Commonwealth Games mountain bike champion Sam Gaze will return from injury for the second round of the UCI World Cup in the Czech Republic this weekend.
The 23-year-old Specialized Team professional had originally planned to bypass the popular round in Nove Mesto na Morave as a result of severe concussion from a fall during the Cape Epic mountain bike endurance race in South Africa in March.
Gaze has enjoyed a change of fortunes with his health and after nearly three weeks of solid training, he has been given the green light to compete.
There are seven Kiwis racing this weekend with Gaze, Anton Cooper, Ben Oliver and Sam Shaw in the elite men; Jessica Manchester in the under-23 females with Sammie Maxwell and Connor Johnston in the junior series.
“I’ve definitely gone through some dark moments,” said Gaze. “It was a big accident and the concussion was bad. I tried to come back but had to step right away from everything.
“This is such an important year and I wanted to be at my best from the start so that Anton (Cooper) and I could get the world cup results to get two spots for the Tokyo Olympics. I have already slipped down the rankings after my crash late last year.
“I definitely had some bad times and I just could not do anything. But I have started to feel much better and I’ve trained well in the last couple of weeks.”
Gaze said he has no expectations this weekend, starting back on the 10th row of the grid.
“I am not putting myself under any pressure, just to get some idea where I am at.”
The course at Nove Mesto, one of the most popular stops on the circuit, had mixed blessings for Gaze last year. He won the short track race but crashed out from a front wheel puncture while leading in the race-proper.
It has special memories also for Cooper, who finished up runner-up with a photo finish needed to separate him from Olympic and world champion Nino Schurter for the overall honours.
Cooper is keen to bounce back from his 36th placing in the opening round that included two front-wheel punctures.
“It was a disappointing way to begin the World Cup season but it can only get better from here. A front flat on lap 2 and 6 didn’t help my cause but my legs were somewhere on holiday,” said Cooper.
He will again start from the front row in the short track race to determine the grid for the world cup race.
Ben Oliver, who started with a competitive 51st placing in his first elite outing, is looking to improve again.
The elite short track race is on Saturday 4.45am (NZ time). The world cup will see Manchester compete on Saturday at 9pm; Maxwell on Sunday from 1am in the junior women; Johnston from 3am in the junior men with Cooper, Gaze, Oliver and Shaw from 11.35pm Sunday – all NZ times.