Leading from the front

2008-10-23 00:00

Come July 10, 2009, everyone around Pietermaritzburg will have the name “Greg Minnaar” wedged firmly between their lips. The capital will be hosting a Nissan UCI Mountain Bike World Cup event and Maritzburg’s biking hero will be leading from the front. Minnaar will be wearing the number one jersey after winning this year’s World Cup Downhill Mountain Bike series, his third in a career that has spanned just nine years.

Born on November 13, 1981, at the old Grey’s Hospital in Pietermaritzburg, Minnaar is the son of Jeff and Jackie. Although he is now famous for mountain biking, he started racing motocross when he was just five years old and still at Ridge Pre-Primary. He went to Pelham Senior Primary School, where he says he enjoyed school sport. “I played soccer, cricket, hockey, did swimming and athletics and, even though I didn’t like it, I played tennis because my mother always pushed us to do it,” he says. “I liked school sports, but I preferred motocross. That’s what I lived for.”

Minnaar used to race motocross on Saturdays, but had to watch his sister cycle cross-country on Sundays with his family, which wasn’t something he ever enjoyed. “I hate watching sport,” he says, “I always want to be in the driving seat.” To be in on the Sunday action, Minnaar started racing mountain bikes on cross-country and downhill courses. “Cross-country was okay, but I just started leaning more toward downhilling and, when I was 16, I decided to focus on that,” he says. Although his focus shifted, Minnaar never abandoned his love for motocross. “I think it definitely has helped me with my downhill racing, because it helps with speed and keeping your eye on things,” he said.

He quickly rose to fame as a mountain biker. “My parents were really supportive and they sent me to the world champs in Switzerland at a very young age.”

The South African team was not up to scratch. “Our equipment was substandard compared with the rest of the world. I managed to come 12th in the qualification round, but in the race proper I ate dirt pretty badly and came 51st.”

On his return, Minnaar joined his family on holiday at the beach, where he posed a life-changing proposition to his parents. “I told my parents that at the end of year [he was in Standard 8] I wanted to leave [Carter High] school and go oversees to race,” he says. “They said there was no chance I could do that because I had to finish school.”

Minnaar knew he had to push the idea further and proposed the idea to his headmaster. “The headmaster said it was a good opportunity and that I could always come back to complete school.”

Minnaar never did complete his schooling. “My mates rip me off all the time about it, but for two years I travelled the world while they were at school,” he says. “I don’t recommend what I did, it’s definitely worth finishing school, but I had to quit. I had no option.”

Minnaar went oversees the following year and did two or three months of racing. “I did all right to get a few sponsors going. The following year, I managed to get a top 10 in the World Cup as a junior. That was enough to get me on to a UK-based team in 2000.”

Team pressure and tasting victory at the World Cup in 2001 was quite negative for Minnaar. So too was an accident that caused a sub-dislocation of his shoulder, which continued to trouble him until recently. “The pressure from the team wanting me to do well and me wanting to win just made a terrible season in 2002 and I crashed quite a lot.

“When I moved to the Haro Lee Dungarees team in 2003, I had a really good season. I was able to do the whole World Cup circuit and I won the World Championships.”

In 2004, Minnaar moved to the controversial Team G Cross Honda. Although the team was hounded by media for being secretive and aloof, Minnaar stayed with them for four years, during which he won several titles. “People thought there were odd things going on behind the scenes, but there weren’t. No one was allowed to ride or touch our bikes and no one was allowed in our pits, which was a bit unusual. It explored a new level of professionalism.”

Minnaar says he didn’t really enjoy the hype around the team. “I am quite a low-key person and our pits were closed off from everyone else. It seemed like we were prima donnas and it gave people the wrong perception, which I didn’t like.”

Further injury to Minnaar’s shoulder caused in a motocross accident in 2007 and a fall while walking a course resulted in a bad year for the cyclist. He continued racing and would have finished in the top five of the World Cup series if it hadn’t been for a crash in Fort William, Scotland. “I had to have shoulder surgery in November last year and had a

14-week recovery. My shoulder is now back to normal and this year I won on that same track, which was a good feeling.” He still came sixth overall in 2007.

This year has been Minnaar’s comeback year. Racing for Santa Cruz Syndicate, Minnaar had excellent wins in Scotland, Canada and Australia, which enabled him to go into the final race comfortably in the lead. On a track he knew he couldn’t win on, his fifth place still secured him the overall title. “I have shown people I can still be at the top, after two years of injury kept me from doing my best,” he says. “It’s easy to get to the top, as the old saying goes, but it’s hard to stay there, so I’m always trying to keep one step ahead.”

Minnaar always finds time to surf and play golf. “I suck at golf and my team-mate, Steve Peat, and I play each other wherever we go. He beat me 4-1 this year,” he says.

With all his travelling aside, Pietermaritzburg is still his home. “I have travelled all over world and I think we live in a very decent place,” he says. “There is a lovely environment here and we have the midlands, the Berg and the beach all on our doorstep.”

Now that the season is over, Minnaar is getting back into motorbikes. “I’m busy training for the Roof of Africa Motorbike Enduro,” he says. “I watched the race in Lesotho last year and I decided to give it a go.”

The mountain bike race in Pietermaritzburg next year is going to be somewhat daunting for Minnaar. “I think I’ll check into a hotel then, just to get into the same routine that I get into everywhere else,” says Minnaar, who lives a few minutes away from the track. “It will be a very hard race for me, with all the distractions of it being on home soil. I hope a lot of people come to support it because it is not often that a world cup event gets to come out to South Africa.”

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