For Pietermaritzburg local Greg Minnaar, the opening round of the RockyRoads UCI MTB World Cup, to be held at the Cascades MTB Park, is hugely important.
In the past, it has brought him both joy and disappointment.
The first time the World Cup was held in Pietermaritzburg, in 2009, Minnaar gave the home fans exactly what they wanted, producing an outstanding run after going off as the second last rider in the field, to claim a massively popular and exciting victory.
“That definitely was the best win by far,” he said on Thursday before heading off to put in some practice at Cascades. “It was the first time that I got to race in front of all my family. My gran was still around, it was cool for her. She was one of my biggest fans. All of my friends and the people who I was at school with, who didn't quite know what I did, I finally had a chance to race in front of them all.
Greg Minnaar © Brad Morgan/Gameplan Media
“It was really special, and luckily, I was fortunate that I won. It was crazy. The sound of the crowd was just echoing. You could say that it was a fairytale ending to the first World Cup.”
Last year, American Aaron Gwin produced a stunning ride to edge Minnaar by a quarter-of-a-second for the title. No other rider came close to their times, but for the South African star it was a disappointing result.
“When you're racing at home, you want to win, more so than at any other race. Last year was disappointing, being second and just so close to the win, but I feel the physical shape I am in now, and with the new bike and new equipment we've got for this year, we have a bit of an edge on the guys, so hopefully we can turn that second place into one step better.”
The Santa Cruz Syndicate standout laughed when remembering the support he received from the crowd in 2011. “Last year, they brought a guy in a Borat suit and he climbed a tree and the guys get all into it,” he smiled. “There's a good following here and they're enthusiastic. Guys made up a song for me; it was pretty funny, so it's cool.
Santa Cruz Syndicate downhill star Greg Minnaar is keen to ride the wave of local support to repeat his 2009 triumph in next week’s 2012 RockyRoads UCI MTB World Cup Pietermaritzburg © Craig Dutton/Gameplan Media
“This year I think it's just going to be as big as the other years. I feel it's being held on a better weekend; Easter weekend didn't quite suit it because there's a lot going on with other events,” said Minnaar.
“It's a good race,” he added. “The other riders seem to think that the crowd is good for everyone, it's very enthusiastic. I think we're hungry for World Cup racing and the crowd definitely shows it.”
The 31-year-old’s Santa Cruz Syndicate team consists of three of the world’s leading downhill racers, one being himself and the other two being Steve Peat (37), who placed fifth in Pietermaritzburg in 2011, and Josh Bryceland (21), who claimed tenth place.
Minnaar explained: “That's what the Syndicate is all about. We have three different kinds of characters. We all work well together and we have a good time together.
“We have a good environment in the team. There's no rivalry before competition, we're all there to support each other, and I think that's what separates our team from everyone else. It's a sport where you race individually, but if we can help each other in any way we can, we're there for each other, so our team is stronger.”
Minnaar has been working hard in the off-season to balance his body and strengthen his weaknesses and feels it has paid off. “I feel a lot stronger physically. I feel I'm in the best condition I have been in,” he said.
Next year, Pietermaritzburg will host the biggest event in downhill racing, the UCI MTB World Championships and Minnaar is looking forward to the opportunity of adding another World Championship title to his previous win in 2003.
“It’s where I grew up racing. In fact, my first ever race was at the top of Ferncliff, and the hardest thing is, if I did win World Championships, as I want to do, I don't know whether it's worth continuing to race, not that I would retire. I can't see myself retiring, but I don't think there'll be anything to motivate me as much as winning at home.”
He continued: “If you look at the patterns of my wins, they've got a sequence, so hopefully that would work, with 13 being my lucky number.”
Asked if he is expecting some new stars to emerge like Aaron Gwin did last year, Minnaar said: “There are a few younger guys coming through, but it's hard to say because downhill has such a long off-season and anyone can emerge. You don't know if guys who did well last year are still going to be there. We had guys come out two years ago and they were up there in the top three, and last year they were nowhere.
“It's hard to predict and hard to know who is on it. Hopefully, I'm on it. That's all that matters right now.”
The RockyRoads UCI MTB World Cup Pietermaritzburg takes place at the Cascades MTB Park from 16 to 18 March 2012. More information can be found at www.mtbworldcupsa.co.za