Storybook Ending: Minnaar Wins Mountain Bike Downhill World Championship At Home; Rachel Atherton Dominates
It was as if Hollywood was looking down on the hills of South Africa, creating a script set for the big screens. The pageantry, the story board, the stars were all aligned for local hero Greg Minnaar to complete a performance for the ages in the sport of mountain biking and for his country of South Africa.
Not only was Greg Minnaar coming into this weekend’s UCI Mountain Bike Downhill World Championships as the defending champion, he was doing so at an event hosted in his hometown, literally blocks from his front doorstep. Cascades Mountain Bike Park set the scene for one of the most epic title defenses in the sport’s history. Not only did Minnaar retain his rainbow stripes, he did so while uniting a country behind a local hero at a first-of-it’s-kind event in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.
Australian Jared Graves started the show from the 24th position with a dazzling performance on an enduro bike, sitting atop the podium with a time of 4:01. He would watch rider after rider descend the downhill track from the hot seat until his countryman Mick Hannah edged him out with only a few riders remaining. The Aussies looked to have the crown wrapped up with just three riders left in the competition.
The moment the crowd had waited hours for had finally arrived as the legend and defending world champion, Greg Minnaar lined up in the start gate. Flying down the hill, with a tribute to the ailing Nelson Mandela on his helmet, Minnaar was just a hair above the top split going into the second section, where he eventually lost a fraction of time. The crowed sighed deeply with anticipation as they saw the red light appear on the screen, knowing their hero had to make up some valuable time. Entering the final jump, Minnaar was teetering on the line of first and second place when he narrowly edged the Aussie by just 0.396 seconds sending the home crowd into an utter frenzy.
With just two riders left, Minnaar looked to be safe for now. Canadian Stevie Smith, who had been trouble all year for Minnaar had an unfortunate crash going into the top section of the course leaving only World Cup Series leader Gee Atherton to stand between Minnaar, his home South African fans and a back-to-back world championship. Right out of the gates, it was apparent Atherton didn’t have what it was going to take to knock Minnaar off the podium. Although they knew it was locked up, the thousands of local fans waited for the Brit to cross the line before busting down the barriers and surrounding Minnaar, raising them up on their shoulders in elation. The story was complete; the happy ending had been fulfilled. Greg Minnaar had successfully defended his world title, during what was one of the most pressure packed weeks of his life. In a culture that truly respects its heroes of sport, words cannot describe what this win meant to the South African people, nor Minnaar himself.
“It feels surreal [winning at home]. The whole of South Africa was here backing me for sure. Everyone from the guys who drove us to the top, the marshals, everyone was cheering me on.”
What makes the story even more remarkable, in a sport when every split second counts, Minnaar finished the race in first with a puncture in one of his tires.
“The puncture … I came through that last rock section as hard as I could and went slightly off line and got a leak,” said Minnaar. “It only went down on that last jump. So it didn’t slow me down thankfully.”
On a week where South Africa was in need of a lift, mourning the loss of a fallen hero in Burry Stander and the fragile condition of one of the country’s biggest icons, Nelson Mandela, Minnaar’s victory was just what his country was looking for.
“As a South African you can’t wish for more. This was for them and for Burry and for Madiba (Mandela).”
On the women’s side, Oakley’s Rachel Atherton utterly blew away the competition, winning her second world championship by over an eight second margin. As the last rider down the hill, Atherton made it known why she is the top contender on the Women’s Elite UCI MTB Downhill circuit at the moment.
“This title has been a long time coming,” Atherton said. “I won my first in 2008 and it seems like ever since then I’ve missed world champs through injury or had a big stack, and I was starting to wonder if I would ever win again. I wanted the title, I wanted the stripes again.”