Greg Minnaar - The greatest of all time.
Greg Minnaar. A name, or rather the name that is synonymous with World Cup Downhill racing with a career closing in on bridging two decades at the top, in that time becoming the sport's most accomplished male rider. Sticking atop a sport for so long takes so much more than simply natural talent, a career greater in-depth than the lengthy statistics of wins, podiums, and points could even hint at.
The 2017 campaign showed Greg is still very much at the top of his game and the sport, despite the end of season unravelling. That's racing. Greg knows that better than anyone, and whilst it still feels raw he'll be fired up for next season. We caught up with Greg as he sets his sights on '18:
So we are well into the off-season now, it's fair to say last few races of the year didn't go your way – how do you look back upon 2017 as a season?
It was a good season. It didn't end well but I think it was really cool pushing to develop the new bike, and having such a good season like we did. In the end it was somewhat a bit of bad luck and some good luck, I had that massive crash before World Cup finals... I think I had some luck there but probably used it all!
How did the 2017 overall battle compare to past years, say the likes of Vouilloz in 2001?
It was different, in years past I've more battled through the season. This year I got into the leader's jersey and rode the season out. I lost quite a lot in Mont-Sainte-Anne when I crashed which didn't help things. It was weird. It didn't seem as much of a battle, more just losing it slowly. Everyone had a pretty dramatic season, great results, poor results, weather... I think it made it exciting to watch but really stressful to be involved.
And with the deluge in Lourdes at round one, that somewhat turned the start of the season on its head...
It's not that bad. If you're all in the same weather it's a tough result and tough race, but it was tough for everyone who was going to be contending anyway. It was just trying to gather as many points as possible. People make quite a big deal about trying to change schedules around and everything else. I think it's quite a good system what they've got, all the riders that were contending for the overall were in the same weather – that's all you want really. It sorted itself out after a couple rounds anyway.
Do you look back on the races and championships that didn't go your way with 'what ifs' or do you accept it's racing and move on?
I must just move on from them as I can't remember very many now! I know there has been quite a few, quite a few world championships, Mont-Sainte-Anne World Champs... Steve and I got some weather at the end. 2004 World Championships we had a mechanical on Honda. You've just got to keep moving on. I look back on it, yes it was horrible and it was tough. It was a problem we were having throughout the year and we thought it was resolved... That's the thing with racing at such a high level there are slight things that can cause issues and unfortunately, it happened on that run!
Downhill is most definitely a mental game, you seem to be one of the strongest at dealing with the pressure and jumping back from setbacks. World Champs at home in South Africa, frame snap in Val di Sole etc... What do you put that down to?
I think it's just focus. I've always thought if you really focus on something you can sort it out or really succeed and achieve what you want to do. You can always turn things around if you really focus on it, I believe it and it's something I've tried to show through racing.
Where did that come from, was that something whilst growing up you took from your parents or?
No, I think it was just something I've had to learn on my own. I'm pretty competitive so when I have a mishap I feel like someone who has been beaten so I need to set things straight to where they should be. I think being really competitive is part of it.
What advice would you give a young Greg Minnaar heading out of South Africa to race for the first time?
Oh man... You know, I stressed out a lot about all the travel at a young age and it really wasn't that bad. I think my biggest stress is that I feel like my five-year plan needs to be done in 3 weeks... So I stress out on time over things not happening quick enough, so I probably would have chilled a bit more because things do happen and it just takes a bit of time. I want everything done immediately and in some ways that is good but I guess in a lot of ways it just stresses you out for no reason.
In 2017 it was the start of a new era for the Syndicate with Loris and Luca joining the fold. What are they like to work and race alongside in comparison to Peaty and Josh?
It's really different. It's been really good, they were rivals coming into the Syndicate and now I think they are really good friends so I think that has been one box ticked. You know in the Syndicate we run things a bit differently so it was nice to see that it worked, I think they've got such different riding styles that they both can learn from each other, and they are. Carrying on from Steve, he is always someone I've looked up to and always someone I've had a good relationship with racing, sharing lines and whatever else with. With Josh, we had such a different dynamic. It was different in many ways but I think having Steve around as 'the coach' as we call him on the team has maintained some of that. Definitely missing Ratty and his shenanigans, but I think as the guys grow things will start to happen, they'll realise how things happened in the past and understand the freedom of the limits.
The team atmosphere seems to have carried over?
I think so, Kathy plays an important role in that. She manages really well, that and having Steve around to keep the social scene alive definitely helps!
More importantly, can they handle the pace when it comes to the after-party?
