he’s past his best. Include the one 4X World Cup win 2003 and he’s got 21 UCI World Cup gravity wins to his name.
Add to that his three World Championships and three World Cup Series overall titles and you have one of the most decorated downhill mountain bike racers ever.
We say ‘one of’ because Frenchwoman, Anne Caroline Chausson’s 55 wins is the outright World Cup race win record. She also won five World Cup Series overall titles and 17 gravity racing World Championships (12 DH, two 4Xand two Dual)!
Britain’s Rachel Atherton (29) has amassed quite a career so far too. She’s won five World Championship titles, five World Cup Series overall crowns and has 34 World Cup race wins.
Another French racer, Nicolas Vouilloz, won a total of 16 World Cup titles and 10 World Championships during his career. He also won the World Cup Series overall title four times.
It’s safe to say that Minnaar is right up there with Atherton, Chausson and Vouilloz as the four most successful racers in downhill mountain biking racing, which made its World Cup debut in 1991 and World Championships debut in 1993.
But unlike Chausson (39) and Vouilloz (41), Minnaar is still actively racing. He’s not quite done yet and still growing his legend status. In fact, he says he’s as motivated now as he was in 2000, his first year of racing internationally full time. TREAD editor, Sean Badenhorst caught up with him last night as he prepares for this weekend’s World Cup round in Leogang, Austria.
Seven wins at Fort William and now 20 World Cups, Greg. Just incredible! Do you feel the same buzz and motivation as you did back in 2000?
Thanks Sean. Yes, I definitely feel the same buzz and motivation as I did in 2000. I think back then it came too easy. I was young and things were happening for me. I didn’t have a worry in the world and there were no expectations. Now I have to really work for it. Add in the new bike and I’m just loving racing downhill – still.
You’re the first to win a DH World Cup on 29-inch wheels. This must be a great reward for you and your Santa Cruz team that worked so hard to get this bike ready for the 2017 season?
Yep, we were the first. It is cool. We pushed boundaries. It’s not easy to make a 29-inch wheel downhill bike. I think that’s what a lot of people aren’t quite understanding. They are all talking about the bigger size wheels, but it’s the whole bike you have to talk about. You can’t just put 29-inch wheels on any frame. It’s really tricky to make a 29-inch wheel downhill bike. We found a way to make it work and worked really hard to get it out in time for this season.
Also, this isn’t a scruffy aluminium bike that looks like it’s just come out of engineering. This is a full carbon fibre 29-inch wheel Santa Cruz V10 downhill bike. It is really exciting to be at the forefront of this technology shift.
Where have you found the biggest differences in DH racing on 29-inch wheels?
The biggest difference is the fit. Before I was always juggling my weight around the bike. I was either too far forward or too far back. Not really balanced and centred. So I’m feeling more centred, which allows me to let go a bit more on the faster, rougher sections and technical stuff. That to me is really good. It has changed the way we ride a little bit. That’s just the learning process of riding a different sized wheel. I don’t feel the 29-inch bike is weaker in any areas than 27.5. It just depends on the engineering development and design. The direction you have gone to make the bike. Instead of trying to make an existing bike fit 29-inch wheels, we started from scratch and achieved the bike we have now got. I think Santa Cruz is quite far ahead with the bike and the approach we have taken to this wheel size shift.
You obviously did some comparative testing between the wheel sizes. How significant was that?
There are some website forums that are saying I have tested comparatively, which is not entirely true. I haven’t gone back-to-back testing myself. We went testing in December. I had wanted a 29-inch bike. The Santa Cruz guys were still ummming and ahhhing. So I built up a Santa Cruz Hightower with a Fox 49er fork. We didn’t have any mud tyres for it, so I just used dry tyres and it was really raining. On my DH race bike I had mud tyres. And I ended up doing a comparable time in the mud on dry tyres on the Hightower as I did on my DH race bike with mud tyres.
Right from then I said to the guys 29er is the direction we need to go. We are definitely going to move on it. The guys were keen. We came up with what the ideal shock rate should be and the geometry and took it from there.
Luca (Shaw) went back to Santa Cruz in January to do some testing back-to-back from his DH race bike (27.5 wheels) to the prototype 29-inch downhill bike with an aluminium swingarm.
Then Loris (Vergier) went and met him in February and they did more testing. I then met them again for more testing and we just fine-tuned it from there.
Looking at the various courses used for the World Cup, do you think wheel size success is going to be course dependent?
I don’t think wheel size is going to be course dependent at all. I think it’s how you can make the bike work. It’s all about handling. I don’t know that it rolls that much better than 27.5. As we saw in Fort William, guys like Danny Hart (who was on a 29er) didn’t roll through all the holes that he should have. He ended up going over the bars. You can crash on a 29er the same as you can on a 27.5. It’s still a bicycle. You’ve still got to make it from top to bottom. I don’t think that tight corners will be a problem. We’ve dialed the geometry to deal with that. The high-speed stuff is fine, the woods and roots are fine, the jumps are fine. It’s just a slightly different position and you feel like you’re sitting more between the wheels rather than on top of them
Do you think wheel size success is rider dependent?
For sure! The riding is style is different. You have to brake a lot earlier. If you brake later the bike sits up. It’s rougher. You don’t have as much travel. You feel it! You feel the suspension spiking up into the compression quite hard and quite soon. And size of rider is import. Taller riders like me are proportionately better positioned on a 29er.
We see the saddles on most of the 29er DH bikes are pushed way forward. Has backside tyre buzz been a challenge at all?
The only saddle pushed right forward in our team is Loris’s. That’s because he’s quite short on quite a small bike. The back wheel does roll right up and the tyres do buzz. We’ve had a fair bit of tyre buzz and you want to make sure you’ve got some tight jocks on because you can get a bit of a nut rub. That’s one of the challenges of trying to fit bigger wheels to a DH bike. You’ve got to make sure the bike can cater for it. You are going to lose somewhere. I guess the tyre buzz risk is better than losing out in suspension or handling.
Minnaar takes a narrow two-point lead into Round 3 of the 2017 UCI World Cup at Leogang this weekend. It’s a course that he’s always performed well on, with a total of five World Cup podiums there, including each of the past three years. And it’s where he won the 2012 World Championship.
It’s worth noting that Leogang is also Aaron Gwin’s happy hunting ground. With a career total of 15 World Cup race wins and four World Cup Series overall titles, the 29-year-old American is by far the biggest threat to Minnaar’s career World Cup record.
Gwin won at Leogang last year and in 2015 (WITHOUT A CHAIN!) and an error at Fort William on Sunday cost him a few seconds and possibly the victory.
Here’s the Red Bull preview of what to expect this weekend. We can’t flippen wait!: All you need to know: UCI World Cup 2017, Leogang
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