Greg Minnaar celebrated his 39th birthday on 13 November. But instead of putting his feet up to enjoy a frosty beverage and contemplate retirement after an incredible career that’s included winning three world championship titles, the birthday boy decided it would be a good idea to run 39 miles.
It was a challenge from a friend, and even though he tried to reduce it to kilometres, the miles were covered and the mission accomplished. At a clearly extremely fit 39, there are no plans of giving up the rush of mountain bike racing just yet. And why would there be after Minnaar recently concluded the Covid-19-shortened UCI Mountain Bike World Cup with a win and a second place, finishing in third spot overall?
While that win was the 22nd World Cup crown of his remarkable career, it was his first return to the top of the podium in three years. He’s confident there’s more to come.
Speaking about his latest victory, Minnaar said: “My expectations going into any race is a minimum of a podium. That’s just what I want for myself. I feel that if I can put it all together, I want to aim for a win. So there is a lot of pressure on myself going into any race.
“Going into Portugal I was a little nervous seeing the track and trying to understand what kind of lines would develop. Once I got riding I was still a bit unsure. That’s why the qualifier in the first race, I was a little bit off, but I knew I lost my time at the bottom so that gave me confidence to go into that final, knowing I had a chance of winning.
“It was incredible to get a win. It’s been a while since I won and that one just ignited another fire. Then finishing off with a second place just increased the flame even more.”
The shortened season consisted of just four races to decide the overall World Cup title and, at the halfway mark, Minnaar’s hopes of a successful 2020 had looked slim. But the first and second places in the final two races in Portugal meant he finished third overall.
“I am really happy with third. To come back from seventh midway through the four races to be third is quite a jump. I didn’t expect that after being seventh leaving Slovenia, but it’s definitely something I was aiming for. Going into the season I wanted to be in the top three and so I’m stoked to have nailed that.”
Having been on a World Cup podium an astonishing 79 times during his career, you’d think the excitement may have diminished slightly, but that’s far from being the case.
“It definitely hasn’t worn off at all. It’s just such a hard sport to master and I feel I haven’t mastered it. I finish the season always looking at my bike, trying to figure out where I can improve my bike and where I can improve myself and where I can train harder and be stronger, and that still makes those wins really special. Getting on the podium is not easy and as soon as you back off ever so slightly you don’t step on it. That challenge is enough to keep me going.”
It has kept him going for 20 years after storming to a first overall World Cup title at the age of just 19.
The making of the Fresh Prince of Big Air
Minnaar began his obsession with wheels initially in BMX and then motocross. His first brush with fame came when he was 12 at Pietermaritzburg’s annual Royal Show. There he would make some extra pocket money by ramping his motocross bike over up to 16 cars. Perhaps a foretaste of where his nickname – the Fresh Prince of Big Air – came from.
He still harbours a love for the sport, just like South Africa’s latest MotoGP sensation, Brad Binder, who rides motocross bikes as often as he can when at home on holiday. The two champions have met before, and Minnaar has been mightily impressed with his compatriot’s achievements in his rookie season in the premier class, which included a win in the Czech Republic.
“Brad Binder has had a great season in MotoGP to get his first win. His brother, Darryn, has too [in Moto3]. I don’t know a lot about MotoGP and I try to follow it a bit here and there… Brad is quite a phenomenon. In the biking world he is definitely raising some eyebrows. It’s been incredible watching him this season, and especially that win. It was great.”
Minnaar has had a taste of the terrifying speed of a MotoGP bike himself, and decided afterwards to stick to dirt tracks in future.
“[Former champion] Randy Mamola took me around on the Ducati and I was absolutely frightened. He started off down the first straight on the back wheel and then decided to dive into the first right hander. We were at Estoril in Portugal and there was a big wet patch on the inside. So I was trying to hold the bike up because there is no way you can lean a bike onto a wet patch like that, and he was trying to lean the bike in and both pulling in opposite directions. We ended up overshooting the first corner.
“Then we were shunting it down the straight. We were doing what must’ve been at least 300km an hour with a turn and I am on the back of his bike with a tiny little handle to hold on and I am thinking if we crash now it’s going to be over. That was a hell of an experience.
“We were chatting afterwards and he said I am possibly one of the worst riders he’s had on the back of his bike,” added Minnaar with a laugh. “Anyone who’s got any knowledge of riding dirt bikes compared to road bikes corners completely the opposite. There we are. It was quite different for us. It was a great experience nevertheless to be on a MotoGP bike at Estoril.”
Some would say hurtling down a mountainside is equally as terrifying, but Minnaar relishes the thrill and the cerebral prowess it requires.
“While you’re in the heat of a race you’ve got to be thinking what you have just done and understanding if you’ve made time or lost time to then process the upcoming section – whether you need to make up some time or whether you can ride safe. So your mind is racing through quite a lot of things, quite a lot of thoughts and decisions need to be made really quickly, in such a short space of time. There’s quite a lot going on in a mountain bike race.”
Considered the greatest downhill rider in the history of the sport, Minnaar is often referred to as the Greatest of all Time (GOAT). It’s something that he certainly doesn’t dwell on too much.
“I didn’t come up with being called the GOAT, but I run with it. I think it’s quite a privilege to be called that. It can be frustrating at times, but at the end of the day I didn’t start racing downhill or try to win a world championship to be in the limelight, so it actually doesn’t bother me.
“For sure it might have adjusted the economics and sponsorship in South Africa. I’ve never been sponsored by any South African company or anyone in South Africa, so possibly that could have been different, but I don’t do it for recognition, so deep down I don’t really care.”
Perhaps the not caring is down to his innate humility, or the fact that he’s not come close to receiving the level of recognition that he deserves in his home country. Or maybe it’s just that laid-back Maritzburg vibe he has about him. Despite his international acclaim, he’s still that Maritzburg boy at heart.
“I love coming back to Maritzburg. It’s such a beautiful city and I enjoy my time there. It’s funny, the people can generally be quite strange towards you about what you have achieved, and that I find quite grounding. I think if you weren’t grounded people would thrive in grounding you. So that is pretty funny, but I still enjoy it. It’s definitely a place I like to call home.”
Minnaar hopes to be home from Europe again soon as he prepares for what will hopefully be a full season next year. With the end to this rather strange Covid-19-affected year that he’s enjoyed and a hunger still raging inside of him, he can’t wait for the season ahead.
“What’s really driving me is that I haven’t perfected it and while I feel I still have chances to win races and to step on the podium, I must keep racing. I feel I’ve still got a couple of wins in me, so I’m pretty motivated to make those happen. Obviously, I am excited to get training and ready for next season. I think with the longer season I can definitely challenge for the World Cup overall.
“The thought of retirement definitely pops through my mind and I think when the time is right and when I finish the season saying I’ve done everything I can and I didn’t quite get on a podium, or something like that, then it’s probably a good time to call it, but I would be regretting it if I were still competitive and decided to stop.
“I definitely don’t want to be hanging on to a position in a big team like Santa Cruz Syndicate if I wasn’t able to hold my own, but at the same time while I’m still competitive I think I need to be racing.”
That record 22nd World Cup crown certainly answered the question as to whether he’s still competitive or not. And it proved yet again that the GOAT is not done yet.