Greg Minnaar recently left the Santa Cruz Syndicate team after a glittering 16 years of success, and the worst-kept secret in downhill mountain biking was confirmed as the GOAT announced his move to the Norco Downhill Race Team for the 2024 season. So that's that the end of story, we can all relax and look forward to the first downhill race of the season at Fort William in May with the knowledge Minnaar will be throwing his leg over a bike for at least one more year of racing. Or is it...?
I was lucky enough to sit down on a chat with Greg Minnaar, hosted by Ric McLaughlin, the lead commentator at Warner Bros. Discovery+ for the UCI Mountain Bike World Series. Minnaar divulged a lot more behind his move to Norco. He revealed how it came about, and more about his more than just racing role, as the South African legend plans for his mountain biking future when the curtain finally comes down on his peerless racing career.
First up was the question on everyone's lips, just how did the Norco move come about?
It's quite funny really, almost by accident, a good friend of mine had moved from Oakley to Norco, and we had worked together at Oakley for quite some time. She was the Vice President of Marketing there, went on to some other brands and then ended up with Norco. She's fairly new to the mountain bike industry, and she came to me to bounce a few ideas off me and around the same time I left Syndicate, so I was like, I need to look for a team. She said come and chat with us, and at first, I felt it's not a brand that I knew. She went on to tell me about the engineering team and my goodness, it's incredible, I was blown away. Normally we lose the best mountain bike engineers to big industries like the motor industry, but at Norco it's in reverse they have guys that all come from the motor industry, the lead engineer David Cox comes from McLaren automotive and they also have Adrian Ward, who's been in Formula One for seven years. I mean, these are guys who know what they're doing, and it was super impressive.
Not only that, they've got a separate suspension section at Norco where they develop and play around a lot with suspension. I've never seen that before, an in-house suspension setup, that's incredible. So as soon as I got to learn a little bit more about Norco and what they've built over the last three or so years, I was sold on it.
When I met Sean Sullivan, the CEO at Norco there was no pressure to race he just said, you stop racing when you feel like you want to stop, we want you to be the team director, we want your knowledge, and you to focus on building the best downhill team in the world with the fastest bike, it's a team that is setting up for the future, and rider development is part of my role too. So that was one of the main selling points. I want to have a World Cup-winning team, I want to be a part of building that. Whether it's 2024 with myself as a racer or if it's in 2025 and beyond, when we've got other racers, maybe replacing me, that's the goal and that's what we're going to aim for.
This feels like it's a much bigger project than simply joining another race team. Can you tell us more about the other roles and responsibilities you'll be taking on?
I'll be directing the team and that is very cool. I feel like I've got years of experience, and with Norco's whole culture of performance, our worlds have collided. I felt like this was a really good way to set up and structure a team, not only for myself to race my final years but also for the next generation. We've got Gracey Hemstreet and Lucas Cruz coming up and giving them an incredible platform to race off, I think will be great. Using my experience and pushing the boundaries on how far we can support the riders from the trackside to the technical aspect of team structure.
When I finish racing, I'll continue to direct the team. I think when you're a competitive person and you stop competing, you need something that's going to help you drive forward. That will spill over into trying to help this team squeeze every drop out, we've got some young talent coming through, and I'll be working with the Norco Young Talent program, helping develop these young riders and mentor them, so that was something that tempted me here as well, it feels like a logical next step in my career.
I haven't been involved in supporting riders and trying to structure something, I've only ever been a racer, with all these years of experience, it's time to give back. You get a new level of excitement, and feel fulfilled when you can help someone. In all my years of racing, I haven't had an opportunity to do that, so getting into World Cup racing with Norco and passing down experiences is going to be a new challenge for me, but it feels like a project that has landed well and lit a fire underneath me.
So what were your first impressions of your new Norco race bike?
Norco hasn't quite named it yet, it's still just a downhill prototype for now. There is one sitting downstairs in my garage and I love it. What is so impressive to me and unique in this race bike, is that every part of this bike can be adjusted, without affecting any other part of the bike. Everything is adjustable independently. So if I want to adjust where the idler sits, I can move that into four different positions. If I want to change the suspension to have a more linear or more progressive setup, I can do that without affecting the bottom bracket height or the head angle. Just solely focus on independent adjustment, which is cool for me as a racer. When I heard about that, I thought this bike was going to be pretty easy to fit because anything I don't like, I can completely adjust and leave everything else, that is unique for me. I don't know many bikes you can adjust the head angle and not affect any other part of the bike. Usually there is a compromise.
I go back to the engineering team and the race department, these guys set this bike up as close as they could to suit me. So on the first day of testing, within five runs, I was doing great times. It normally takes me a bit of time to set up a bike, for example, in terms of handlebars. I always have a preference for my brake lever angle and it can sometimes be quite tricky to set up. We got to the end of the test and my mechanic was like you didn't adjust your bars once. The bike is a lot shorter than any bike I've ridden, so I was concerned about that. The bottom bracket to the head tube is slightly shorter than what I raced in 2023, so that allows me to stand taller rather than be stretched, and that's kind of what I've been looking for.
What about parts, are you now working with different brands?
So one of the things I had to do was see where we needed to go suspension-wise. I've been testing RockShox, but Fox is what I've ridden for a long time. Suspension dictates quite a lot about what components we use, brakes and drive chain you're going to use. It's interesting because I've spent quite a long time on one set of products. It's been cool to try the other stuff. Both suspension setups work well, but for me, the handling on the Fox setup was the deciding factor. I find it nimble, being able to turn the bike easily, definitely makes a big difference.
When I first chatted to Sean I asked him what equipment was going to be on this bike because if it's something I don't like or want to be on, it's going to be hard to race fast on it. His reply to me was, 'you choose what you feel is going to make the fastest bike. We want the fastest bike, you pick and choose, we're not going to align ourselves with anyone. It's all up to you.' I thought, this guy was serious about wanting to win races and build his team.
The first race of the season is at Fort William, a track you've won at no fewer than seven times. You're turning up this year on a new bike, a new team, different role. How big and how different a race is that going to be for you?
Yeah, I'm excited for it. The crowd in Scotland are always amazing and supportive, but the last time I went to Fort William on a new bike was probably 2004 with Honda. That was just a funny time, I'd signed to this big brand and we had to focus on the American National series. I went to Fort William and won on this new bike and then had to go race the rest of the American National series and that felt like a missed opportunity, I think I could have had a good run at the World Cup that year.
That's what came to mind when I seen the schedule, and thought yes, we are starting the season back at Fort William. I feel like this bike's working for me and that we have something really special going, these guys are serious about not only racing but building quality bikes.
I'm excited to get racing, Fort William can't come quick enough, I have to lose a bit of weight, the off-season is tough at 42 years old. With this bike I think I can win on it, so the fire that was lit, this bike has thrown some petrol on it because it got me going, it's motivated me, I'm ready to race.
The interview ended on that exciting statement and I can’t wait to be at Fort William to see Minnaar in action again. We thank Greg very much for his time, and of course wish him all the best for the 2024 season and beyond. You can see how he gets on with his new Norco team in Scotland on the first weekend of May. All the details for the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup season can be found at ucimtbworldseries.com.