Racing World Cups is not easy. Racing World Cups as a privateer from South Africa is a whole different story.
Imagine lining up against hundreds of the world’s best professional elite riders on the gnarliest tracks of Europe, whilst you are spending the race weekend sleeping, cooking, eating, maintaining your bike and managing the elements, from a tiny van in the car park. The harsh reality is racing as a privateer – and sleeping in car parks – is often the only way to get noticed by a big team and land a factory (ie: fully supported) ride. South Africans and riders from other nations have been doing it for years. It’s not all bad. There certainly are good times to be had. Not to mention the forging of a tight community of under-funded riders “slumming it” around Europe on weak currencies. It can be fun. A lot of fun. However, in these circumstances producing top race results would be tricky. Many don’t make it.
Last year, I saw Durban’s Connor Finnis flying the rainbow flag in Switzerland and I was pretty blown away by his riding. He’s a prodigious talent. Running a couple of laps with him in Morzine this year and witnessing his composed yet pacey style was again, a treat. The pace and talent is there and Connor also has an abundance of another crucial precursor to success in Downhill Racing, grit. Here’s Connor.
Who is Connor Finnis?
I am a 22-year-old downhill racer.
Where are you from and where do you live?
I’m from Durban, South Africa. Born and raised.
What hobbies do you have outside of biking?
I enjoy playing most sports but the two at the top of my list have to be surfing and enduro motocross.
How did you get into riding?
I raced motocross as a kid and always had a love for anything on 2 wheels, I got big into school sports and at the age of 15, I raced my first enduro MTB race. In my first few downhill, races I raced on an old Focus hardtail which I thought, at the time, was the best bike out there.
Who or what inspires you?
When I was growing up, I always wanted to be like my father, he raced the Roof of Africa plenty of times as well as one of the most challenging enduro races in the world, Romaniacs, where he finished 6th overall. In terms of downhill riders, it’s an easy answer, Greg Minnaar. Not only is he the greatest of all time, but he inspires all South African racers that it’s possible to race internationally and win.
Tell us the history of your racing experience.
I started racing properly at the age of 16. I knew from then that this was all I wanted to do, and my first Junior year I went overseas to race, where I stayed in a van for two months traveling to and from the races.
You’ve had some exposure to World Cup racing in Europe. Tell us what it feels like being on live television, with millions watching, as you ‘throw’ yourself down the mountain.
Before the run, it all feels surreal. You are up there warming up with the best in the world, spectators and cameras pointing and cheering in your direction. Once you leave the start hut, the people, the cameras, the noise, everything, it all stops, you don’t hear or see any of them. You get tunnel vision and only once you are at the bottom does it all come back. And it feels amazing, indescribable. This is an elite sport and a thrill to be part of it and mentioned on TV throughout the World.
Just how special is it to race internationally in the SA jersey?
It’s a privilege to race for my country and give it all I have to be the best I can be. The World Champs is a brilliant race to be a part of and there is something very special about wearing the Green and Gold.
As a South African, where we typically don’t have access to big mountains and gradients like the Alps in Europe, what do you find is the hardest part of racing DH in Europe?
It’s very hard to compete on the European circuit being based in SA. Not only do they have the best tracks in the world on their doorstep, the exposure and sponsorship opportunity is massive. It is also very expensive to go anywhere in Europe since the rand-to-euro conversion is not the greatest, to say the least. My first few years I knew no one and didn’t have the resources I needed to compete properly. You cannot pre-train as you would have to pay for a ski pass which blows the budget so you don’t get exposure to the tracks before a World Cup event. You cannot take too many risks, breaking parts of your bike can kill the season as it’s so expensive to replace things using Rands. I never had spare wheels or any spare parts when I started. If anything went wrong, I would walk around the pits and hustle big teams for any parts that they didn’t need anymore. A lot of times I would just have to race with a semi-working bike and try to get through it as best as possible. I have to be conservative when racing.
You had an injury earlier this year that held you back. Tell us about that and what your health is like now.
I injured my shoulder one month before my Euro season started, which put me on the back foot coming into the season. Throughout the season I built back strength, fitness, and speed during the first three rounds. I feel great now and wish there were more races to go to.
Despite a slow start to the season – due to that injury – you still managed some breakthrough rides at the World Cups. Tell us about those results and what you attribute them to.
