This past Saturday was a testing one for friends, family, pets and neighbours. Ordinarily mild-mannered mountain bikers across the country exploded from their sofas, rising into postures of fist-pumping delight, crowing with approval, as Greg Minnaar cemented another victory to the foundation of a legacy which will never be equalled.
Minnaar’s riding at the Swiss round of this year’s UCI Downhill World Cup was typical: a masterclass in impeccable risk management and almost imperceptible speed. The great South African’s size (1.93m) creates a definite optical illusion, masking his pace on course. Smaller competitors appear quicker, but when the times are collated, Minnaar is inevitably faster.
There is but one man who is Minnaar’s true rival, American Aaron Gwin. Believed to be possibly the fastest downhill racer currently rolling up to the start gate of UCI DH events, Gwin’s the complete antithesis to Minnaar: unpopular, unconcerned with his image and nuggety in proportion to Greg’s tallness.
Although both graduated to DH racing from the world of motocross, their styles are hugely different: Minnaar’s graceful, Gwin is brutal. On Saturday, the American appeared to be brutalizing the Lenzerheide track to a victory that would be well clear of Minnaar’s leading time; Gwin was 1.5 seconds ahead with the finish-line in sight, when his rear tyre failed. Spectacularly.
Gwin eventually limped home in 51st place, a flailing Flat Tire Defender foam tube testament to what could have been. In his post-race interview, Minnaar admitted that Gwin’s run was by far the weekend’s quickest, but there’s a tremendous difference between what could have, and should have, been the result.
Racing is risk management
During Friday’s qualifying, Minnaar managed to destroy the spokes on his rear wheel after misjudging a landing zone, descending onto – instead of clearing - some rocks. During Saturday’s race run, he adjusted his strategy, altered lines and finish fastest. On the same course, Gwin made different line choices, one of which destroyed his rear tyre – and tyre failures are not mechanicals, in DH racing, they are rider errors.
If a chain snaps, that’s a retrenched team mechanic. If fork or rear shock fails halfway through a run – that’s one factory suspension technician who’s never going to a UCI DH race ever again. Bar or stem failure? Almost irreparable consumer confidence damage for the brand involved.
Tyres are different. The contact patch is every rider’s own to manage, place and manipulate. It’s risk versus reward and unless the entire field flats in a race, tyre failures must be classed as individual rider responsibility. At this time, it would appear that available tyre technology simply isn’t commensurate to the lines choices Aaron Gwin is capable of taking, but understanding the limits of your equipment in the relation to the terrain you are presented with, is racing: because to finish first, you first have to finish.
Covet no component. Have no excuses
A unique appeal of DH racing is the open formula applied to component choices and bike configuration. Riders can never table the excuse of being denied access to a specific component, gifting unfair advantage to a competitor. The option of changing sponsors or ‘stealthing’ a rival component for own use is always an option. Nor is there a series tyre sponsor, limiting all riders to roll the same rubber.
Gwin might be riding his own signature series of tyres, but off-season testing and the 11/10ths reality of his race runs are proving to be two very diverse realities. Amongst the most committed riders regarding his strength training, Gwin has the physiological ability to hold on when others are flailing, pinballing off technical features, and the resolve to take monumental risks.
The American is boundlessly spectacular to watch, but there’s a difference between creating a remarkable video segment and winning races. It’s a difference Minnaar understands better. Their contrasting styles and gallant quality of their rivalry, is crafting this 2017 season as being one of the most memorable yet. Greg won’t take full credit for a win where Gwin flatted, but the American would never approve of ‘should-have’ sympathy either.
*Stealthing: the act of using a rival component, in possible contravention of your sponsors, and therefore removing all recognisable traces of its graphics and branding
Lenzerheide World Cup Downill Highlights: