The OTB Podcast and Spoke go off track and into the weeds about Minnaar’s move to Norco

You had to go deep into the dark, dank, speculative spaces of mountain bike internet rumour forums to have any inkling that Greg Minnaar, the most successful downhill mountain biker of all time, was leaving the Santa Cruz Syndicate, a team that he’d become synonymous with over 16 years. Those reading the tea leaves and digging through the innuendo by the dim gaslight of online team chats might have seen something about a three-year deal with Norco, but it’s fair to say the news sideswiped most casual observers.

With the help of Norco Bicycles and Advance Traders, Spoke Magazine teamed up with the OTB Podcast to record a New Zealand exclusive interview with the 23-time World Cup winner.

Kieran Bennett and James Rennie sat down the GOAT to chat about how the deal came about, what the next few years look like, and of course, they reminisce about the G-Cross Honda Team, his epic battles with Sam Hill, and the greatest era of downhill racing.

Read the transcript below or listen to the full interview on the OTB Podcast.

Kieran: I think the internet broke when the news dropped that you were leaving Santa Cruz after 16 years. How did the new Norco deal come about?

Greg: It was a bit of a surprise to me too. I was very fortunate really.

It’s basically based on relationships, right? I had a longtime friend who had moved from Oakley, Gwen van Lingen, the VP of marketing at Oakley for many years internationally, and she had now moved into the bike industry.

We’ve always been good friends and I was bouncing some stuff off her, and she said: “Why don’t you come and join Norco and we’ll make a celebration out of it.” I thought, “I don’t know too much about Norco to be honest.”

We got chatting and she introduced me to this group of six engineers. It’s incredible because Norco’s engineers are one of the best kept secrets of mountain biking. We often lose some of the best engineers to the motor industry, but somehow Norco has a pile of guys who’ve come from the motoring industry. You’ve got David Cox, who leads engineering, and he comes from McLaren Automotive—I mean that’s pretty impressive. Then there’s Adrian Ward, who spent seven years with McLaren F1. They operate out of a full time suspension development in house run by Colin Ryan. They’ve got tonnes of data and telemetry of all different bikes. How did I not know about this?

Surely you would have thought the same, right? I had no idea they had a race department in engineering. They have a test rider who works in engineering, Kirk McDowall, who races at a really high level. He’s going to be racing in the World Cups too. He tests a lot with the guys and gives a lot of great feedback. I had no idea that it was such a stacked team.

Kieran: That’s got to give you some good confidence just knowing that level of team you’ve got there. The fact of the resources you’ve got there, I’m sure you guys will be working pretty closely on really dialling that bike this year.

Greg: In downhill there’s always the compromise in whether you need to drop the bottom bracket and if you do, you’re going to have a slacker head angle; if you’re going to make the shock more progressive, you’re going to steepen up the head angle. Whereas, on the Norco prototype bike everything is isolated. So, if you want to adjust the shock rate and make the bike more linear or more progressive, you can do that without adjusting anything else on the bike. If you want the head angle a degree or half a degree slacker or steeper, you can isolate it to just the head angle.

These guys have thought really hard about making this bike and have come up with a great race bike. So that gives me confidence to know that, if I’m going to get on this bike and race, that I don’t need to go and test it because I can manipulate it to make it work for me. That’s something really special in downhill. I don’t know many bikes that can do that.

Kieran: That must be a good thing going into the race season, because you’re not testing to find a couple of sweet spots, you’ve got all this range of adjustment so you can get the bike close and then you can easily dial in the small things later on.

Greg: These guys bring in this high level of motorsport that we don’t really see in mountain bikes. I went to go test this bike and they’d already dialled in the suspension to the right range, so we’re not trying to set up the suspension, we’re just fine tuning it. It makes the bike a lot easier to ride. There’s a lot of adjustment everywhere, but these guys were so prepared that they’d set this bike up to what they felt would be a good starting point. Within five runs I felt super comfortable, and I was doing decent times. It was really a good start.

James: Did you ride the bike before signing with Norco?

Greg: I didn’t, no.

Kieran: that is confidence!

Greg: It’s easy when you’ve got a great team of engineers behind you, and they speak about the bike and tell you exactly what it can do. Nowadays the suspension is really good, and you can get away with refining a bike with suspension, but this just takes it to another level. You can absolutely manipulate each part of this bike to make it work. I was fully confident after knowing what this bike can do that I can race and be competitive on it.

Kieran: The narrative had been looking like 2024 was going to be your last season, but do you think you’ve got a bit of a refreshment on a new bike, or some future plans going on? Maybe a little Ricky Carmichael kind of era, to do a few races next season as well?

Greg: 2023 didn’t go well—we had the whole format change, we had a new bike. I really wanted to retire after Fort William—that was my goal. It wasn’t like I felt like I’d win it and then retire, I just wanted a good race, but we were far from that.

I had quite a lot of pressure and stress coming into Fort William. We had a bit of development that we needed to do on bike, and that was being done at a really quick rate, and the guys really did a good job, but when you’re standing in the start gate with 30 seconds to go and your bike only gets passed to you then, you’re not taking off on the right foot. And the race just ended in disaster, with the tyre blowing off and everything else.

