Andrew Neethling – five races I’ll never forget

14 years of highs and lows

From living the dirtbag dream in America to fracturing his hand and still racing at a home race, Andrew Neethling‘s life as a racer has been anything but dull.

In January, he called time on his full time downhill racing career. Needles has been at the very top of the game for 14 years but, thankfully, it sounds like he’ll be sticking around in the industry for years to come. We caught up with him to find out which races stick out the most

Kaprun World Championships and Les Gets World Cup – 2002

This was my last year as a junior. I’d been doing well at home and my dad helped out getting us to the race and then the World Cup afterwards. I had a goal set in my mind of a top ten to show people that I had potential to go racing as an elite.

I knew a few of the riders like Marc Beaumont and Julien Cammellini and I knew how good the field was. Obviously when you’re young you think everything’s exciting but to this day I think the course was just unbelievable.

I’ve still got the photos on the wall in my parents’ house

I wasn’t too intimidated at all, when you’re a youngster everything’s new – it’s the best, I wish I could have felt that for longer. Dropping in as a junior and achieving that goal of a top ten gave me the confidence to make a go of it the next year as an elite.

Trophies from Neethling’s parents’ house

There was a big after party and I met my idols that are now hopefully life long friends. You’ve put them on such a pedestal and then you get to meet them and they’re such amazing normal people.

We were in Europe so we went onto Les Gets for the final World Cup of the year – my first World Cup. I remember another amazing course; it was just so cool. My brother was over there and my dad would mechanic on our bikes, it was quite a family effort.

I don’t even know if I was 78th or 72nd but I was ridiculously close to not qualifying. In the final it dried up a bit and I got 50th in my first World Cup as a junior. I’ve still got the photos on the wall in my parents’ house.

I was about ten seconds faster than my qualifying. It really became something I went back to quite a lot in the beginnings, if I qualified poorly I knew I could make quite a lot of time if I put my mind to it.

Schweitzer Mountain, Idaho NORBA – 2005

When I left school I went to campaign in America. I’d been doing quite well and I had expenses paid for me but I wasn’t on a factory team or getting a salary. At that time the North American circuit was second best to a World Cup because Greg Minnaar, Jared Graves, Cedric and Peaty all used to do them so they still had quite a lot of credibility.

The sport was serious but maybe not how it is now. You would hang out more with everyone and in between races you wouldn’t just fly in, fly home and go to the gym, you were road tripping a lot of the time. We drove everywhere, all over Canada and America, getting to these races, bumming rides, finding dirt jumps, eating tins of noodles for two or three years on a real budget.

Being South African you had to almost fulfil your potential to get a ride and not just have potential.

The race before this one I qualified first but I broke a chain and then crashed out – I could have just crawled down the hill and probably got a podium. In this one I qualified fourth, came down, took the hotseat and just stayed there. Greg was on Honda at the time doing super well, I think he had a little problem in the last woods but that’s racing.

It was just such a crazy feeling because I hadn’t had a podium but won the whole thing. That really changed everything for me and I went on after that to get two top tens in a World Cup that year on a shop team effort.

It cemented that I could really do something. Eric Carter pulled me into the Mongoose Factory Team truck a few races later and said Mongoose was looking expand the team roster and he had put my name forward. I was just blown away.

Being South African you had to almost fulfil your potential to get a ride and not just have potential. I think that’s just how the industry goes and there’s nothing against that but that race opened doors for me.

Val Di Sole World Cup – 2010

This one could be top of my list. In the same year I just spoke about I got seventh in the World Cup so the next goal was a podium. I butted my head against the wall for three years: getting sixth; qualifying well; being fifth at the split and falling off to get eighth; crashing out, but never getting the podium.

I guess it just kept me hungrier for longer but it was really eating at me. I went on to achieve it in 2010 in Val Di Sole Italy.

I qualified fifth on a super rough course, dry, dusty – maybe a course that I didn’t know could suit me at the time. Justin Leov, my team mate, had a crash and had to go to hospital, it was quite a gnarly course, even back then.

