South African downhill star Andrew Neethling made big strides in the UCI MTB World Cup in 2011, including claiming a first ever podium finish at Windham in the USA. He's looking to up the ante in 2012, starting at the UCI MTB World Cup Pietermaritzburg this weekend, March 17-18.
Last year's stop in Pietermaritzburg ended in disappointment for Neethling - he showed good form by qualifying in tenth place for the final, but suffered a fall high up on the course in the race itself, which took him out of contention. He's looking forward to a better result this time around.
"The home support is awesome," he said. "Even though the race didn't go my way last year, it was an awesome experience having so many people come up to you and wish you luck.
"The crowd support is insane and not just for the local riders," he said, echoing a commonly held opinion among the top riders that the Pietermaritzburg crowd is one of the best to be found anywhere.
After the disappointment of crashing out on home soil in the season-opener, the Giant rider lifted his game and went on to finish the World Cup season in 15th place overall. He also won the South African Downhill National Championships and captured the Jeep Air downhill title at Crankworx Whistler in Canada.
"It is tough not to be very pleased with how the year went. I learnt so much and had a great time with the team," he said, looking back on 2011. His goals for 2012 are similar to last year and he wants to end the season ranked inside the top 10. "I want to be consistent and push for podiums and wins all year long."
That push will begin on the Cascades MTB Downhill course and Neethling is raring to go. "I feel training has gone really well," he said about his preparation for the new season. "I put some serious and strict training in to be ready for this year. It has flown by though. I can't believe we are going racing again. It feels like yesterday that I was racing at Worlds. I think it is great to have a round of the World Cup series in South Africa. It is a fun course and exciting course to ride, but tough to race with the pedalling section. The course builders and (designer) Nigel Hicks do a great job," he said.
Giant is one of the biggest names in the sport and Neethling understands the privileged position he is in as a pro rider on the team. "It means so much that a big company and team like Giant is behind me," he said.
"I really am working with a great bunch of people. We have huge support at the races this year. I could not have asked for a better bunch of guys."
His teammates include Danny Hart, who blitzed the field in wet conditions to be crowned 2011 World Champion at Champéry, Switzerland. That's something that helps Neethling on a number of levels. "At the end of the day, I want to perform to the best of my abilities as often as I can. I guess there will be some more attention on him (Hart), so I can get on with my job at hand. He is a youngster that has now achieved some crazy things in the sport," said Neethling.
"The guy likes to go fast and it keeps me on my toes and pushes me, which is cool. Things are still new to him, so it can help keep it fresh for me."
Stay tuned to Cyclingnews for full coverage of the UCI Mountain Bike Cup round #1 in Pietermaritzburg.