Andrew Neethling got his 2011 season off to an early good start with a win at the South African downhill national championships and the African continental downhill championships. The victories gave the 26-year-old South African a boost as he kicks off his season with his new squad, the Giant Factory Off-Road Team.
"Everything is different this year," said Neethling to Cyclingnews. "I'm excited about the year and the team. It feels good."
It was the third time Neethling won the South African Championships - the first was as a junior and he won the elite race for the first time in 2007. It's an event he doesn't always make - it's a long journey back home at a time of year that many World Cup racers still consider too early for racing.
"It's always good to get a win at the (national) championships. I don't get to do that race much. There's quite a lot of pressure - you wouldn't think it, but you're expected to win when you come back."
The international downhill season will get going in earnest at the triple World Cup in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa on April 23. The World Cup is returning to the venue after a one-year hiatus.
For Neethling, it's a rare chance to race against the world's best on home soil. He lives not too far away in Somerset West, about 30 minutes from Cape Town.
"It's great to have a World Cup at home, and especially the first race of the season. We've got a good mixture of courses on the circuit this year."
Neethling has been working hard to get himself ready for that World Cup opener. "I'm trying to be ready earlier because Pietermaritzburg is a physical track earlier in the year." Physical tracks mean more pedalling.
While he was at home recently, Neethling got a glimpse of the World Cup downhill track. "I did a couple of runs on the new track one day. It's a similar layout to the previous World Cup. There are some spectacular jumps in the course. There's not much drop in the middle of the course, between where the nice stuff was and where the finish has to be, but they are doing a lot of good work on it."
Neethling is the only new downhill rider on the Giant Factory Team this year. He'll race with returning team members Duncan Riffle and Danny Hart.
"It's nice to have three riders out there, and I think we'll be able to help each other. Duncan and I are on the maturer side and we can help Danny with things he hasn't seen yet or thought about, but he's on the young side and is very enthusiastic and skilled. I think it will keep us on our toes."
Neethling logged his best-ever World Cup finish, a fourth place podium spot at the Val di Sole round in Italy in July of last year. He was 16th overall in the World Cup standings.
"Val di Sole was my first World Cup podium. It was an amazing day. It's good to get the monkey off your back."
In 2011, Neethling is hoping for more consistent top results. "I have similar goals for this year," said Neethling. "Having done the podium once was great, but I want to be a contender for each round, a threat. I want to be deep inside the top 10, week in and week out. I need to be consistent and avoid injuries and crashes."
In particular he's looking forward to the World Cup in Windham. "It'll be nice to come back and race in America. We need more of that."
As Neethling and his fellow South Africans cross country racer Burry Stander and fellow downhiller Greg Minnaar have worked their way up the international rankings, mountain biking has seemed to increase in popularity in South Africa.
"Definitely on the cross country and marathon side, the scene is really growing and popular. The downhill side is more of a niche market," said Neethling. "The promoters are trying to grow the downhill, but it won't be as big as the cross country side. In general, however, the sport is growing."
"Guys who never used to ride mountain bikes will call me up and ask me if I want to ride. It's because the popularity has taken off. Why? It's an awesome sport. It's good for fitness and it's exciting. What's come along with the success of the top riders is an improved overall level of racing."
Neethling heads next to the US Pro GRT in Washington and then to the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, California. He'll also be aiming to defend his title at the US Open of Mountain Biking in New Jersey - a race he won last year. Crankworx Whistler and the Race for Tara are two other highlights on his calendar.
Thinking ahead to the major international races, Neethling said, "I just want to get this season underway."