Southern comfort | AspenTimes.com

Southern comfort

Jon Maletz

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

Greg Minnaar let it all go.He exploded out of the starting gate in Sunday’s NORBA National Mountain Bike Series pro men’s downhill final at the Snowmass Ski Area. For 2.6 miles and 2,500 vertical feet, the South African tore down wide-open ski runs and meticulously – but occasionally recklessly – carved his way through narrow, tree-lined chutes. Taking chances was the only way he would make the podium, Minnaar said.The risks paid dividends. Minnaar, who reached speeds in excess of 35 mph on the Banzai Downhill course’s final stretch, crossed the finish line in 2 minutes, 24.5 seconds, one-10th of a second ahead of Sam Hill, of Lake Elsinore, Calif. Hill, who led Minnaar by 60 points in the series standings entering Sunday, claimed the series’ overall title. Cody Warren (2:26.5) of Alpine, Calif., finished third, and Finland’s Matti Lehikoinen (2:26.9) took fourth. France’s Sabrina Jonnier (2:48.1), Australia’s Tracey Hannah (2:53) and Longmont’s Lisa Myklak (3:08.4) finished first through third, respectively, in the women’s pro division.”I knew from previous years that I’m not that strong here,” said Minnaar, who also won Friday night’s pro men’s dual slalom. “I really had to let it loose. It’s a great course with super high speed. It got a little scary.”

Minnaar, who was turned on to downhill competition after his parents bought a bike shop when he was 12, said he was perplexed by the changing course conditions. Heavy rain Saturday night made the course slick and slow during qualifying. Minnaar, who raced at 10 a.m., posted a 2:39.3 for second place behind Lehikoinen.As temperatures rose, Minnaar and his technicians struggled to decide between dry tires and wet tires, which have rubber spikes to better grip mud. He made the final decision to go with dry tires during his ride up the Coney Glade lift.”I took a guess,” he joked. He guessed right.In drier, more ideal conditions, Minnaar cut nearly 15 seconds off his qualifying time en route to the win – his third of the NORBA season. Minnaar, who also competes on the World Cup circuit, took the downhill crown in Mount Snow, Vt., on June 18 and again in Deer Valley, Utah, on July 8.

While he is hardly a stranger to success – he is the 2003 world champion and a two-time NORBA overall downhill winner – Minnaar finished sixth during his only other trip to Snowmass in the 2004 NORBA Nationals. “I don’t think I’m well-suited for open courses like this,” he said. “I’m more comfortable on courses that are more technical.”Minnaar looked relaxed Sunday, maintaining his speed on the wide upper portions of the course, then showcasing his technical prowess through the Hell’s Kitchen and the Waterfall portions of the course. He had to sweat it out as Lehikoinen – the one rider standing between Minnaar and the title – was the final rider to take the course. Lehikoinen made a minor mistake to open his run and finished 2.4 seconds off Minnaar’s pace.”I wasn’t sure how dry the course was, and I was a bit too careful at the top,” Lehikoinen said. “It sure wasn’t the cleanest run. I would’ve liked to finish in the top three.”

Had one of the pro field’s top racers made another bobble, the tightly bunched standings would’ve been dramatically different. The top five competitors were separated by less than three seconds and only six seconds separated first from 10th.Minnaar is well aware that fortunes in this sport can change in an instant. While he graciously accepted handshakes from his competitors, Minnaar could not help but think about his fall on July 16 in Sonoma, Calif. Had things gone differently that day, Minnaar may have been celebrating a series title Sunday.Minnaar shrugged it off. Things like that happen when you take chances in this sport, he said. There are risks and rewards when you let it all go.Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is jmaletz@aspentimes.com

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