Hometown hero Greg Minnaar sent the massive crowd into hysterical celebrations by winning the downhill title at the RockyRoads UCI MTB World Cup, while Australian speedster Tracey Hannah completed a fairytale comeback to MTB downhill racing by winning the women’s title in emphatic fashion at the Cascades MTB course.
Minnaar, fronting the Santa Cruz Syndicate team, started last as the quickest qualifier, and initially looked behind the blisteringly fast time laid down by seasoned Australian star Mick Hannah and who looked poised to make it a family one-two after his sister had scooped the women’s title.
However 30-year old Minnaar, who won here in 2009, had to dig deep over the tough final third of the course to make up two crucial seconds to finish six tenths of a second faster than Gwinn, sending the crowd into raptures.
His race was far from perfect however. A clearly nervous Minnaar missed a few key lines and went wide into the big drop at Cloud 9, leaving him off Gwin’s pace.
“Maybe those mistakes helped me because then I decided that I could not afford to sit down until I got to the finish. It hurt a lot and my legs were burning but I knew I had to make up that time,” said Minnaar. “It was just a catch-up game, and I think that’s what got me down the bottom slightly quicker than these guys. I had to fight the whole way through to the end.
“When you cross the line, you’re never sure where you are, there’s no scoreboard in front of you,” said Minnaar. “I normally look for Steve Peat because he’s the first to jump over anywhere. I just saw the fencing starting to move, and as I came closer and closer it just collapsed, and I knew I had won it.”
The win was an emotional one for Minnaar, who has been spending much of the past fortnight at his father’s side in intensive care at a local hospital. His team gave him licence to withdraw from the season-opening UCI MTB World Cup. However at his father’s insistence he opted to race, and set up an online facility in his hospital ward to enable him to watch the internet-streamed live coverage of the race.
“I don’t know how excited the staff at the St Anne’s UCI will be when we roll in to celebrate!” said Minnaar.
It was Minnaar’s sixteenth World Cup victory in his 54th World Cup outing, and clearly one of the most significant of his illustrious career.
“Greg always finds another level at the bottom and digs deep, so it’s always tough racing him, especially on this track,” said Gwin. “It was awesome. I was really happy for him. He’s had a crazy couple of weeks, so for him to be able to pull it together here in front of his hometown crowd, it must be special for him, so I’m happy with second today, for sure.”
“I’m extremely happy,” said Mick Hannah afterwards, admitting that he was somewhat underprepared for the early start to the season. “Last year, here, I gave away three seconds in the first split, and this year I had the fastest split up the top. I faded a little bit at the bottom, but Aaron and Greg are on top of their game. I couldn’t be happier.”
The women’s title race ended in a heady victory for comeback kid Tracey Hannah, the former junior world champ, making a comeback to downhill racing after a four year layoff. Starting last after posting the fastest time in qualifying, Hannah scorched down the lower section of the course to complete her dream return to the gravity discipline after a four-year layoff.
She was given a bear-hug at the finish by her famous MTB brother Mick Hannah, who helped get her back into competitive racing and onto the Hutchinson United Ride team, riding a Morewood bike made at their Pietermaritzburg factory.
The comeback however left her battling with nerves before her race. “I was super nervous, so much so that I felt like vomiting before the start,” she admitted afterwards.
Hannah displaced British rider Manon Carpenter, who occupied the fastest finisher seat for more than a quarter of an hour after a superb run. With established star Floriane Pugin sidelined by serious injury suffered in training earlier in the week, and Sabrina Jonnier taken out of contention after crashing in practice just hours before the final and the door was open for Carpenter to post a shock result.
Swiss rider Emilie Siegenthaler experienced problems in the upper reaches of the course, while French rider Myriam Nicole crashed at the massive Cloud 9 drop and American podium hopeful Jill Kintner paid for her hesitancy at Cloud 9 by tumbling down the leader board.
World champion Emmeline Ragot had a chance to seize the upper hand in the penultimate run of the final, but she lost momentum in the lower quarter of the course and had to settle for third.
“Oh yeah, unbelievably happy! I knew I had to go hard the whole run because it was anyone’s race,” said Hannah. “There was one line down the hill, and you just had to push it to the max.
“My whole run I was just thinking about pedalling as much as I could. I knew that if I wasted any time rolling it could have been that time that put me in second. I just pushed it the whole run. Those were thoughts in my head, just pedal, pedal, pedal.
“I couldn’t be happier,” she added. “It’s amazing. I guess my goal was to be in the top three, but first! It’s amazing, I can’t believe it.”
The final days racing was watched by a large crowd that packed around the three kilometre downhill course that drops 416 metres through the forest, with cool overcast conditions.
More info can be found at www.mtbworldcupsa.co.za .
SUMMARY OF RESULTS – 2012 ROCKYROADS UCI MTB WORLD CUP – PIETERMARITZBURG
ELITE MEN DOWNHILL
Greg Minnaar 3:57.980
Aaron Gwin +0.632
Michael Hannah +0.994
Gee Atherton +1.303
Steve Smith +4.384
Jared Graves +4.436
Andrew Neethling +4.800
Troy Brosnan +5.017
Julien Camellini +5.604
Cédric Gracia +5.674
ELITE WOMEN DOWNHILL
Tracey Hannah 4:33.806
Manon Carpenter +0.949
Emmeline Ragot +2.810
Jill Kintner +8.492
Miriam Ruchti +10.896
Emilie Siegenthaler +11.402
Anita Molcik +12.123
Luana Maria de Sousa Oliviera +14.385
Petra Bernhard +15.112
Myriam Nicole +17.275