Johannesburg - Greg Minnaar became a downhill mountain bike world champion for the third time on Sunday, with the image of Madiba on his helmet, the spirit of the late Burry Stander in his heart and a flat tyre on his bike.
There may never come a time that a South African will be a world champion cyclist on his own home turf again, but Minnaar, a Maritzburg man who lives a hop, skip and a jump away from the Cascades Mountain Bike Park, won the UCI World Championships with a run of three minutes 58.058 seconds.
He beat Australian Michael Hannah by 0.396, and fellow Australian Jared Graves, who took bronze.
Minnaar said he felt his rear tyre begin to deflate through the last rock section and into the last, left-hand jump, knew he needed to keep his bike pointing straight as he landed. At the finish, the OneLife Crew, the friends and fans of Minnaar, roared in celebration. When Gee Atherton, the Brit, was down at the last split, Hannah turned to him and shook his hand. It was done. He was world champion for the third time. He could scarcely believe it.
“It still hasn’t sunk in,” said Minnaar, drinking deep from a can of beer. “When I won my first world title (in 2003) I thought it would be easy for the next one, but it took nine years to win the next one (in 2012). I’ve learnt that the world championship is something you do not take for granted.”
The pressure sat heavy about Minnaar in Maritzburg this week. He grew up riding in the forest where the Cascades is now. He lives 2km from the park. The OneLife Crew spent thousands of rands supporting him at races in the past. The Thistle Hotel will be rocking for days to come, but there was a sense of loss on Sunday. Stander’s death in January hit Minnaar hard. Madiba’s ill health worried a man of the Rainbow Nation. He was riding for millions and he knew it.
“I tried to stay away from it all this week,” said Minnaar. “I only came to the track for practice, but you could feel what people were expecting from you. I was the defending world champion at home. I had to have the ride of my life. When I started, the first marshal shouted my name. That’s when I knew I was under big pressure.
“I had a terrible practice this morning and wasn’t feeling good. I had a session with Lawrence (Van Lingen) my chiro to help. My right leg hasn’t been working too well this year and I’ve been struggling with it. I needed to loosen it up. I felt good during the warm-up and got out of the gate well. When you go down the first straight and the marshal is calling your name, the pressure is pretty big.”
Minnaar rode with an image of Madiba on his helmet to celebrate the man’s life and wish him well during his illness. “You’ve got a great man who has done so much for our land and our people, and he is struggling with his own wellbeing now, so anything I can do to make people aware of the greatness of the man is a small thing,” said Minnaar. “He has done amazing things and he makes his people do amazing things. Everything we do should be for him.”
Minnaar was 20th at the first split, but then found his groove after what he has admitted has been an “average” season. Greatness finds those who look for it, and Minnaar sought it hard and far this week, from the Thistle Hotel in Boshoff Street to the fans who clogged up his social media fields this week.
“It’s been mad,” said Minnaar. “So many messages and so many people wishing you well. It was hard to stay away from it all, but you cant. So I embraced it all. The support was amazing, from the first marshal to the OneLife Crew at the end of the race. As a South African you can’t wish for more. This was for them and for Burry and for Madiba.”