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Story Time: Durango NORBA National Champs Finals

Updated: May 8, 2023

Greg Minnaar | NORBA National Championship Finals | Durango, CO | 2004

Hard to believe this image is nearly 20 years old, because I recall this moment clearly. This photo was shot on Fuji Velvia 50 film pushed to 200, and is one of probably a dozen of my shots published to illustrate the article I wrote on this event.

It was early in the morning of the NORBA National Championship Series finals and I was already on track to get some downhill practice photos before I had to shoot finals later in the day. Then, if time allowed, sneak in a DH practice run for myself. You can tell it's early morning, because the sun had recently risen and is hitting the trees directly from the side creating the long, dark shadows covering the entire track.

Being this was Sunday, I'd already walked and shot entire course a few times since that Thursday. Practice hadn't yet begun, so no riders were on course. I shuffled my insufficiently caffeinated self a few hundred yards down the wet, morning dew-covered race course in pursuit of the first shot location I had in mind. As I walked with my back to the course I suddenly heard what sounded like a rider in the distance. Then, I realized it wasn't just any rider, rather a very distinct sound and it was quickly approaching: the one-of-a-kind Honda RN01 gearbox-driven downhill bike. I stopped in place and thought, "Minnaar."

The year prior (2003), Greg had just won his first world championship aboard an Intense-built Haro downhill bike with Manitou suspension. (He now has four world championships, three World Cup overall titles, and 22 elite World Cup Downhill wins—most all time.) Minnaar then made the switch to ride for Honda's newly formed G-Cross downhill mountain bike race program (2003-2006) that featured the one-of-a-kind gearbox box bike that not only looked insane and was never produced, it claimed to have near-infinite gear ratios (well, for that first year's bike, anyway).

(Bike Nerd Alert: If my memory is correct, the Honda G-Cross program existed from 2003 to 2006, but only this very first year did the RN01 bike have the internal transmission with engaging clutch-style plates to deliver wide-ranging gear ratios [and a very unique sound when coasting]. After 2003, the proprietary Honda RN01 DH bikes looked aesthetically the same, yet inside the gearbox transmission they basically had two standard-ish looking and criss-crossing derailleur-type devices and cassette inside a "gearbox" to provide the wide-ranging gear ratios. As memory serves, this was a significantly lighter-weight system, and also required a lot less maintenance. I'm sure if any of this is wrong I'll be informed in the comments. Moving on...)

As I hurried to get off to the side of the track, everything from this point must've happened in fractions of a second. Realizing the reigning world champion was charging toward me on the most unique bike in the history of downhill racing, I realized I needed to get a shot because there was no guarantee I'd get a good shot of him in the finals, and he was about to win the overall NORBA National Series title (hence the #1 on his plate). This might be the last time I saw him go by at the last US national race of the year.

When I looked back up the mountain toward where he was coming from, all I saw was a bright blue sky juxtaposed by completely dark brown and black race course. I could hear Minnaar's gearbox-driven bike making it's unique whizzing and whining sounds as it moved toward me while I stood blindly beneath him on the backside of a large step-down jump. I was still a long way from the location I intended to start shooting from, so I hadn't unpacked my flashes (I almost always shot with off-camera flash for about a decade) and wasn't yet in position or prepared to shoot anything. I remember thinking that if I expose for the bright blue sky I'll have a black blob of a rider on a dark brown and shadowy hillside, which wouldn't be any good. But, I noticed the sliver of light poking through the trees on the backside of step-down jump I was standing beneath. So, if I exposed for the sky and could frame Greg jumping through the horizontal ray of sunlight maybe that would work. It did. This photo ran as a full page in the December, 2004, issue of Mountain Bike Action magazine.


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