Oliver “Pinner” Munnik has a chat with SA’s next big MTB thing about his big achievement at World Champs, racing elite and going big on the 2018 World Cup Circuit.
I recently caught up with Team Spur’s down to earth XC weapon Alan Hatherly, fresh off the plane after his superb silver medal-winning performance at the 2017 XCO World Champs in Cairns, Australia.
You had us on the edge of our seats watching you pinning it in Cairns! Your silver medal is rich reward for a season that was certainly not plain sailing.
2017 was my first full season of World Cup XCO racing and it took a while to settle into a comfortable rhythm where I could confidently and consistently race in the top 10.
At the first round in the Czech Republic I went off course and then in Germany I got tape stuck in my rear wheel, which melted onto my rotor causing my brake to fail and me to crash… those were hard lessons to learn!
And then there were the Canadian visa issues.
Jeez, after podiuming at Andorra I flew home on a high but it was short-lived as my Canadian visa took four weeks to be issued instead of two. In the end though, I’ve learned from these incidents and I’m happy to have finished 5th overall in this year’s U23 XCO World Cup series.
From 15th in Val di Sole in the last World Cup to 2nd in Cairns is an awesome improvement.
Italy was frustrating because I knew I could be better but I had to stick to the ultimate plan, which was World Champs. So in effect I was under cooked in Italy to be at my peak a few weeks later in Cairns. And it seems to have worked!
Was the Cairns track vastly different to the rest of the World Cup season?
The track was super fast – our average speed was 21km/h – a lot higher than anything else we’ve raced this year. Usually we smash one or two relatively non-technical climbs and recover on the descents. But in Cairns it was more a case of not reaching your maximum at any point – the plan was to sustain my effort to keep momentum up, rather than over-exerting myself on any particular point on the track … in a nutshell, I focused more on flow rather than punchy efforts.
Cairns was really dry and dusty whereas the World Cups were mostly wet. In terms of TV, I reckon the coverage didn’t entirely capture the technicality and physicality of the main climb – it was tough!
You clearly have the skills to pay the bills … what was it like hitting the ‘Rodeo Drop’ step down in the dust?!
During training we saw that the dust was going to be a huge problem, especially at the drop where you would have had to come to a standstill waiting for riders to drop off and/or the dust to clear before negotiating it. So, I knew that from the gun I had to be no further back than fourth wheel heading into the single-track to avoid losing time unnecessarily.
Did you change anything on your bike for race day?
Yeah, compared to my usual bike setup (see above), I slammed my stem by 5mm removing the headset’s dust cap and running my stem flush with the headset bearings. It was critical for the +-3-minute section of the course that was flat.
I also changed from a 34T to a 36T round Rotor chainring for the fast start while the major climb wasn’t steep enough to warrant the 34T.
During the season I have made a few tweaks that are saving me in the region of 20-seconds a lap … things like adding ceramic bearings, fine tuning my riding position (increased setback paired to a lower front end), paying more attention to tyre treads and pressures as well as making sure my equipment is as new as possible to optimize performance.
Oh and we’ve tuned my suspension making it firmer to complement my riding style.
— UCI MTB (@UCI_MTB) September 8, 2017
Given that you’re not racing for points at World Championships what does that mean in terms of race strategy? And how did the race unfold?
I’d say the major difference is tactics. In World Cups you race as hard as you can from the gun, trying your best to stick to the plan. At Worlds we raced hard but at times it became a tactical game with riders not wanting to do too much work. I had to be very observant up the major climb as overtaking wasn’t easy… gaps had to be closed down immediately. On lap 4 (of 6) I was sitting 4th wheel up the climb and got dead wheeled by 2nd and 3rd as Sam Gaze surged off the front.It forced me to pass them on a rougher, riskier section of the climb, but I managed to catch Sam. On lap 5, Sam attacked again at the top of the climb and got 8s on me. Taking big risks on the rocky descent he grew the gap to 13-seconds but during the last lap I reduced the deficit to 8-seconds.
Descending the gnarly ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ section for the last time I had to make the decision whether or not to risk everything in an attempt to catch Sam. Ultimately I held back not wanting to ruin my chances of a silver medal for the chance of catching and passing a charging Sam. In the end, it came down to 11-seconds and was a fantastic battle with Sam. He played his cards superbly, took risks and they paid off.
Sam Gaze (U23 gold medalist from New Zealand) has been racing World Cups as an elite … did you consider doing the same?
At the beginning of the season I was also offered the opportunity to race elite but I chose not to because I hadn’t yet raced at the sharp end of the U23 field. It would have been premature to skip the U23 experience and put extra pressure on myself for what will come in due course. The plan is to build up to elite by gaining experience in the U23 ranks.
With one more year to race in U23, will your result in Cairns change how you approach the 2018 season?
Yes for sure. Cairns has boosted my self-confidence and I’ve set my goals slightly higher for 2018. I would like to podium at all the U23 World Cups (especially the first round in Stellenbosch!) and win the series overall. World Champs is in Lenzerheide, Switzerland on a course that has suited me in the past so I definitely have that in my sights as well. April’s Common Wealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast is also on the radar.
Are you considering taking measures to make your bike more capable (beefier tyres or even a dropper) as XCO courses become more technical? Or is weight a non-negotiable?
I’m conscious of the importance of weight, but I’m a believer in reliability, where risk versus reward comes into play. The risks associated with going super-light are too big, so I’m in favour of reliability. In terms of a dropper, my downhill background has perfectly prepared me for technical riding, so for now, I don’t feel the need to race with one. Having said that, never say never!
What’s cracking for next year … are you in a position to share any developments?
What I can share is that I’ll be racing the full World Cup season, but in terms of team negotiations … they’re still underway and I’ll know in the next coupla weeks what the future holds in terms of team specifics.
With that Alan is off to enjoy some time off after a tough season. I look forward to watching him lay some smack down in March at the first round of the World Cup XCO.
Oliver Munnik is a former professional mountain biker. Pinner by trade, he travels the world testing the latest and greatest cycling products as Bicycling’s Gear Editor.