I tried to get up through the season, but it just didn’t feel right. I’ve had a great career: I’ve really enjoyed it, I’ve had some great races, some great moments, some really bad moments, but when the stress is so high, you don’t really enjoy it. We had a lot of fun with friends and other riders, but as a race season it was really just more stress than anything else.

So, that just made me think that this is not the way I’d like to retire. I just think I’d have resentment from not doing another year if I did, so I wanted to come back and race World Cups. I felt like I had good pace but just a lot of bad luck and a lack of momentum through the season.

Kieran: You’ve had a lot of years constant format and that was a big change, so I can see how it would make a big difference.

Greg: It was hard. I thought it would really suit my style—consistent, just chip away at the points, and just be up there every qualifying, semifinal and final. But when you get to that final and your weekend should be done, and you’ve got to do up again and do another final … you’re absolutely spent by the end of it.

Kieran: Are there any long-term plans with Norco post-retirement? Do you have any coaching, mentor, Steve Peat-type role?

Greg: I’m definitely going to be racing in 2024, but my main role is to set up and guide the team. We want to really level up and try and be a team that pushes the boundary of race support, from track side assistance, to the engineering—to really support the rider at another level. So, from an engineering-side, to trackside assistance, to being in the pits, I want to take absolutely take everything off the rider and let the rider just focus on racing.

We’re working on different things to break down sectors to find out where riders can make time or lose time. You know, as a racer, you can be two seconds down in a sector and you can look at the sector and there’s 10 or 12 corners. And you’re like, how do I find these two seconds? Which corner was it, was it one or was it 12? You can end up looking in completely the wrong place and suddenly you lack confidence thinking you’re on the wrong line. In the meantime, it was maybe just dabbing a little too much brakes on a corner that you didn’t realise you had to carry so much speed on.

Trying to really work hard at figuring out where riders are losing time on track and where they can get support is super important. There are definitely teams out there, like Commencal and Specialized that do a great job of really honing their race support. And that’s exactly where we want to be.

James: We’ve talked about the bike and that frame itself is a big change for you, but there’s been some parts that have been really consistent. Is there anything you’re bringing through to this new deal, maybe even that goes for people as well, like your mechanic?

Greg: That was kind of special too. When I first chatted to Sean Sullivan, the CEO of Norco, I said bikes are one thing, suspension and tyres, what are we using? He said, “What do you want to use? We want to have the fastest team on the best bike. What do you think is best? That’s what we’re going to go with. We’re not going to align ourselves with anyone. Here’s this blank sheet, you go build this best bike.”

It’s a different approach, but I think the culture that’s being driven by Norco is a culture of racing. You can try and have that culture in a team but if it’s not driven from the back-end, it’s really hard to follow through with and I think that’s really cool. This whole team is like, the whole culture around it is performance and being the best, having the fastest bike and the best team around, to be the best.

James: You’ve just detailed how impressive the team is at Norco. I’d be remiss as a downhill tragic not to mention the Honda team you were on 20 years ago. Are there any parallels there?

Greg: There are. When I did a test with Norco, every run had a test sheet of what was changed, what was adjusted, feedback. This whole sheet was just emailed to me. That’s exactly what happened at Honda. Every run was accounted for.

I feel like that’s where downhill is going. These guys have done an incredible job. Colin’s set up the data for this bike and they’re pulling all this data into … I’ve never seen a programme like it because Colin’s written all the code for it.

What was super impressive was the feedback was correlating exactly to what they were showing in the programme. These guys have dug deep into downhill racing, they’ve got a lot of data, they’ve really made a bike geared for racing.

Kieran: So, Fort William is a place you know really well. You have seven wins there alone, which would put you seventh on the all-time list just from Fort William. Also, a four cross win there going way back. In 2004, you’d just switched to the G-Cross Honda Team, and you won the opening round at Fort William. That’s a long time ago, but do you still have excitement about going to Fort William for the first round?

Greg: Fort Wiliam is cool. I raced my first season for Team Animal Orange back in 2000 and so I was based in the United Kingdom. I’ve got a lot of friends in the UK. It’s my home race away from home. Some other tracks have worked out really well for me—2004 going there on Honda was an incredible race. But if you go back to 2004, that’s when Honda decided to race the American National Championship.

Kieran: Yeah, you weren’t even racing the World Cup full time. That’s crazy.

Greg: I know. I was leading the World Cup series, but I had to go and race what was called the Norba series back then and missed out some of the World Cup races. I would have loved to have finished that season and raced every round of the World Cup. But it’s funny when you look back—it was such an experience going with Honda even though I had to forfeit a World Cup season for it. The experience I learnt from that was incredible.

Kieran: It’s so insane that you were the reigning World Champ going into that seasons as well. You’ve also raced against every one of the greats of our sport: Vouilloz, Peaty, Hill, Atherton, Gwin, Bruni. Who’s been your toughest competitor over all this time?

