If you watched the New Zealand Mountain Bike Team’s incredibly successful campaign at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast this year, you’ll have seen race-winner Sam Gaze’s race and post- race actions that captured headlines; with Gaze ‘flipping the bird’ at second place getter and compatriot Anton Cooper as he disappeared from view during the race....
It’s part of our age that news travels fast and, in no time at all, every New Zealander seemed to have an opinion on what transpired, who should have done what, and who was to blame. Some of the commentaries and commentators were bafflingly uninformed. As a result, there was a lot of coverage that mis-represented the issue, which led to a lot of New Zealanders misunderstanding what it was all about. Subsequently, many people who have never raced a mountain bike formed poorly-informed judgements based on various social media and news comment pages. Anyone who followed the coverage will know Gaze received a lot of criticism for his actions. Amid all this clamour, there are two individuals who can explain it best: Gaze and Cooper.
A few weeks after the race, I talked to both. I asked more questions of Sam Gaze because his actions warranted explanation, and after the intense media storm he faced I believe he deserved an outlet to explain himself to fellow mountain bikers. And for Anton Cooper, though his accidental role requires no explanation or apology, his views provide valuable insight into this controversial incident.
A full feature appears in issue 90, on sale now, but for a little insight, read on…
One of the key aspects of the post-race media coverage centred around an idea that Gaze was angry Cooper didn’t wait for him when he got a flat tyre. These reporters seemed to be referring to road racing where, in very limited circumstances, waiting might be expected of a competitor. This etiquette, for good reasons, does not apply in mountain bike racing, essentially because flat tyres are largely caused by rider error or poor equipment choice. When misfortune is to blame, that’s just bad luck. I asked Anton about this aspect: “I had no idea Sam had a slow leak with his tyre so was probably just as shocked as the South African was to see Sam suddenly hit the brakes in front of us and pull into the tech zone pointing at his rear wheel. At this point I figured it was me or the South African for Gold and Silver and I sure know which colour I prefer!” But that aside, Anton would have been well within his right to attack then, even if he’d known Sam would be back in the race soon. This is just a fact of racing. Anton wasn’t without sympathy for Sam’s plight though: “I can understand it was quite raw in that moment and the emotion and anger boiled over for him [in the], the frustration and the feeling that he was watching the Gold medal ride away.”
In fact, Cooper’s assessment is exactly how Gaze experienced it. The special set of circumstances surrounding this race for Gaze deserve some elaboration, given the public reprimands he received. As Sam explained: “This race is where I have put the most pressure on myself in my whole life. For the first time in my career I had come off a perfect pre-season build up, which led to my first Elite World Cup win in South Africa. I felt that the Commonwealth Games was my race to lose, especially with placing second to Anton [at the previous Commonwealth Games in Glasgow] four years ago, where I felt like I blew my chance at the win. This whole race I was on edge. For months leading up to it I was hoping for the perfect day, but I began with mistakes (dropping bottles, near mechanicals etc). I was starting to stress over the fact I could lose what I had been working towards for four years. With one and a half laps to go I realised I had a slow leak in my rear tyre, then I began to beat myself up over it. As I stopped in the tech-zone, I had to watch Anton sprint off. And don't get me wrong, I NEVER expected him to wait. I wouldn't have waited if I was in his position. I lashed out in frustration believing that my dream was over again as the result of my own mistake; I had to watch the race leave without me. It may not be the juicy story everyone was expecting, but in the heat of the moment where I was totally engaged in winning, I made a bad decision that has hindered my reputation”.
There is much more to understand about this incident from the two men concerned, which is covered in some depth in our print story, but if you don’t get to see the whole article, it is worth considering Anton Cooper’s closing words: “Time heals everything and I have no doubt the next battle between us is just around the corner! And hopefully some nice shiny medals for us Kiwis at the next Olympics in Tokyo and World Cups and World Champs along the way…”. And of course, it’s worth remembering Anton Cooper’s subsequent incredible performance in the Czech Republic, earning him a silver medal in the closest sprint finish in any XCO World Cup event in history. Lastly, we wish them both the best in the upcoming World Cups and World Champs!
Words & Images: Carl Patton & Tim Bardsley-Smith
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