Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

New Zealand’s Sam Gaze realised a dream when he won the opening leg of the UCI Mercedes-Benz MTB World Cup in Stellenbosch at the weekend, beating the world champion Nino Schurter in a breathtaking sprint finish.

The Kiwi fell to the ground at the end, half in agony, half in ecstasy after winning his first race as an elite athlete. He had been struggling with cramp for the last few laps, but the realisation that he had beaten Schurter, the Swiss superstar, who had gone unbeaten in all six legs of the 2017 World Cup, forced a smile through the pain.

Maxime Marotte of France was third in a sprint in which Schurter faltered after his left foot uncleated from his pedal in the kick to the line.

Mathieu van der Poel of the Netherlands was fourth and Frenchman Titouan Carod fifth.

"It’s a dream come true," said Gaze, who won the under-23 world championship for the second time in 2017. "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.

"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."

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 edge of the race.

The two quickly established an exclusive group at the front, chased by Marotte and Van der Poel, but the latter pair could not quite close the gap. Gaze moved ahead of Schurter in the final lap and put in a brutal attack on the five-time world champion halfway through the lap.

Annika Langvad shook off the pressure she had put on herself ahead of the opening leg of the women’s section to win after a dramatic battle with Pauline Ferrand Prevot of France.

The Dane continued an amazing run of consecutive wins in the opening race of the World Cup series that stretches back to 2016, when she took victory in Cairns, Australia.

The race on the Coetzenburg course could have gone either way, with the two swapping the lead throughout.