The 2012 Pietermaritzburg World Cup will go down as the most exciting display of South African mountain biking talent ever!
In Saturday’s U23 XCO Men’s race James Reid tore through the field from 22nd on the start line to place fourth, surprising everyone except himself
Then it was the turn of another world-class local as Burry Stander traded blows with Swiss rider Nino Schurter for all six laps of the ridiculously tough course. The two rode away from the field, with Nino finding just a little extra gas to put Burry in second on the last half of the final lap. Thrilling racing and a phenomenal result for both local lads early in an Olympic year.
Pietermaritzburg’s Greg Minnaar qualified fastest for Sunday’s downhill finals, setting up a tense finish as he’d be the last to descend the track, carrying the expectation and raw emotion of every South African watching with him. As more gladiators tore off the mountain, out of the treeline and into full view of a buzzing crowd, the energy intensified. Fans went berserk when local Andrew Neethling landed in the hot seat after a blistering run. What made Needles’ run even more incredible was that he was nursing a suspected broken knuckle after a big practice crash on Thursday. Sadly, his glory was short-lived when the very next rider, Aussie Jared Graves knocked him off the perch, by 0.3 of a second. The fastest time was then whittled down with almost every remaining rider, with another Aussie, Mick Hannah, posting scorching split times. The US’s Aaron Gwin then promptly lobbed 0.3 seconds off Mick’s time as he coasted across the finish line.
The scene was set. Only one rider left on the mountain. Only one man able to beat last year’s winner, Gwin. It was the turn of Mr Min. The tall powerful South African had been at his ailing father’s bedside most of the week in the build-up to the World Cup, and until a few days prior was unsure whether he’d race at all. Over the top third of the run, Greg faltered, posting a 2-second deficit at the first split.
It may not seem like much, but 2 seconds in a race decided on fractions of a second is near-impossible to overcome. For a moment the crowd was deathly quiet. Not sure whether to blow their vuvuzelas harder, or start coming to terms with another close-but-no-cigar run from the overwhelming favourite. The atmosphere could have been cut with a knife. Max Cluer, the firecly patriotic local announcer felt the collective anxiety, and pounced on it. In an instant he knew. It was up to the throng to pull Greg home. As the TV cameras caught up to him, and relayed images of him streaking through the course it became clear he was on a mission. Max and the crowd sensed it too. A surge of excitement pulsed through the crowd. Greg seemed to pedal through everything. Incredibly, at the second split, Greg had pulled back a full second and was launching into every obstacle with silky speed. No one else had looked so smooth through the bottom half of the course. Buoyed by the wave of noise building at the bottom of the hill, Greg attacked the course, pedaling wherever he wasn’t airborne. If he held it together it was going to be close.
Soon he was out of the trees and into a massive right-hand jump called the Moneymaker. Frenzied fans were already swarming the finish line and their encouragement could be heard reverberating around Maritzburg. Goosebump stuff. Greg wasn’t taking chances, and focused on his line, keeping low and fast through the air. Suddenly he was in sight of the finish and in full view of the jostling masses. One last mad pedal through! He freewheeled to the middle of the arena, raised his arms and let his bike ride out from under him. He crossed the line in 3:57.980, just 0.6 seconds ahead of Aaron Gwin. Greg Minnaar brought it home…
I had the privelege of watching all this action live from the sidelines with Sipho Madolo, a young Songo.info development rider from Kayamandi, near Stellenbosch. To James, Burry Needles and Greg, I want to say thank you. Thank you for showing Sipho (and I) that if you dream big, and follow your heart, it’s yours for the taking. And a big thanks to Gary Quinn, the gentleman who made Sipho’s World Cup experience possible.
If you want a look at Greg’s downhill run in all its riveting glory, click here.
Images courtesy of Darren Goddard/Gameplan Media