Greg: The two toughest were probably Sam Hill and Aaron Gwin. Those two were really hard to crack. Sam had such a different riding style to me and trying to match his pace in a flat open corner was really hard. You look back at the footage and the bikes were so small and short, they look like BMX bikes.

Sam just had an incredible style of managing to hold these really tight lines. Then Gwin brought this new pace. Pre-Gwin, you’d break your track up into multiple sections and have a bit of time to rest the hands and then go hard again. Gwin just brought this pace that was from the start to the finish that was just flat out. That really altered the way I raced. I had to really change things up. You’re riding at 110 per cent from start to finish. The risk was super high but that’s what you had to do to beat him.

Kieran: And it’s only elevated from there too. It’s going to be cool to see where the sport goes in another few years.

Greg: Now you go to a place, one track I think of is Les Gets, where the pace is so hot and you’re trying to squash the bike and hold it down and just get the wheels down so you can take the corner, and you’re drifting through and slapping into a soft, sloppy berm and off a road gap. It’s just an incredibly hard pace, especially through those forests. You’re right, it has adjusted. I think those two riders, there was definitely a big adjust from the Sam Hill era and the Gwin era. Those adjustments were quite hard to match.

James: Talking about the Sam Hill era, is there an era of racing that you’re most fond of?

Greg: The seasons that I beat Sam were amazing to me. It didn’t happen often, but when it did, I enjoyed it. Sam and I had a great season in 2008-2009. In 2008, I just beat him, and in 2009, he just beat me. Gee Atherton was sneaking in there too every now and then. Peaty was still around. That was a good era of racing and having a good time.

Kieran: There was a good balance.

Greg: There was a good balance. No social media. You couldn’t get in trouble. There was a great balance of racing and socialising. There’s not much balance now, it’s all racing. In saying that, the sport’s gotten more professional. It’s a really professional sport where the team counts, the support from the team how the team can secure and support the rider. It makes a big difference and that’s exactly a part of the plan with Norco.

Kieran: Is there a venue that you would like to see make a comeback?

Greg: We had some great venues back in the day. Brazil was maybe not the best downhill track, but it was a great venue. That was really cool. Japan, into the mountains in Japan. That was a super cool venue and a great track. It would be nice to go to South America, back to Asia. It’d be nice to expand the World Cup more. But now, with all the teams investing so much in trucks and big pit set ups, it’s hard to shift it all globally.

There’s definitely room. Big Bear in California is a great venue, just outside Los Angeles. There’s a strong series now being established there. Big Bear was one of my first World Cup top tens. And you can kind of see this resurgence of youth now in America in downhill racing. Taking the World Cup back to Big Bear would be great.

James: Norco is based out of British Colombia. Will you be spending any time in BC?

Greg: I’m sure I will. I’d love to go check it out. This whole engineering thing really gets me going, and the fact they have suspension dynos in house … I’m used to going down the road to Andshock in Andorra to borrow the dyno. The fact Norco have dynos in house is serious. I’m super keen to go there, maybe mid-season, maybe before Whistler. I see Whistler is on my schedule, which I haven’t been back to in years.

James: Do you think your World Cup win record will ever be broken?

Greg: I think so. For sure it should be. I was lucky I’ve had a long career but I’ve also had a lot of injuries but I’ve been fortunate enough to come back from them. I feel like the riders now have fewer injuries. So for sure it’s got to be broken. It definitely will.

Kieran: The romantic in me will just say no and it will live on forever.

Greg: I’d like to extend it a bit, that would be nice.

Back then we had less racing. For a long time, we only had five World Cups per season, then we moved back to six. We started on eight then we dropped off to five and, for a couple of years, we only had five World Cups, and we had to focus on Norba races.

There was a lot of racing I missed out on. I had a terrible shoulder injury in 2001 at the end of my first successful World Cup season. Carrying that through to 2007, where I eventually I absolutely destroyed it in Fort William at World Champs—that period of racing my shoulder dislocated a hell of a lot and that hindered me a lot in racing.

Mont-Sainte-Anne was one was where I think I ended up second to Sam Hill. My shoulder used to dislocate and sit out the front of my chest. I’d try swinging it to get it back in and I remember it wouldn’t come in. Eventually I just peeled off the track and I must have hit some kind of bump because it popped back in, so I turned back on the track and kept racing and ended up placing second. There’s a lot of stories like that where there’s losses. Unfortunately, I think that record will definitely be broken.

Kieran: I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of people whose career spans 25 years though.

Greg: Maybe we will hold onto that record.

Kieran: I’d love to see you extend that win record this year, but either way it’s going to be really cool to see you doing something new. But it looks like you’ve found a good new home.

Greg: I think it’s going to be cool. This whole team is being built for future racing. I’m stoked that I’m getting this opportunity to go back and race with this set up, a set up that I feel is going to be good, a set up that I feel is going to be a great platform for Gracey Hemstreet and Lucas Cruz, for them to excel and the youth coming through. That’s what we built this for. I’m just forcing my way into racing one more year.

Kieran: The fans are here for you and I’m sure there’s no one mad about it.