By Rob Jones in Pietermaritzburg
The opening round of the 2009 Nissan UCI Mountain Bike World Cup concluded on Sunday with a storybook ending that couldn't have been scripted any better, as local hero Greg Minnaar (Santa Cruz Syndicate) won the downhill in front of family and friends in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.
"It is a huge, huge win for me," said Minnaar, who lives less than a mile from the downhill track. "With my family here, and all the people supporting and cheering for me it was very special to win here. In some ways it was nice that Mick [Hannah] qualified first, because that took a little pressure off. My run was very good, quite clean, with only little mistakes. I'm very happy that I was able to get this win and keep the [World Cup] leader's jersey."
The three-kilometre course favoured fitness as much as technical prowess, with long sections of pedalling interspersed with sharp drop-offs and jumps. Spectators came out in droves to cheer on Minnaar, pushing total attendance beyond 16,000, which far exceeded organizer's expectations.
The men's race was expected to be a real battle, and that is what happened. In qualifying, the top 10 riders went under four minutes, but in the final there were 28 who cracked that barrier.
When it was Minnaar's turn to race, he rode so smoothly he appeared almost effortless. He sailed over the jumps and pedaled furiously through the flatter sections. The noise from the partisan crowd was almost deafening, and when Minnaar crossed the finish line, knocking almost six seconds off his teammate Steve Peat's time, the cheers could be heard back up to the start line.
However there was still one rider to go - top qualifier Australian Mick Hannah (GT Bicycles). The spectators were quiet as Hannah came past, respectful of his skill, but quietly hoping for a South African victory. Their hopes were answered when Hannah posted a time of 3:45.69 - fast enough for second, but not fast enough to displace Minnaar.
Mick Hannah stunned the world's best when he posted the fastest time in downhill qualifying. The 25-year-old Australian, racing for Team GT, was ranked 103rd in the world going into the weekend's racing.
"I was a little surprised with my result but it feels good to come out in my first big race in more than a year and beat all the world's top riders," smiled Hannah, who won the Australian championships in January in his first competitive outing after taking a racing sabbatical in 2008.
"This course requires a good balance of skill and fitness and yeah, it's quite pedally in the middle. But this is bicycle racing, so pedalling is part of the deal," added Hannah.
A year off for the former World No. 1 had resulted in him dropping outside the top 100 in the world rankings.
See Cyclingnews' full coverage of the elite men's downhill at the UCI World Cup in South Africa.