By Bardy the Action Scribe

Greg Minnaar, South Africa’s most successful mountain bike racer ever, made a triumphant return to competition at the weekend after a long injury layoff to capture the 2008 Mazda MTN South African Downhill Mountain Bike Championships title.

A slightly stiff-shouldered Minnaar, who races for the US-based Santa Cruz Syndicate team, lacked some of his usual fluidity, but was certainly not lacking any speed or class as he completed two virtually identical runs down the tricky 2.9km plunge through the forest at Cascades on the western slopes of his hometown, Pietermaritzburg.

The 26-year-old Minnaar underwent major surgery to repair a troublesome shoulder, which he broke during a crash at the world championships in Scotland last October. The national championships event on Sunday was his first real taste of competition after having been back on the bike for only three weeks.

On his first run in wet conditions, Minnaar clocked a fast 4min38.76sec to give him a substantial cushion over his rivals going into the second run. Only defending national champion, Andrew Neethling (Mongoose) was able to join Minnaar in breaking five minutes in the first round with a time of 04:51.34.

Wind and sunshine ensured the course dried out substantially for the second round and Neethling’s second run of 04:41.03 was almost 10 seconds quicker than his first, bringing him close to Minnaar’s time and confirming his world-class pedigree. But Minnaar, a two-time World Cup winner and the 2003 world champion, was a model of consistency, clocking a fractionally quicker 04:38.09 to secure his first South African title since 2002 when he lasted contested it.

“To be honest, it was quite a relief to win today,” smiled Minnaar. “I’m always expected to win in South Africa and when I’m home, I’m not super focused on racing so went into the race a bit under-prepared. But it all worked out okay and my shoulder never bothered me at all, although I was a bit stiff from practising in the mud on Saturday.”

Neethling’s younger brother, Jonty, was significantly quicker on his second run, clocking a rapid 04:51.51 which was good enough to give him the bronze medal in one of the highest quality downhill fields ever assembled at a South African national championships.

In the Elite women’s event, Gina Nixon made a big improvement over her first run of 07:04.96 with a second run of 06:42.13 to give her the gold medal by a slim margin over Victoria Phillips, whose 06:43.04 was less than a second slower. Rika Oliver just completed one run to secure third place.

2008 Mazda MTN South African Downhill Mountain Bike Championships
Cascades, Pietermaritzburg
Leading Results:
1 Greg Minnaar (Santa Cruz Syndicate) 04min38.09sec
2 Andrew Neethling (Mongoose) 04:41.03
3 Jonty Neethling (Morewood) 04:51.51
4 Johann Potgieter (Cannondale) 04:55.83
5 Wesley Augustyn (Mongoose) 05:00.65
6 Chris Nixon (Cannondale) 05:03.62
7 Travis Browning (Morewood) 05:03.65
8 Greg Saharin (Giant) 05:09.12
9 Andrew Guess 05:10.04
10 Dirk van Schalkwyk 05:10.39

Elite Men
1 Greg Minnaar (Santa Cruz Syndicate) 04min38.09sec
2 Andrew Neethling (Mongoose) 04:41.03
3 Jonty Neethling (Morewood) 04:51.51

Elite Women
1 Gina Nixon 06:42.13
2 Victoria Phillips 06:43.04
3 Rika Olivier 06:58.83

Junior Men
1 Hayden Brown 05:10.39
2 Pierre van der Merwe 05:12.08
3 Ryno Fourie 05:22.58

Youth Men
1 Timothy Bentley 05:11.12
2 Kenneth Sinclair 05:32.13
3 Andries van Schalkwyk 05:33.29

Sub-Junior Boys
1 Tiaan Odendaal 05:24.94
2 Sven Pottow 06:13.75
3 Kyle Davids 06:34.01

Sprog Boys
1 Alan Hatherly 06:11.40
2 Christopher Rigby 07:12.86
3 Luke Evans 07:40.04

Sport Men
1 Devin Perry 05:57.79
2 Marnus Swanepoel 06:18.77
3 Matthew English 06:24.19

Sub-veteran Men
1 Myles Kelsey 05:17.38
2 Leon Pieters 05:51.68
3 Norman Hatherly 05:58.04

Veteran Men
1 Chris Nixon 05:03.62
2 Kim Phillips 05:49.47
3 Don Duffy 06:27.98