Greg Minnaar seeks 20th win on 29" wheels
In a few days time riders will be going through the gears at Lourdes, many will be muscled up mentally to make the big push that sees them climb to podium speed. They might just make the step, keep momentum going, or, like so many before them, it will be no more than a flash of high risk masqueraded as brilliance. Downhill cruelly exposes racers from risk takers.
Lourdes will see the resumption of the spectacular Gwin story as he seeks to match the five series wins achieved by Nico Vouilloz. It heralds the arrival of Danny Hart who has been on an unbeaten run since last July. One of the worlds most important sites of pilgrimage also opens its arms to Troy Brosnan and Loic Bruni. Between the four of them it will be an arm wrestle and for the latter a seemingly eternal search for that second race win.
Whilst immortality will have to be put on hold for some, an indestructible force enters his eighteenth senior World Cup series. An irrepressible race machine that knows how and when to pounce, the sport has never seen a more resilient racer with wins at world level spanning sixteen seasons. From 2000 to the present day the man keeps delivering the killer blow. Here in Lourdes, on a new 29" wheel Santa Cruz V10 he aims to make it twenty world cup wins. No-one in their right mind would bet against it happening.
They say that it’s impossible to compare Greg Minnaar to great racers of the past simply because they have ridden out different eras. This is massively neglecting to recognise that Greg has battled with ALL the greatest racers.
Minnaar can operate in moments that simply strangle confidence out of racers
From wrestling the World Cup series title away from Nico Vouilloz on the slopes of Mt Saint Anne late in 2001 to become champion at only 19, through the titanic battles with Steve Peat and Gee Atherton, Greg has been an irresistible force of downhill. He has had to deal with the arrival of some of the sports greatest in Sam Hill and the rest of the unstoppable Aussies, has seen the demise of American racing and then the emergence of Aaron Gwin. The south African has taken the race to pretty much all the legends of the sport. And beaten them.
Ruthless application of race craft is central to the Minnaar psyche. Minnaar can operate in moments that simply strangle confidence out of racers. When it counts here is a man who delivers, a man who does not shy away but embraces the pressure. Minnaar is a total race thoroughbred, a rider who stockpiles information, one of incredible spatial awareness and one of calculated, ice cold delivery.
Minnaar podiumed Vail in 2000 at the age of 18, a race won by Peaty, he also got fifth at Kaprun that year, a race won by Vouilloz. This was the season he raced for Animal Orange and took in several British events. In the season he won his first title, 2001, he had to deal with Fabien Barel, Chris Kovarik hardly easy rivals let alone the then five time champion Vouilloz.
After winning his first World Championship in 2003, Greg switched to the mighty Honda for 2004. I was lucky enough to travel to Spain to a local race to witness that bike, that rider. It was an iconic era. To win the first world cup at Fort William was simply another of those Minnaar moments. In that gritty and base race in Spain he showed his personable side, in Scotland his race intellect.
Greg podiumed every single round in 2005 to take the title for Honda and the following year saw his team mate to be Steve Peat move to Santa Cruz and take the title. It was a year that saw a massive Hill-Peat arm wrestle of which even Greg had no answer.
It was in 2008 that Minnaar also switched to Santa Cruz and, after podiuming every round for the second time, and winning three races he took the title from Sam Hill. It was his last World Cup title and over the following four years saw him miss out to Hill and Atherton respectively before the arrival of Gwin who was simply riding in a different timescale. Minnaar continued to win World Cups during these eras.
During 2013 and 2014 Greg appeared to be on a downward spiral whilst others were on an upward one. I remember having a robust discussion on bike size with him in the spring of 2013 in Spain. It probably bordered more on argument than discussion but it was clear that both him and Peaty at over 6’ 3" were riding bikes that were arguably too small for them. The podium percentages were tumbling very badly, something that had been happening since his 08 series win.
Over twenty World Cup races came and went, only the odd spark here and there, as into his thirties the Santa Cruz front man faded at World Cups from his former indomitable self. But in 2015 something truly mesmerising occurred, as the remodelled South African stunned the world, beating champion to be Aaron Gwin at the second round in Fort William. A month later he took another to beat Peaty’s record of seventeen. By coincidence, Greg had taken hold of an XXL Santa Cruz V10.
On the 5th June 2016 he won again at Fort William making him the rider with most ever World Cup race wins. And as the 2016 season closed out in Andorra he wedged himself between race winner Danny Hart and third placed Loic Bruni.
And so it was to the greats of downhill - Vouilloz, Peat, Hill, Gwin – the greatest male downhill racers ever – that Minnaar has taken battle and won. And to the new stars, Hart and Bruni that he has proved equal. It is a career that transcends any other rider in terms of longevity and wins. The man’s perseverance can only be held of in the highest regard.
Is he the greatest male racer? Well it doesn’t really matter. You could argue that Vouilloz won 16 world cups and 7 world championships. That’s 23 BIG races. Greg has 19 and 3 respectively. On numbers then maybe not, on durability yes, on duration yes.
What really matters is that he is a symbol of everything downhill. Stylish and boozy, robust and chillingly focussed.
Lourdes has been an unhappy hunting ground for Minnaar but one of downhill’s most iconic racers can still turn over some pretenders.