I remember grabbing my bike and riding it round the empty pits. I’m feeling something’s not right with my fork. I’m quite a ‘feel’ rider with brakes and suspension so I went over to the Fox technician. Luckily he was there and he agreed.

We did some settings and we still weren’t quite sure. He says: “you know what, it sounds crazy but we’re going to have to take Justin’s fork, we don’t have time.” He runs a very similar set up so it was the only option.

I don’t remember much of the run to be honest. I really don’t. I just remember crossing that finish line. Greg was in the hot seat and he kind of showed me a second or a first. Nothing made sense down there. I finally got on the hotseat, I did the maths and I’d done it, worst case I was fifth.

It was all just so surreal. I knocked off one other guy’s time and finished fourth. It’s an amazing feeling I won’t lie and I think recreating that feeling in life is going to be very difficult. To complete a huge goal that as a kid you didn’t know it was possible was just the most amazing feeling.

It wasn’t the best after-party unfortunately. As a youngster I liked to celebrate the hard work so I was in the pits with beers riding around causing trouble, definitely not helping much on setting down the pits.

Pietermaritzburg World Cup – 2012

It was a home race, home crowd. We’d raced it the year before but now I’d sussed out what I needed to do, the bike was on point, we’d had a good set up, everything was aligning for a great race.

It was quite a fast section and you’d come out of the trees and I just nicked my hand. Massive bang, I didn’t even fall, just smashed my hand on a tree and the bar. I knew it was bad but I didn’t want to look at it. It started swelling but I was just stubborn and went on for more practice. I didn’t even ice it, I didn’t want to believe something was wrong.

That night it just ballooned up, it was huge. I didn’t want to go for X-rays because I didn’t want to know, I was going to race somehow regardless.

I had an injection to numb it, which is legal, but I couldn’t hang on. I’d rather have pain than no feeling. I iced it some more and I nursed down qualifying. I want to say that this is probably one of the only courses you could do it because it wasn’t that rough and had a lot of pedalling.

I had a game plan and I went up and practiced the rough top section as hard as I could on the smooth lines with the downhill coach and then I just made so much work of the pedal section and the bottom to make up for it.

I finished seventh with a fractured finger or hand. So I’m quite proud to have achieved something like that. Many other riders have ridden with way worse, it’s not about that, I was just proud to do well at home even though I was almost forced out of it

It’s not often you sit out unless it’s going to be really dangerous you can’t hang on or you have a concussion that you shouldn’t ride on. I think any racers at a World Cup level are not looking to sit out you know? You have inner drive to make it happen.

Santa Catarina World Cup – 2005

Such a memorable race is back when we went to Brazil for the World Cups. I just remember how everyone was so excited to go down. The track finished, you’d walk down a little road and then you’d be at the beach. It was beautiful there.

I just remember hanging out with Rennie, Lopes, Bryn Atkinson, the whole gang. Leading up to the race we were just having so much fun doing cliff jumping, on the beach, switching off from racing leading up to to course walk.

We’re all competitive so I remember Lopes and Rennie having a race on the beach. You wouldn’t believe that Rennie could beat Lopes in a running race but he was super agile. Man it was a super cool vibe, I think we even had a cheeky night out before course walk. I won’t name too many names but I think all the guilty parties still raced well because they were on such a good vibe.

When you’re going to Fort William every year, it’s either going to be full of midgies or raining

I think Lopes bet me 100 bucks I couldn’t carry Nathan Rennie back from the sushi place back to the hotel and it was properly far. I think he still owes me some money – he claims it was local currency but I think bucks are American if you’re going to say bucks. I should still send him a message about that!

The course wasn’t all that but it’s a World Cup, you should race all over the world. I missed that when we started going back to the same venues back and forth. We had good celebrations after the race, good weather, on the beach, it was just good to go to a venue like that.

It’s a bit like Mont Sainte Anne, everyone’s pretty happy when you go over there. The weather’s normally good and there’s a waterfall and stuff. When you’re going to Fort William every year, it’s either going to be full of midgies or raining. The crowds are gong to be amazing but it’s not that exciting. So you just get a different atmosphere in the pits and with the people coming together and the camaraderie of the athletes.


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