Gwin vs Minnaar

Ten year war reaches boiling point


On the 26th August 16 years ago, Greg Minnaar beat a man who, to that point, had five World Cup series titles, five senior World Championship gold medals and sixteen World Cup race wins. Within a year that man, Nico Vouilloz, had added two more World Championship golds before suddenly departing from the sport. Minnaar simply went on and tackled the challenges of Peat, Hill and Atherton as they came at him.

On the 26th August this year Greg Minnaar goes head to head with Aaron Gwin in what will be one of the most enthralling battles in the history of the sport. That the south African is even in the game is testimony to his mindset, physicality and technical ability. Some have said his 29” wheel bike has made the difference but the real facts are that Greg has simply maintained his high level podium trajectory.

True, Minnaar now has an even more effortless nature to his style, a virtuoso who is inch perfect on track with a composure that appears rarely shaken and a focus that carves up mountainsides. This is the grand master serving up race runs that glide through the woods as elegantly as Roger Federer does on a tennis court. This is a fine tuned, well oiled race machine.

Gwin arrived on the world cup circuit as Minnaar was picking up his third series title. It has been nine years since Minnaar won that third and last series title. Within that period he has added thirteen more World Cup wins however to bring his tally to 21.

Like Minnaar, Gwin took a while to build momentum even though he top tenned in his first World Cup season. However when it clicked and he moved to Trek he unleashed all manner of carnage to the circuit. He has now won 18 world cups total, with four World Cup series titles and he only still seems to be going through the gears. Gwin is a wrecking machine, a formidable force, who, when everything clicks as it is at the moment, appears to be unbeatable.

It has been a compelling head to head. From the classic South African encounters where Gwin won his first in Minnaar’s back garden in 2011 for Greg to return the favour in 2012 only for Gwin to return it back in 2014 it has been cat and dog for seven years.

Greg has re-written the history book with his 21 wins but Gwin seems to be after a prize that’ll probably involve burning that book and starting a fresh one. Nico’s record of five series wins seems within reach of the Californian.

Both Minnaar and Gwin have a had major dips in in form over the years however. 2013 and 2014 were barren years for Minnaar, he podiumed but failed to win. It seemed the pummelling that Gwin had been handing out over the previous two years had taken its toll. Coincidentally they were also the years in which Gwin had a dramatic loss of form when he suddenly announced his departure from Trek.

They both rose back with fire in their bellies. In 2015, Gwin and Minnaar won six of the seven races between them. Minnaar who’s career it seemed was flickering on embers in 2014 suddenly had a load of petrol and timber chucked on it. This happened at the same time as Gwin raced off with his third series, this time on Specialized before he did something extraordinary and signed for YT. The pits now became a battle of one the least expensive bikes versus arguably the most expensive. In 2016 Gwin turned the world of downhill upside down.

Where does this leave Val Di Sole? With a mesmerizing thriller dangling off a Dolomitian precipice. Two of downhill’s overlords in a punch up on one of the greatest ever tracks. It simply couldn’t have been cued up any better.

And the season has already dealt up all kinds of curve balls. From the start there were undercurrents of discontent in the pits as it was felt Minnaar was at an advantage with bigger wheels, only for the season to be hosed on at Lourdes. At Fort William it was Gwin who blew the tyres off the 29 theory (… fact) by going ahead on the split before making a mistake leaving Greg in for the win. Leogang was a stunning win for Gwin before a safe Andorran race meant that Lenzerheide was tee’d up for him to steal the series lead. A cruel puncture appeared to put and end to his title defence before the mountain gods threw Minnaar off a berm in Mont Saint Anne and leave us with this……

For the record, Gwin has won VDS three times including one of the greatest wins in World Cup history back in 2012 when he beat Greg into second by almost eight seconds. Minnaar has never won VDS but finished second on two occasions.

It has been 21 years since Minnaar raced his first world cup. 21 years, 21 race wins and three series titles. Should Gwin wrap up his first decade of World Cup with a win it would be his fifth and equal the record of Vouilloz.

This will definitely not be about the bragging rights to some grandiose title of being the greatest of all time but more a monumental showpiece of calculated risk. Both riders now they can leave nothing on the hill, process will always prevail above outcome and nothing short of one hundred percent will be enough.

Believe it, feel it, do it.

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