Oh yeah, they've learnt to. Initially not, but downhill after-parties have changed a lot... There's not many riders that attend them and the ones that do are pretty loose so it's a tough line to walk! But I think we've got a good combination of racing and partying, we have it pretty sussed. We are serious about racing but you've got to be able to switch off as well!
3 World Cup overalls, 3 gold at Worlds, 7 more Worlds medals, 21 wins, 75 podiums... People might just see the numbers but obviously there is a lot more behind the success than natural talent, what are the major factors you've had to put focus into over the years?
I work hard in the off-season, I always make sure I'm in shape coming in. But to me, that's a given being a professional athlete. That shouldn't ever be an issue. It's tough, it's something I've never really thought about... I just really wanted to race and still really want to race and be competitive so I'm not really too bothered about the numbers. People ask me how many podiums... I didn't know until you just mentioned it. I don't worry about the stats, that is just something that has happened along the way. I think one of the main things is to just keep developing and keep progressing, it's something I take in when I look at Loris and Luca setting up their bikes, how they ride stuff, it's hard you know through so many different areas trying to reinvent yourself each time and I think that is key. To keep with a young sport that is progressing so much over such a short period of time you've got to keep changing things, you can't be content with where you are, bike setup, training... I'd put it to that.
Is there anything you've had to sacrifice over the years to focus on the sport?
To me if you're thinking of sacrificing things, and you know you are making sacrifices then they aren't really sacrifices... A sacrifice to me is something you don't realise that you are doing, you're so focused on what you are, that you are making these sacrifices without even knowing. I'm sure there are many more, but there are a few over the years that I've realised I've missed out on, but at the time I'm so focused on racing and being the best I can that I don't realise I'm missing out.
Form ebbs and flows but you've been at the top for close to 2 decades now, have you ever had to search for motivation or are you able to self-motivate easily?
Yeah I do and the biggest time to be searching is after a bad result, or bad season, or bad end to the season... There have been times when I have been, not tired of racing because I don't race a lot, and when I'm back in South Africa I'm really out of the scene. It's completely different and no one really cares about downhill, it's all about marathon racing. I really get to reset and refresh, the thing that I really battle with is when it comes to training. Doing the same training, riding the same forest and trails – that's where I really need motivation. Besides that, racing, I don't need to find motivation, racing in itself is motivating.
We see your parents and the one life crew along at the races as well as some insight into your life in SA in the 'This is Home' Shimano video. How instrumental have your friends and family been throughout your career?
They've been very instrumental. Without my parents making the sacrifice that they made to get me into Europe at a young age, it would never have happened. They helped me get over when I was 16/17. I knew at that point the tracks I was used to racing in South Africa weren't sufficient enough and I really needed to learn to ride roots and rocks which we just didn't have. My friends are so supportive in so many ways, they've been out to quite a few races, coming from South Africa is a long way and it's really expensive, so I do appreciate the guys coming out to support me as much as they do and it means a lot to me. When I'm at home I spend a lot of time hanging with my friends, they're not all into bikes, they don't all ride, they do enjoy watching it and have become big fans of mountain biking. It's a good crew, I think half the separation I have from the sport that has given me longevity is hanging out with guys that aren't really into mountain biking. They do love watching the racing, they sit down for every race we have, support, cheer, and drink... I've been fortunate to have really supportive family and friends.
Have there been any key moments when you've had to rely on them? Tough races, injuries...
Yeah, I think you automatically rely on friends and normally you hang around with them because you can automatically rely on them. Maybe it's the part when you're not feeling as confident as you should be or are feeling a bit down there's is always someone there. I can't think of a time that I have but I'm sure there's been many times where they've been supportive without me actually knowing and that's what family are for. I've got a big network of friends at home, the whole one life crew, yeah it's a good bunch!
You've experienced the sport's evolution into what it is today, what do you make of its current direction?
We are a point now and who knows where it is going to go. It was kind of like this some years back. We've had steps of progression, suspension has improved a hell of a lot, the frame and the design, all the components have just improved. There's all this talk about the tracks not being technical enough and this and that, but yeah we ride these tracks like Fort William that have been around for years... Go to a section that's technical, the bikes handle better, rides better, you can ride it faster, the suspension, I remember my suspension used to be really slow and soft... now it's really hard and fast and it's just completely different. You ride Fort William, suddenly you're going through a left-hand corner that drops away over some rocks, no matter what year you rode it, it was hard. No matter how they taped it, it was always just as hard. Now you're really carrying so much speed off it you aren't just rolling down the rocks you're dropping off them, so now you've got to slow up to get back side... In the late 2000s even 04/05 I remember going through that corner and it was tricky, now it's tricky because you're going so fast around it that when you drop off you drop off too far. That's solely due to bikes, tires, components, it's still a technical corner... I think people are a bit dramatic when they say that downhill tracks aren't as technical as they used to be. I think we just ride a faster line because we can ride it, we can hold the camber better, we can let off the brakes sooner and just rail out the corner, the bikes just track better. Things have changed a lot, we're just riding a higher pace. I think no matter how technical they make a course it's just going to be a lot quicker nowadays.
