South African cycling legend Greg Minnaar has completed yet another incredible season where the three-time World Champion claimed his 18th World Cup career victory making him the most successful downhiller of all time, as well as adding a tenth World Championship medal to his collection when he claimed a silver medal at the spectacular World Championships in Andorra to wrap up the season. At thirty-four years of age, the Santa Cruz Syndicate team rider has had a phenomenal season despite a shaky start with a hand injury to his left hand. Minnaar was not up to full strength by the first World Cup of the season yet still managed to score a few points in the opening round to kick off the year. The World Championship in Andorra had fans on the edge of their seats.
Where all the riders before him seemed to post a slower time in the first third of the track, Minnaar nailed the opening section to post the fastest time by four seconds, earning him a place in the hot seat. Minnaar describes his silver medal championship run as one that ‘I could repeat over and over again. It was safe and solid and it was in drying conditions. We weren’t quite sure how wet the sections of the track would be so it was quite tricky. To win World Champs you have to push it a little bit more. To get that safe and solid perfect run, it has to be a little wild at times. I don’t think that I expressed that in my run.’ Describing the moment in the hot seat, Minnaar tells of the celebrated finish: ‘As I came through the finish line, and I saw the gap that I had knowing that most of the main contenders had already come down, that four-second advantage on the rest of the field was expressed with my crowd jump with a whole lot of friends there supporting me. Being in the hot seat is horrible, watching all those riders come down, and then they go off the track, and then you’re relieved. Until Bruni came down and you don’t want him to crash but you hope that he might make a little mistake, which he never did. He rode the perfect run down, pushing it the whole way and letting it go enough to be able to control it. And I wasn’t disappointed then, I was really happy for him.’
Young Frenchman Loic Bruni stole the show with a perfect descent. Minnaar says: ‘Bruni’s a really good rider – he is really good to watch and his riding style and the way he approaches it shows he is serious about his racing. I admire that about him. He hasn’t been all that lucky and hasn’t had the win yet in a World Cup but he has consistently been up there.’ Looking back on his season where he has been dubbed “the most decorated downhill rider of all time” with 18 World Cup victories to his name, Minnaar confesses that it was never a target he had set out to achieve. Minnaar says: ‘It had crossed my mind but I never saw it as a target or a goal in my career of racing. While I am stoked to have achieved that many victories, it wasn’t something that I set out to do when I started racing. It’s just one of the things that happened along the way.’
In terms of immediate goals, Minnaar has yet another challenge ahead of the 2016 season, where surgery on his right hand last week places him in a similar position to this time last year where he was rehabilitating his left hand. Minnaar says: ‘I think it’s going to be a good season and I’m quite excited. 2015 was tough. I got injured two weeks before the first World Cup round; I managed to scrape a couple of points together and then come back to second overall within striking distance of winning the World Cup series going into Val di Sole. I gave that a good crack and then ended up crashing so I finished fourth. But I really had ‘missed’ the first round so taking that into consideration, I think if I can start the 2016 season healthy, I think I’ve got a good shot at winning the overall World Cup series. I can definitely mix it up with the guys.’
Minnaar’s crash at Mont Sainte Anne in the practice run saw him slip off a jump, running wide of the track and going over the handlebars into rocks. He says: ‘I struggled through the season with my hand. Going into the steeper tracks of the season like Val di Sole and Andorra, I was really struggling to hold onto the handlebars. The week before Andorra, we were messing around with some friends and my thumb hooked my shirt and tore whatever tendon was trying to heal. So it was a big set back. I was off the bike most of the week before Andorra World Champs because of that. I just couldn’t hold the handlebar.’ Minnaar has just undergone an operation in which doctors pulled a tendon from his forearm and reattached it to his thumb so that his thumb will grip again.
He says: ‘It is going to be a fresh season for me coming up. The plus side is that being able to hold the handlebar next year is definitely going to make me more confident on the bike.’ When asked how he would wrap up the 2015 season in one sentence, Minnaar says: ‘It was a great season! It started off bad with the injury and then everything just worked. The effort we put into the bike and trying different things with my bike helped me so much. Everything that we did testing-wise was just perfect; suspension-wise we progressed a lot and everything just fell into place. It was a great season but not perfect because of my injuries.’
Photo credit: Kathy Sessler / Santa Cruz Syndicate