Sam Gaze arrived in South Africa ready to put a poor 2017 season to rest and show what he’s capable of in the elite World Cup field. He did just that and more, ending Nino Schurter’s dominant winning streak on March 10.
Schurter (Scott-SRAM) swept the 2017 series, a first for the UCI World Cup, and remained a favorite for the 2018 opener in Stellenbosch, South Africa. At just 22, Gaze might not have seemed like the top threat, but the former U23 world champion was motivated and confident after a consistent winter of training.
The Swiss world champion started the race up front with the #1 plate. Gaze (Specialized) was a few rows back with #30, but the Kiwi quickly caught up with the Olympic champion during the first lap and the two battled each other throughout the race.
“I have been in the same situation with Nino before in other races. I knew if he hadn’t got rid of me by the last lap, then he was beatable.”
Gaze’s legs started to cramp near the finish, but he knew he couldn’t let it show or Schurter might get the edge.
“I knew it was coming close to the end, and as long as [Schurter] didn’t know I was really starting to suffer, then I was in the clear,” he said.
In the sprint to the finish, Gaze held on to win while Schurter’s left foot slipped his pedal a few yards away from the line. Fans speculated that the slipped pedal cost the race. Gaze is confident it wouldn’t have made a difference.
“He was still beside my back wheel when he slipped,” he said. “I am not doubting Nino’s power, he’s an exceptional rider, to say the least. I don’t like the thought of bad luck being the reason I was able to win in Stellenbosch.”
Gaze’s World Cup win in the season opener is significant — a first for an elite man from New Zealand. And of course, it ended Schurter’s winning streak, which included a perfect 2017 season. Schurter and Julien Absalon each won three of the six World Cup rounds in the 2016 season. The only rider to challenge them in 2015 was Jaroslav Kulhavy.
Schurter is now chasing Absalon’s record for the most World Cup overall titles. Absalon has seven and Schurter has five.
Gaze isn’t expected to sweep the series like Schurter, but this win is a big improvement from last year. In his first season racing in the men’s elite field, he finished 40th overall. Before 2017, he raced in the under-23 field. Last year in Val Di Sole he placed 77th, in Mont-Sainte-Anne he was 39th, and he had DNFs in Lenzerheide, Abstadt, and Nove Mesto.
“I felt like last year’s season was needed,” said Gaze. “It has helped me bold the expectations I had this season preparing for the World Cups. And of course, I still have a chip on my shoulder from all the disappointments last year.”
Gaze said that 2017’s struggles stemmed from sports-induced migraines that hindered his racing. A team at High Performance Sport New Zealand helped him find a vascular blockage in his brain, and they believe it is under control now. He also credits great pre-season training for his success in Stellenbosch.
“Things just clicked for me in the training. It was the first year as a professional without any issues at all in my preparations for the year, so that really helped with boosting my confidence,” he says.
Todd Wells, Olympian, and former U.S. national mountain bike champion remembers racing and riding with Gaze when he was a junior. He recalled Gaze’s eagerness to learn and ambition to race at the elite cross-country level.
“He was just a sponge,” Wells said. “He wanted to learn as much as he could. There was no plan B for him. He was going to be a professional racer and that’s all there was to it.”
Gaze still has his work cut out for him this season. He expects Albstadt, Germany in May and La Bresse, France in August to be his most challenging courses this year. He hopes to take another win but isn’t letting it get to his head anytime soon.
“For sure it would be nice to win another World Cup this season, but we will see how things play out. Any race I am holding the World Cup leader’s jersey will be challenging to hold.”