By Jason Sumner, VeloNews Associate Editor
Two weeks ago Greg Minnaar earned a place in history when he won the downhill at Kaprun, Austria, becoming the first rider from the African continent to win a World Cup race. Now the 19-year-old is chasing an even bigger achievement, the World Cup overall title.
When the curtain raises on the men’s downhill at the World Cup finals in Mont-Ste-Anne, Quebec on Saturday, the Global Racing rider will find just 28 points separating himself from a storied place in the annals of mountain-bike racing. That’s the margin the unassuming teenager — currently second overall — needs to make up to overtake current first-place occupant Nicolas Vouilloz, who has won five of the last six overall titles, including three straight. If that happens, Minnaar will become the first non-European to win the men’s overall World Cup downhill title. And with points being award for both the semifinals and finals, the overall title could be decided by just one place on Saturday.
On Thursday at the base of Mont-Ste-Anne VeloNews sat down with Minnaar inside the green and white Global team tent to discuss that prospect, plus wealth of other topics.
VeloNews: Has it set in that you have a chance to make history?
Greg Minnaar: Not really. It doesn’t even feel like I’m really here. It’s more like a dream. Even now, I still look up to a lot of the riders that I’m beating. I still go buy magazines and read up on them because they’re my heroes. Now that I can win the overall – which was a long term goal – I’ve said before I think it’s better than being a world champion because you’ve proved yourself in eight races not just one. It would still be good to be a world champion, though.
VN: Take us through you’re win at Kaprun.
GM: In my semifinal run I crashed at the top, but I still won it by two seconds. After that Martin (Whiteley, the Global team director) came to me and said, “You know you have a chance at this.” That gave me a bit of a boost because I’d never had thought about winning a race before. That was the first time I ever thought like that.
I knew I just had to be smooth at the top and not fall off like I did in the qualifying. I did that and on the fast stuff I just keep pedaling as much as I could and kept rolling though things without losing speed. At the bottom I heard the commentator say I had six seconds to get to the finish line. It felt like about 20 at the time and I didn’t think I’d won when I got through the line. But then I saw (good friend) Steve Peat jumping around and I knew I had won.
VN: Where did the nickname “Fresh Prince of Big Air” come from?
GM: I just look for jumps. In the downhill if there’s a really rocky section I’ll try to jump over it instead of ride through it. If there is a jump I’ll definitely be jumping it. I think (World Cup announcer) Peter Graves was the first one who said it, but I’m not to sure. VN: How’s your dual racing coming along?
GM: I do it a lot, but I don’t do it very well (Minnaar is currently ninth in the overall World Cup standings). I prefer the slaloms because I don’t have to be so good at the gate. In the dual you have to be really good at the gate, and then there’s not normally any passing.
VN: What’s the downhill scene in South Africa like?
GM: It’s not very big right now, but it’s getting bigger and bigger. People still don’t know who I am. It’s not that big yet. Nothing like it is here. The riding is really good, though. We have good downhills, but we don’t have any chairlifts. We have to use shuttle trucks. The courses are really tight and pretty technical. They don’t have any fast open stuff. That’s something I had to learn how to ride.
VN: How did you get started racing mountain bikes?
GM: I got into it when my parents bought a bicycle shop. I had been racing motocross since I was four, and doing some BMX, and I raced motocross until I was 14. But when my parents got the bike shop I never had enough time to practice motocross, so I kinda lost interest in that.
I started riding my bike because I didn’t have anyone to take me to the motocross track, but I could ride the bike by myself. My sister did downhill, so I tried downhill and cross-country. I preferred the downhill scene more, and it just continued from there.
VN: How well does the course here at Mont-Ste-Anne suit your riding style?
GM: I don’t know if it suits me or not. I guess if I win I’ll know it suited me. But if you’re going to go for a World Cup, you can’t choose your courses. You just have to try to win on all different kinds.
VN: What will be going through your mind on race day?
GM: I’m just going to go out and try my best. I know that I can win a World Cup now, and I’m going to try to win this one. But no matter what happens – even if I come in last – I still will finish third overall, which is more than I expected for this year. I’m really happy to know that I’m going to be getting a crystal globe. But I really want to win it because nobody really remembers second or third.
Check back to VeloNews.com Saturday night to see if Minnaar pulls it off.