As expected, at the first World Cups I got smoked as I had only ridden my bike twice before the season started. I got my speed back quite quickly but my fitness and strength were miles behind. During a one-month gap between the races, I went to Morzine, where I trained as much as I could. Going into Andorra and Loudenville, I was fired up and ready to put together some decent results. Making those finals had such a beneficial effect on my confidence and was such a reward for all the hard work. I know I have the speed and technical ability to run with the top guys, the races and tracks I did well on have made me more and more hungry to make the break to get onto a team or more sponsorship opportunities.
At the races in Europe, you’ve been sleeping in a van, not having so much as a kitchen or bathroom, and going pretty ghetto. How tricky it is to be racing at this elite level as a privateer?
It’s extremely hard to compete with the pros. Staying in a van is tricky at the races because they are strict with parking. Sometimes you would have to park a few km away from where you needed to be and would have to ride or hitchhike to the event. For me, the hardest part is planning and organizing everything during the races, my focus is never fully on the track and the race, whereas the pros only focus on that. All their needs are covered and if anything happens, they have an entire team to sort it out for them. In a van, you never eat correctly, you are isolated and the constant driving can get tiring.
Does being one of the fastest privateers at a World Cup give you hope of being picked up by a factory ride for 2024?
I would love to land a team for 2024 but that seems unlikely currently. But being the fastest privateer gives me a lot of confidence for next year. Doing it on my own, from a van, on a tiny budget.
On the DH track, in a race scenario, what do you believe to be your biggest strength?
I would like to say that I always stay within my limit, I don’t often go over my limit. Being able to compete with the top guys without feeling out of control gives me confidence. I also really enjoy the fast, rough, and technical tracks, I do better on those.
Likewise, what are your weaknesses and what plans do you have to work on them?
On the race track, I struggle to get up to speed quickly, I like to have a good amount of practice before going full speed. But at the World Cups, you need to be at max speed after four or five runs. Other than that, I would say my fitness and strength this year was not where it needed to be. To improve on that, I have a new gym program designed specifically for downhill. I also finally have an enduro bike so I will be riding that a lot to up my fitness.
Are you getting advice and mentoring from any of the SA greats?
Greg (Minnaar) has helped me with my approach to practice and how to get up to speed quickly, I also ask him which lines he thinks are best. Theo (Erlangsen) has been a huge part of how I race, he helps me wherever he can. He is also in a van and we convoy from race to race which makes things a lot easier. He’s also given me parts, kit, goggles etc that have saved some of my races. We both discuss lines and compare GoPro videos to see who is quicker in each section.
What’s your technique or approach to memorizing a new race track, before racing it?
During practice, I use a GoPro to learn the track and see where I can improve on speed and lines. Just before a race run, I visualize racing the track repeatedly, thinking about key sections, where to change gears, where to brake, and where to rest or pedal. So going out of the start hut I know what I have to do.
Whether racing or riding, what is the greatest challenge you’ve ever faced on a bike?
Confidence and the mental side of racing is the hardest part for me. If I’m struggling on a track, my confidence drops, and my riding drops. It also puts pressure to get over that mental block quickly as we have such limited practice. Sometimes I could be riding super well but, in my mind, I’m riding slow and messing up. Being able to have that self-belief is tricky. Believing you are good enough and you deserve to be there can change the way you race and ride drastically.
What is your favorite SA trail? Why?
Cascades for sure, it’s where I raced my first DH race and where I still train today. It is a really fast track, it’s rough and it’s long, got jumps and a big old pedal section. It’s one of the most fun tracks to ride, but definitely hard on the legs when racing.
What is your favorite World Cup race track and why?
It is between Andorra and Val Di Sole. Andorra because it’s where I qualified for my first-ever elite DH World Cup. The track is also super fast and loose. Val Di Sole because it’s long, scary, fast, and by far the roughest track on the World Cup circuit. It plays into my strengths and it’s where I got my best World Cup result, I placed 21st in elites.
Who would you like to thank?
Commencal has sorted me out this year with frames, and also race support at the World Cups. The whole Commencal race support crew was good to me and the vibes were always the highest. Fox Racing South Africa made sure I was looking the part both on and off the bike by sorting me out with kit, goggles, shoes, and all the casual wear. Some budget from Steelbank SA and two private individuals helped me get through the season. A special thanks to family and friends who have supported me from day one and continue to do so.
What are your hopes and goals for the 2024 season and beyond?
I hope that I have some breakthrough rides and land myself on a team. My goal for 2024 is to be consistently qualifying and getting those top 30’s at the World Cups. This off-season I will be doing as much training as possible to make that happen, including pre-season training in Europe, something I have not been able to do before. |
| WORDS: Myles Kelsey | IMAGES: Supplied |