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Minnaar makes his mark
- Updated: March 16, 2012
Hometown hero Greg Minnaar started the RockyRoads UCI MTB World Cup on just the note the local fans were asking for on Friday by posting the fastest time in qualifying for the season-opening downhill title decider in cool overcast conditions at the Cascades MTB Park, Pietermaritzburg.
Minnaar, who won here sensationally on 2009, and was narrowly edged off his throne by US star Aaron Gwin in last year’s World Cup, started second and was just one of a handful of riders who raced sub-four minutes on the boldly reshaped downhill course.
ÔÇ£My run was pretty smooth. It was good, but I know technically I made a couple of mistakes. I didn’t expect it to be so dry,” said Minnaar. “Unfortunately, there were a couple of corners where I came in and I ran a bit late,┬ábut it happens.ÔÇØ
ÔÇ£It’s a good start to the season,” he added. “It shows my fitness is there. I know everyone is going for it. That’s what downhill is and it’s good to feel that I’m on pace, but I’ll take a close look at the splits because I am pretty sure I lost a bit of time on top.”
The popular Pietermaritzburg star is racing on the encouragement of his ill father Jeff Minnaar, who is in intensive care in a city hospital. Minaar’s Santa Cruz Syndicate team gave him the latitude to choose to be at his father’s side, but his father insisted that that he race the World Cup instead.
Defending champion Aaron Gwin was second fastest, setting the stage for a thrilling showdown in the downhill finals on Sunday afternoon. The field of 135 downhillers was cut to 80 for Sunday’s final.
The qualification runs were safely negotiated by most of the world top twenty riders, but Kiwi star Brook McDonald fell heavily on his run, hitting the hip flexor on the Money Maker jump right at the bottom of the badly, injuring his left knee and right cheek in the fall.
African champ Andrew “Needles” Neethling started his 2012 season on a solid note, posting the tenth fastest time of the day.
“That was really good for a quali, really solid. I hit pretty much all my lines. I was probably cautious in bits, and over-cautious in others, but I am very happy with a lot of it,” said Neethling
“I’m nursing a hand that I gave a good bump yesterday, so I’m really glad,” he added. “I think it’s going to hold up just fine. It was frustrating because I was worried it was going to hamper me.”
Australian Tracey Hannah, now racing with the Hutchinson United Ride team, started her comeback in spectacular fashion by blitzing the women’s downhill qualification with the fastest time of the day by almost four seconds, followed by world champ Emmeline Ragout and top-ranked Floriane Pugin.
Sister to Mick Hannah, Tracey is a former junior world champion, and after some success on the international circuit show bowed out of competitive riding for four years, before refocussing her energies on the 2012 season.
“I was a little nervous, but I just made sure I warmed up, so my heart rate was up,” said Hannah. “I was more excited to see where I was at with my time. I was more anxious. I was looking forward to this race for seeding, so I could get a feel of where I was at after the race.”
“I was surprised! I had a great run and I knew it was good,” she added. “I knew my time was going to be good for me – it was the best that I could do. I guess I just surprised myself how much further ahead of the other girls I was.”
Saturday sees the long-awaited showdown for the RockyRoads UCI MTB World Cup cross country titles in the junior, under 23 and senior ranks. The big crowd expected on course will be rallying behind local MTB icon Burry Stander, whose race in last year’s World Cup on the same course ended in heartbreak when he first bent a derailleur, and then crashed in the Rapid Rocks rock garden in the dying stages of the race.
“That rock garden deserves respect!” said Stander, who has adopted a more clinical approach to his training and preparation for the World Cup and Olympic season, using the SA Sports Science Institute in cape Town and personal trainers and dieticians to fine tune his training.
“It’s going to be tough, but then this is what it is all about,” he added. “the best riders on a tough course.”
Stander will start with the Specialized team that was rampant last season, with world champ Jaroslav Kulhavy and Stander’s friend and ally Christoph Sauser in the team line-up, ready to take on the class of Swissman Nino Schurter, who won here last week, Frenchman Julien Absalon, Spanish ace Jose Harmeda Ramos and every other rider in the world top fifteen rankings.
The women’s title race will see a showdown between world champ Catharine Pendrell and number one ranked Julie Bresset, one of 17 national champions in the women’s field.