Hometown hero Greg Minnaar (Santa Cruz Syndicate) started the 2012 RockyRoads UCI MTB World Cup on just the note the local fans were asking for by posting the fastest time in qualifying for the season-opening downhill title decider in cool overcast conditions at the Cascades MTB Park.

UCI WC_DHI_Greg Minnaar.jpg

Greg Minnaar flies downhill to secure the fastest time in qualifying for the 2012 RockyRoads UCI MTB World Cup Pietermaritzburg at Cascades MTB park.

Darren Goddard/cycho.co.za/Gameplan Media

Minnaar, who won here sensationally in 2009, and was narrowly edged off his throne by US star Aaron Gwin (Trek World Racing) in last year's World Cup, started second and posted 3:59.620 on the boldly reshaped downhill course. Together with Gwin, they were the only two riders to race in sub-four minutes.

“My run was pretty smooth. It was good, but I know technically I made a couple of mistakes. I didn't expect it to be so dry,” said Minnaar. “Unfortunately, there were a couple of corners where I came in and I ran a bit late, but it happens. It's a good start to the season; it shows my fitness is there. I know everyone is going for it. That's what downhill is and it's good to feel that I'm on pace, but I'll take a close look at the splits because I am pretty sure I lost a bit of time on top.”

The popular Pietermaritzburg star is racing on the encouragement of his ill father Jeff Minnaar, who is in intensive care in a city hospital. Defending champion Gwin was second fastest, setting the stage for a thrilling showdown in the downhill finals on Sunday afternoon. The field of 135 downhillers was cut to 80 for Sundays final.

UCI WC_DHI_Tim Bentley.jpg

Local rider Tim Bentley flying downhill during the qualification round for the 2012 RockyRoads UCI MTB World Cup Pietermaritzburg at Cascades MTB park.

Darren Goddard/cycho.co.za/Gameplan Media

The qualification runs were safely negotiated by most of the world top twenty riders, but Kiwi star Brook McDonald fell heavily on his run, hitting the hip flexor on the Money Maker jump right at the bottom, badly injuring his left knee and right cheek in the fall.

African champ Andrew "Needles" Neethling (Giant Factory Off-Road Team) started his 2012 season on a solid note, posting the tenth fastest time of the day.

“That was really good for a quali, really solid. I hit pretty much all my lines. I was probably cautious in bits, and over-cautious in others, but I am very happy with a lot of it,” said Neethling. “I'm nursing a hand that I gave a good bump yesterday, so I'm really glad. I think it's going to hold up just fine. It was frustrating because I was worried it was going to hamper me.”

Australian Tracey Hannah (Hutchinson United Ride) started her comeback in spectacular fashion by blitzing the women's downhill qualification with the fastest time of the day by almost four seconds, followed by world champ Emmeline Ragot (MS Mondraker Team) and top-ranked Floriane Pugin (Scott 11).

Sister to Mick Hannah, Tracey is a former junior world champion, and after some success on the international circuit show bowed out of competitive riding for four years, before refocusing her energies on the 2012 season.

“I was a little nervous, but I just made sure I warmed up properly, so my heart rate was up,” said Hannah. “I was more excited to see where I was at with my time. I was more anxious. I was looking forward to this race for seeding, so I could get a feel of where I was at after the race and I was surprised!

“I had a great run and I knew it was good,” she added. “I knew my time was going to be good for me - it was the best that I could do. I guess I just surprised myself how much further ahead of the other girls I was.”

Saturday sees the long-awaited showdown for the RockyRoads UCI MTB World Cup cross-country titles in the junior, under 23 and senior ranks. The big crowd expected on course will be rallying behind local MTB icon Burry Stander (Specialized Racing), whose race in last year’s World Cup on the same course ended in heartbreak when he first bent a derailleur, and then crashed in the Rapid Rocks rock garden in the dying stages of the race.

UCI WC_XCO_ Jaroslav Kulhavy.jpg

World champ Jaroslav Kulhavy checking out the cross country course ahead of the 2012 RockyRoads UCI MTB World Cup Pietermaritzburg at Cascades MTB park.

Darren Goddard/cycho.co.za/Gameplan Media

“That rock garden deserves respect!” said Stander, who has adopted a more clinical approach to his training and preparation for the World Cup and Olympic season, using the Sports Science Institute of South Africa in Cape Town and personal trainers and dieticians to fine-tune his training. “It's going to be tough, but then this is what it is all about,” he added. “The best riders on a tough course.”

Stander will start with the Specialized Racing team that was rampant last season, with world champ Jaroslav Kulhavy and Stander's friend and ally Christoph Sauser in the team line-up, ready to take on the class of Swissman Nino Schurter (Scott Swisspower), who won here last week, Frenchman Julien Absalon (Orbea Racing Team), Spanish ace Jose Harmeda Ramos (Multivan Merida Biking Team) and every other rider in the world top fifteen rankings.

The women's title race will see a showdown between world champ Catharine Pendrell ((Luna Pro Team) and number one ranked Julie Bresset (BH-SR Suntour – Peisey Vallandry), one of seventeen national champions in the women's field.

UCI WC_XCO_Willow Rockwell.jpg

Willow Rockwell crashes heavily in the Rapid Rocks rock garden during the official training for the 2012 RockyRoads UCI MTB World Cup Pietermaritzburg at Cascades MTB park.

Darren Goddard/cycho.co.za/Gameplan Media

SUMMARY OF RESULTS - ROCKYROADS UCI MTB WORLD CUP DOWNHILL

QUALIFYING ROUND - MEN'S TOP TEN

  1. Greg Minnaar 3:59.620
  2. Aaron Gwin +0.008
  3. Steve Smith +0.871
  4. Gee Atherton +1.767
  5. Troy Brosnan +2.270
  6. Michael Hannah +4.385
  7. Cédric Gracia +5.055
  8. Aurélien Giordaengo +5.901
  9. Jared Graves +5.908
  10. Andrew Neethling +6.347

2012 UCI WC_DHI_Men Results Qualifying Round

QUALIFYING ROUND - WOMEN'S TOP TEN

  1. Tracey Hannah 4:36.853
  2. Emmeline Ragot +3.556
  3. Floriane Pugin +3.660
  4. Sabrina Jonnier +3.984
  5. Jill Kintner +6.436
  6. Myriam Nicole +11.381
  7. Luana Mariade De Sousa Olivieria +13.465
  8. Miriam Ruchti +14.760
  9. Emilie Siegenthaler +15.371
  10. Manon Carpenter +15.914

2012 UCI WC_DHI_Women Results Qualifying Round

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