Sam Gaze realised a dream when he won the opening leg of the UCI Mercedes-Benz MTB World Cup in Stellenbosch on Saturday afternoon, beating the World Champion Nino Schurter in a breath-taking sprint finish.
The New Zealander fell to the ground after the finish, half in agony and half in ecstasy after winning his first race as an elite athlete. He had been struggling with cramp for the last few laps but the realisation that he had beaten Schurter, the Swiss superstar, who had gone unbeaten in all six legs of the 2017 World Cup, forced a smile through the pain.
Maxime Marotte of France was third in a sprint in which Schurter faltered after his left foot uncleated from his pedal in the kick to the line. Mathieu van der Poel of the Netherlands was fourth and Frenchman Titouan Carod fifth.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Gaze, who won the under-23 World Championship for the second-time last year. “We live our lives through these guys and look up to them as young riders. I watched London 2012, and Jaroslav (Kulhavy, 2012 Olympic gold medallist) and Nino racing there. You always dream you can do it. You always go to sleep wishing you can do it. And to do it, is incredible.”
“Winning that sprint, was just a moment of disbelief. I was starting to cramp with a lap and a half to go. I was just pushing my way through. As we got closer and closer to the finish I knew I had to be in front. I went for it as we came over the bridge and it came off. I was never sure, but it is just amazing. I’m getting close (to full potential). I had a lot of problems last year, personal problems, physical problems that I had to go through. I knew I was in a good place this weekend. You always wish, but when it becomes reality, it is mind blowing.”
Gaze and Schurter had shadowed each other from the start, with the New Zealander, seeded 30th, having to pick his way through the pack to get to the sharp end of the race. The two quickly established an exclusive group at the front, chased by Marotte and Van der Poel, but the latter pair could not quite close the gap. Gaze moved ahead of Schurter in the final lap and put in a brutal attack on the five-time world champion half way through the lap.
Schurter responded and attempted an attack of his own ahead of the Khoi Spirit section, but Gaze just managed to hold him off. Marotte had closed up on the pair as the race approached the finish line and was in touching distance as they went over the final bridge. Gaze began his sprint on the bridge before the final corner, digging deep as Schurter challenged him. Just seconds later, Gaze had won the opening leg of the World Cup, beating the World Champion and proclaiming a new talent to watch out for in 2018.