At 40 years of age, Minnaar is a legend among legends

Greg Minnaar was racing for Honda in 2005, as seen here at Angel Fire, New Mexico, where Greg won the World Cup race and the title for the year. Photo by Ryan Cleek


By Steve Thomas

Downhill racing is generally considered to be a sport for young guns, and yet the current world champion, Greg Minnaar, is 40 years old—double the age of many of his rivals.

The 6-foot-2 South African powerhouse has been at the top of the sport for 20 years now and has somehow managed to evolve and thrive along with the rapidly changing extremes and demands of downhill racing.

His first overall World Cup title was scored back in 2001, and his first of four World Championship titles came in 2003. Without fail, Greg has remained a consistent force on the World Cup scene over the last 20 years, and his ongoing reign is something of an enigma.

South African downhill racer Greg Minnaar pulled on his fourth rainbow jersey at the end of 2021, and at 40 years of age, he shows no signs of slowing down.

[Editor’s note: After this article was published in Mountain Bike Action, Greg fractured three vertebrae in his neck at the final World Cup downhill race of the year. He was able to get up and walk his bike down the hill after the crash, then was flown by helicopter to a nearby hospital. He recently told us that he’ll be out of his neck brace in another week and will be back racing again next year.]

Despite the raging pandemic, Minnaar raced and won the Lousa, Portugal, World Cup in the fall of 2020.
Photo by Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool


How did you actually get started in mountain biking, and what pulled you into downhill?

My parents bought a bike shop (in Pietermaritzburg), and that’s what got me into bikes.

What pointed me towards downhill was that I’d grown up riding motocross. It was a natural progression. The speed, and everything else, leaned towards downhill, and that gave me the foundation for it.

You also have a bike shop in Pietermaritzburg?

My father got pretty ill 10 years ago, so that’s when I took the shop over. He’d done enough time there, and it was time for him to enjoy the rest of his life. I just felt that I needed to jump in there and take over. It’s been going well, and it’s been a real learning curve, too.

When you started out in the late ’90s, things in South African mountain biking seemed to be really taking off, with the Cape Epic coming a few years later (which you rode the first edition of). What is the SAF scene like now?

I think the scene is pretty good. COVID has obviously hit the racing scene very hard. We have a strong marathon and stage race scene, which has been really good for the last 10-15 years—really strong.

We have lots of space to ride, so mountain biking is pretty accessible. And with dangerous and horrible roads, it’s more accessible for fitness riding rather than going out on the roads. There’s a lot of “simple riding,” and the enduro and gravity scenes have picked up, too.

In the early days, you were riding road and cross-country. Was it just for training, and do you still ride skinny tires?

I’ve never raced on the road, but I’ve always ridden on the road to train and to make sure that I’m strong for the World Cup season.

Cross-country was something I raced when I was young, although that was not where my talent was. I’m just not built for cross-country racing; I’m just a bit too heavy.

I found that it (XC) just wasn’t a good fit for me, and I really enjoyed downhill. Although downhill didn’t really get the recognition in South Africa, or even globally, back then.

It probably still takes a back seat (behind XC) in most countries when it comes to racing. But, that was my fit, and so I did everything I could to be fitter (by riding road and XC), and I went towards downhill.

In the late ’90s, you took the step of heading to race in the UK for the Animal Orange team. At that time, the UK didn’t have a huge presence on the global downhill scene, apart from the emerging Steve Peat. What was the story there?

I was sponsored by Tioga tires, and so they kind of helped me out. They had a really tight relationship with the Animal Orange team, who were based in Dorset (southern UK).

So, that was my first semi-pro team. I stayed in the UK and raced the National Series and also then raced the World Cup series with them. That was my first stepping stone to elite racing.

Steve Peat’s wife (Adele Croxon) was one of my teammates, and so he was always kind of hanging around. I got to know him, and that’s how we became friends (and then teammates).

Back when you started, many downhillers didn’t train so much, which has changed a lot. Could those riders still cut it today with that approach?

No, I don’t think they could. I think downhill racing now is so close. On some tracks, the top 60 riders are within 15 seconds. If you’re not in your best condition and doing your best performance, you’re going to be nowhere near that.

