Sam Gaze and Anton Cooper have reversed the positions they held at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. Gaze took the gold medal at the end of a drama-filled final lap and a bit in which Gaze had to recover from a mechanical issue to catch and then out-sprint the defending champion.
It was expected to be the race in which Kiwis Cooper and Gaze would replicate, in some form, the performance of four years ago. The two of them entered the cross country event in great form; with Cooper the recently crowned Oceania champion, and Gaze having beaten world champion Nino Schurter in the opening round of the UCI MTB World Cup. But it was the performance of Ben Oliver early on that set the standard for the day’s racing.
Oliver, Cooper and Gaze started on the front row and it was 21 year old Oliver who went straight to the front to set the early tempo of the race. Gaze jumped onto Oliver’s wheel, with South Africa’s Alan Hatherly separating Gaze and Anton Cooper. Together these four gapped the rest of the field, led by Scotland’s Grant Ferguson while a small pile up occurred towards the back of the field, disrupting the rhythm of a number of riders early on.
At the end of the first lap the four riders had established themselves at the front of the race, but the next group weren’t far behind and it required continued pressure by the leaders for the gap to really establish and solidify. It appeared in the early stages of the race that the day was working like clockwork for the Kiwi trio, with the three riders at one point looking like they could well contend for the top three places all on their own. But they didn’t have things all their own way.
The first sign that things wouldn’t be entirely smooth sailing came in the first half as Cooper momentarily faltered on one of the slow uphill sections, demanding that he stop and recover. That also halted Oliver, who was by then behind him, and although Cooper was able to regain contact with Gaze and Hatherly; Oliver fell back off of the front runners. From there on for Oliver it would be a day as a solo artist as he spent the entire day not quite on the tails of the leaders but also just ahead enough of the chasers behind him. Oliver would be assured of fourth place, but up ahead nothing was quite certain, and it would stay that way down to the final couple of hundred metres.
Pace setting was strong from Cooper and Gaze, who did the majority of the work between them at the front; while Hatherly chipped in here and there, but was able to tactically rely on the Kiwis keeping them ahead of the rest. Neither of the Kiwis could get comfortable of gold and silver just yet though, and through the second half of the race – and particularly in the final 4 laps – the pace around the more technical sections of the course went up in an effort to put the South African under pressure.
Bit by bit there became a sense that Hatherly’s time alongside Cooper and Gaze was numbered as he began to yoyo just a little off the back of their wheels; although the former U23 World Championship silver medallist did well to keep pace with the two.
But gradually it became clear that of the three riders Cooper and Gaze had the most left in the tank heading towards the final round. However, then disaster struck for the Waikato rider. Gaze was forced to stop at the pits to attend to a mechanical issue, which left him a substantial gap to recuperate. At the same time Cooper attacked and dropped Hatherly, striking out on his own with one lap remaining.
While that might have been the end of many riders’ races Gaze was not done yet. Gaze remounted and furiously charged after the leading duo, breezing past the South African and regaining contact with the defending champion with around half a lap of the race remaining. That spelled trouble for Cooper, who knew only too well of Gaze’s sprinting ability after the U23 World Champion had successfully utilised his sprint to beat Schurter just a month before.
It was up to Cooper, then, to attack from distance; and he did just that. Whether it was an attempt to drop Gaze, or an attempt to stop Gaze from passing him on the more open section of the course is hard to say, but Gaze had pre-empted the move and then drew alongside Cooper; having to just use his elbow slightly to ensure that he could pass his teammate and rival.
On the back foot now, Cooper could only wait until the sprint for the line at the outdoor velodrome. But Gaze, now in the driving seat, controlled the finale perfectly, accelerating out of the final bend to claim the Commonwealth title, with the defending champion this time taking home silver. A satisfied Hatherly had done enough for bronze, with Ben Oliver arriving home just over a minute back for fourth place.
England’s Frazer Clacherty took fifth place, with Canada’s Leandre Bouchard, Australia’s Daniel McConnell, Northern Ireland’s Cameron Orr, Scotland’s Grant Ferguson and the Isle Of Man’s Nicholas Corlett completing the top ten.