South African mountain biking legend, Greg Minnaar, will contest his 24th UCI Downhill World Championships this week and could well win his 12th medal, possibly even the gold, judging by his recent form and the tumultuous nature of 2020.
By Sean Badenhorst
Greg Minnaar is content with his amended bike set-up ahead of the 2020 World Championships. | Photo: @kenoderleyn
The 38-year-old from Pietermaritzburg has an impressive world championships record with three gold, five silver and three bronze medals from a career that’s seen him arrive as a title contender every year since he moved into the Elite category in 2000.
It’s worth noting that Leogang, Austria, host of this year’s UCI Mountain Bike World Championships, is one of Minnaar’s most favoured race venues. He won his second World Championship title there in 2012 and has won three World Cup rounds there. With a total of 21 World Cup wins, more than any male racer in history, Minnaar is considered Downhill’s Greatest of all Time (GOAT) and another World Champs win on Sunday would perfectly bookend a remarkable career.
“It’s been a difficult year for everyone. We’ve been placed in this holding pattern since March and now we are finally able to race. It’ going to be an interesting World Champs and the couple of World Cups afterwards,” said Minnaar from Leogang on Tuesday.
Normally, by this stage of the year, riders will have competed in at least a dozen high profile international races, including five or six rounds of the UCI World Cup Series. They would have got their equipment dialled and found their racing sharpness as they focussed on the annual World Championship contest. But with most countries experiencing lockdowns and races cancelled or postponed, the World Championships will be the first major international race of 2020.
Minnaar has been preparing as best he can under the circumstances and sounded both relaxed and confident as he recounted his build-up to this week’s showdown.
South Africa’s Greg Minnaar will be gunning for a fourth world title in Leogang, Austria on Sunday. | Photo: @kenoderleyn
“I tried to do as many races as I could, once I could travel to Europe. The French Cups had been going for a while and I managed to do a few of those. The first one I did at Les 2 Alpes wasn’t too bad. I felt good. The pace was definitely there. The crash in the final wasn’t ideal, but I learned from it.
“We then did a lot of testing. I had a mechanic change this year, which is fresh and exciting but also comes with its challenges. We did have a great test session in Andorra. Then I returned to the French Cup at Metabief. I came second to Loris (Vergier) in the mud. Not too bad. Pace was again okay, but I was able to put together a better race run.
“I then decided to focus on some training and testing and skipped a few rounds of the French Cup and went straight into an invitation race in Les Gets. It was a very technical track and I was again on par with the pace on all three runs, really. A bit behind on the second run, but on the final run I was back in the mix, finishing fourth overall. I feel like my preparation has been good and I’m riding well.”
Besides scrambling to get some racing in, Minnaar has also been getting accustomed to bike changes.
“My bike has changed a quite a bit since last year. We are now on the new Fox suspension, which adds a whole new dynamic. I think it’s working pretty well. We run a carbon frame so it’s really hard to alter that. Barring that, my changes really have been going back to the standard linkage.
“I felt last year it was putting too much weight on the front end. But now with the new Fox shock it balances out what I felt was lacking in the rear suspension before. I have basically gone back to a more standard Santa Cruz V10. It’s feeling really good. I’m loving it right now. On my loosening up ride around here yesterday things felt really good.”
In terms of Minnaar’s main rivals for the coveted title, you can count pretty much at least 10 riders, half of them young enough to be his sons and the other half, the French. Kidding aside, in Loic Bruni, France has produced the winner in four of the past five years – 2015, 2017, 2018, and 2019. It’s been an incredible run for the Frenchman, who is backed up by Loris Vergier and Remi Thirion among others (Amaury Pierron is out injured).
On a good day, Troy Brosnan (AUS), Mick Hannah (AUS), Finn Iles (CAN), Danny Hart (GBR), Laurie Greenland (GBR), Martin Maes (BEL), Rafael Gutierrez (COL) and Aaron Gwin (USA) are all potential winners, while there’s a string of rising stars who could cause an upset, although that’s only really likely if the weather shifts significantly and the track conditions worsen for the favourites.
From a South African team perspective, this will be one of the biggest World Champs Downhill squads in years. Minnaar is understandably the most significant name on the team list, which also comprises Niko Velasco, Sharjah Jonsson, Stefan Garlicki and Theo Erlangsen. Of the rest, all of whom are privateer racers, Erlangsen has shown the best form leading up to the race, with a 16th place at Crankworx, Innsbruck this past Sunday.
But the South African focus, as expected, will be firmly on Minnaar, whose experience will surely count on a course that suits him.
“Since there isn’t really a World Cup series this year, everyone is aiming for the World Champs. The French have a unique way of getting it right to peak for World Champs. They are very good at it. But then I have always had good results at Leogang. That gives me some confidence. It’s going to be a tough race. It always is. I just need to put it together on the day, but I do feel motivated. I think I’ve got a really good shot this year…”
Thursday 8 October
08h30-16h45: Downhill training
Friday 9 October
08h00-10h00: Downhill training
10h30-13h30: Downhill qualifying
Sunday 11 October
08h00-09h00: Downhill training
09h25: Junior Women and Junior Men Final
12h50: Women Elite Final
14h10: Men Elite Final
Catch the Elite Women and Men’s finals live on SuperSport or Redbull TV.