Back in the early 2000s, you’d win a race by 3, 4 or 5 seconds. It was master class to do that, and it really doesn’t happen too often these days.

You had 2.5 seconds to fifth place in the last round of the 2021 World Cup, so there is no real room to be unprepared or unfit for a World Cup race now.

You’ve always been known for your fitness. What is your training schedule through the year?

My early training going into the season has a lot of running included. I’ll probably run about 30–35 kilometers a week (on and off road). Then I also do about 130–150 kilometers per week on the road bike.

This is followed by three gym sessions a week. That’s kind of my standard training throughout the year.

I lay off the running and do more road miles as we get closer to the season, maybe up to 180 kilometers a week of endurance riding, and also then do intervals. I do standing sprints, rolling sprints, two-minute sprints right down to 30-meter sprints. It’s a variety of things.

If I’m doing sprints, I ride on my own, but if it’s regular road riding, then there are a lot of guys up there (Andorra) into it, and so there are usually five or six of us riding for a couple of hours.

It’s pretty social on the road riding. I always try to adjust my training so that I also get to do the social side as well. It helps, as I find training on my own a bit tough.

I continue through the season with the three gym sessions a week and also add in some technical (off-road) riding, too.

Minnaar took fourth in the Maribor, Slovenia World Cup in August 2021, beating Loci Bruni by less than a tenth of a second.
Photo by Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool


Has that training evolved as the nature of racing has changed and also with getting older?

I haven’t really changed anything towards having more recovery time, only towards the training that’s needed for the racing at the moment.

I don’t feel that my body needs any more recovery time than in the past. Maybe I need more time to get through the day, as there’s a lot more stuff going on now (business, media etc). But, on the physical side, I haven’t noticed a change.

What is your routine when going into a major race?

If it’s a Sunday race, we normally walk the track on Thursday. That first day is when I need to know exactly where the track is and where I’m going. That’s the day when I need to get up to speed and try different lines to make sure I’m on pace.

I will fine-tune just before qualifiers on Friday. I’ll probably make another adjustment (to lines, etc.) after the qualifiers and then walk the track again to be 100 percent on where I’m going, to see where the lines are going, and to adjust them if there are better lines. I’ll see if I lost time in the qualifiers and find where I need to adjust things to make it up.

That brings us up to Sunday morning practice. I’ll test it all out with two runs before the race. I do a lot of mental work with going through the track, knowing every rock and root. It’s doing these mentally, which I’ve always done, that kind of gets me ready.

Do you do any kind of specific mental training exercises?

For me, I get so nervous before a race. I know exactly where I can push the limits and boundaries in certain sections. I don’t do anything specific or special to get into the right frame of mind.

As I’m gearing up, I think my mind adapts and my body adapts to know that I‘m coming into this to do the best that I can.

How much attention do you pay to younger riders and the way they approach things?

I definitely watch the younger guys, and I do pay attention to what they’re doing differently. I might not always concur, but I definitely watch what they do.

They are the new generation, riders who’ve grown up riding downhill bikes a lot longer than I had when I started. They come in with a different view of racing and reading and riding the track, so I do pay a lot of attention to that.

Minnaar’s “eyes-forward” head position (shown here at Vallnord, Andorra, in 2017) has been his trademark style for over 20 years.
Photo by Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool


When you do watch the younger riders, are there any that stand out in the way they ride?

Yeah, I think Loris Vergier definitely pushes the line. He’s got some really creative lines, and I love the way he carries speed through the sections.

Loic Bruni definitely has a strong head, and when things come down to the line, he’s definitely a tough one to beat.

Those two Frenchies are the two standout riders for me. They do something really special. And then there are the wild men, like Amaury Pierron.

When you look back at the legends you’ve raced with over the years, who really stands out to you?

I think Nico (Vouilloz). Nico had a broader class about him. He wasn’t called ET for nothing. He was definitely a tough competitor and had a different dynamic from everyone else during that era. He’s very much the standout rider.

Nico has been riding EWS and e-bikes lately. Do you have different racing or other plans ahead?

I haven’t really planned anything yet. Who knows where the e-bike category and space will go?

I’m enjoying racing downhill, and I’m getting on, so who knows what the next phase is. Maybe it will be something with mountain bikes, maybe something within the industry.

