Sam Gaze realised a dream when he won the opening leg of the UCI MTB World Cup in Stellenbosch on Saturday afternoon, by beating the World Champion Nino Schurter in a sprint finish.
Gaze, a New Zealander who competes for Specialized Racing, collapsed to the ground after the finish, half in agony and half in disbelief after winning his first race as an elite athlete.
By all accounts the 22-year-old had been struggling with cramp for the last few of the seven-lap race but it didn't stop him getting the better of Schurter (Scott-SRAM MTB Racing), the Swiss superstar who had won all six legs of the 2017 World Cup, across the grass on the finish straight.
Maxime Marotte (Cannondale Factory Racing) of France was third in the sprint for the line behind Schurter whose final hope disappeared after his left foot uncleated from his pedal some 20m from finish. Cyclocross star Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus) of the Netherlands -- who started mid-pack of the 99 starters -- was fourth and Frenchman Titouan Carod (BMC Mountain Bike Racing Team) 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."
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. He did so on the start loop and the two quickly established a lead, which the chasing pack led by Marotte and Van der Poel could never quite close.
Gaze and Schurter kept close watch on each other throughout while remaining mindful that any lapse in concentration could prove pivotal on the dry and dusty 4.2km course. Gaze eventually tried an attack midway through the final lap but the five-time world champion responded and then attempted a move of his own heading into the Khoi Spirit technical section of jumps and berms.
Gaze managed to hold that challenge off, but in the interim Marotte had mounted a charge of his own to be within striking distance if the leading duo faltered. They didn't, leaving the race down the final 100m where the Kiwi dug deep.
"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."