A lot of people slate places like Leogang, but do you not think it makes sense to go to these bike park venues since such a large portion of the public ride that terrain?
I think Leogang got quite badly slated this year. There were teams complaining about the man-made rock gardens and I don't really have a problem with it as long as the tape marks the direction going into it well and it's not too dangerous. I think it served its purpose of slowing down the course, we saw this year it was a little bit too fast because they were removed. Leogang, it's going to be the same top 10 roughly that is going to be on any other track... So I always see it being a good race, unfortunately, they don't show all the technical bits, you've got some tricky woods and they're quite high speed which makes it hard. There is a bit of high-speed flat stuff in the middle with some jumps. There is some taping that could make it a little better but generally, I think it's a good venue and I think going to a bike park makes sense. If you want to grow the sport then it needs to relate to people who can see it, there's a tonne of people who ride bike parks and then they know there is a World Cup track there then that just advertises the bike park as I'm sure Leogang do. I think there are many reasons why we go there, I think maybe the TV cameras could be in some different sections to show the technical stuff because there is a lot of technical sections but then again they had some stuff this year that the guys just ripped straight through. It was a bit drier so it's going to happen but that same section in the wet is pretty hard to ride.
If you could make a change to the sport what would it be?
I can't think of anything right now... We've made some great changes in the past, we're in a good direction. I think it's showing. It's exciting, I hear from people all the time that they're watching Red Bull TV and how it was such a great race, and you know it's families, it's not just the husband watching it anymore cause he is into bikes, the wife and the kids are as well. That's important as it shows it translates to a bigger audience and that will bring growth within the industry. I think we are on the right track and I don't think we need to make any major changes, just some subtle changes that will improve what we already have.
Would you say there is anything the EWS could learn from the World Cup or vice versa?
I think the EWS is a totally different thing. I'm sure there are things they can learn from each other. I think they can work well together, there is a lot of people at EWS who follow downhill but ride enduro. I think it's a great participation sport and downhill is a great racing sport.
You've already got a few projects going on out of racing, have you got any other plans or projects you want to get involved with?
Yeah, I get into all these projects all the time and I have quite a lot going on. I think it's just natural for me to keep working on things but sometimes I take on too much. I found that coming into the season I really wanted to focus on racing, so I pushed aside a few projects or at least got some guys in place to ease the workload. It seems to have paid off. I want to finish racing strong and I know I don't have too many years left but I do enjoy the other side, I enjoy being involved with businesses so yeah that probably won't stop and I'll still be multitasking for a few years but I definitely need to still be focusing on racing, I love it and it's not going to be here for long so I'm going to give it the best I can until I do retire.
Would you continue to work within the industry after hanging up the helmet?
I love the industry, I've got some stuff I work with outside of the industry. But I do enjoy working within it, it's a great industry and I do see areas of improvement on certain things and I've got a few projects I'm working on right now. I think it's cool, it's a nice industry, I love bikes, I love riding so it makes sense to be involved.
What are you involved with outside of the bike industry right now?
We founded a jewellery company called Misahara sometime ago, together with Rob Roskopp and his wife. Then we develop property that we run in South Africa, developing and leasing property, that's all the out of industry stuff for the moment!
What are your plans for winter as you set your sight on 2018?
I'm going to try and take some time off and be at home, just finishing up my house so I know I've got a bit of work to do there. I need to relax. I've been travelling a lot and with the travelling I do a lot around racing so I end up being overloaded a little bit. I found this year I kind of fatigued towards the end so I want to take some time off and relax a bit, and then start training at the end of November and get ready for the season. If there are any positives that came from the bad finish to the season it has definitely fired me up to get ready for next. I think that our progression to the 29 V10 was good and I mean we had a bike that was really good this year and I think that it showed, I think we'll make some refinements to it and I'm pretty excited about that. Just perfecting some things, we had some mechanical issues that I think we will be on top of and that just takes some time. I'm looking forward to the season, I think 2018 will be good. We had a great time this year, the whole team dynamic has been good. Every winter I look back on the season and try to adjust a few things, so I'm sure I'll change things up a little. Even when we stop racing we still have all these events, I have a couple things back at home, some charity events, then it's fully relaxed... Whip out the surfboard get some surfing in before getting ready for next season.