I’m not going to cross that path for a couple more years yet. I’ll see what happens and then plan it out.

Do you think that you’ve slowed down at all over time, or that your opportunities to win have diminished at all?

I don’t think I’d be racing if I weren’t willing to push myself to be in the mix. I’ve had a pretty good World Cup season, barring one or two races where I had bad luck. I think I’ve had a pretty good year. It wasn’t like just one standout race; I’ve been in the mix throughout the season.

I don’t feel that’s going to change for the next couple of years. If I did, I’d probably stop racing. I don’t want to be riding just to fill spaces, to be on the start line. I want to race because I can win. When that doesn’t happen, I’ll definitely call it a day.

You seem to have a particular liking for the Fort William track. What is a Greg Minnaar kind of track?

That’s hard to say. I always thought that tracks like Fort William were more my style and that was it.

Then, on the opposite spectrum of tracks is Val di Sole, and I just won on that. It’s one of the steepest and most technical tracks you can race on. I like to see myself as a well-rounded rider who can perform on most tracks.

Last year (2021), I think, has shown that I can compete on the most technical tracks, so I’d like to be a rounded rider who can challenge on whatever track or conditions are thrown at us.

Some of the downhill tracks are super scary to watch. Do you still get the same enjoyment out of racing them as you did years ago?

Oh yeah. Although the tracks seem quite technical and crazy, I do really enjoy that. It’s great to see them in the sport.

Minnaar thrilled his hometown fans at this World Cup race in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, in April 2014.
Photo by Sven Martin/Red Bull Content Pool


Cross-country became an Olympic sport when you were staring out. Downhill was somewhat overlooked there. What are your thoughts on the status of downhill racing?

I don’t know. I don’t think downhill is for the Olympics, or I don’t think it’s the be all, end all of it. I don’t think it has done anything great for BMX. If anything, I think I’ve seen BMX die down after the Olympics, and I’d hate to see that happen to downhill.

I think it’s obviously played second fiddle to cross-country and endurance sports for a while, and you still see that now. If there’s an Olympic year, there’s not any fewer cross-country races; there are the regular races and the Olympics, whereas downhill is just the same every year. It definitely plays second fiddle.

In terms of viewers and the way the industry sees it, I think it’s a fair space, and it holds its own. You can see that with the sales of enduro bikes.

Going back to the Olympics, I don’t know if it’s made for it or not. I think it would be pretty tough to have a downhill track in the Olympics. I don’t know if you’d see more federations taking over and ruining the core of things, as they did with BMX.

I don’t know. It wouldn’t really bother me if it went or it didn’t (go to the Olympics). I think we’ve done a really good job with the space it’s in now. I think it’s a good and thriving environment.

How particular and hands-on are you with your race bikes?

For me, it’s mainly brakes. I like my brakes to have a certain feel to them, and it’s really hard to do that. My poor mechanic has to constantly keep on the brakes so that they have that right feel.

I really have to think about that, as it gives me confidence on the bike. When I know where my brakes are pulling in, I know that I can lay off them more.

You’ve just won your fourth world championship and seem to have an affinity for the rainbow jersey, something many top riders never manage to wear.

I’ve always battled at world champs. I say that, but I’ve only won four. Nico (Vouilloz) was obviously a lot stronger at that. I think over my career I’ve probably always been more consistent and stronger overall because of my World Cup wins.

I don’t particularly elevate myself towards it (world champs), because it’s just another race to be honest, and I approach it the same. There’s nothing different to my routine or anything else for it.

What is your all-time favorite race or course?

Fort William has just been great for me. I’ve had a lot of friends come and visit (when there). I think with starting my career in the UK, it’s like home and is definitely a course I enjoy.

You winning the 2021 World Championship was a surprise to some. How does it rank among your other titles?

I enjoyed this one a lot more. The challenge of actually getting down this track was pretty tough, so to beat the track, to beat the other riders and to win another world championship, it was incredible. It would be my favorite win.

When I won in 2003, I was young. I always felt that a world championship would be an easier thing to accomplish. I remember thinking that it would be easier to win a world championship than a World Cup (overall), but I won the World Cup first, which surprised me.

It took me a couple of years more to win the world champs, which also surprised me, but I don’t think anything compares to the last one. 

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