THIS RIDER: Sam Gaze
Discover how this New Zealander found his way into the World Championship jersey after a 4-year battle with his health.
Sam Gaze didn’t follow the well-trodden European path to professional cycling. Growing up in rural New Zealand meant he had a very different journey to the top level mountain biking. As a member of UCI team Alpecin-Deceuninck for the last three seasons, his success has been far from linear.
How did a kid who grew up on a farm in New Zealand become an international mountain bike sensation?
From his home in Girona, Sam recalls, “My first memory was a [Yamaha] PeeWee 50 motorbike that I got from my dad when I was three years old. On the weekends, I'd follow my dad around who was a keen amateur cyclist in New Zealand. I sort of idolised him. As long as I've known, Dad was always my hero on the bike.”
Throughout our time with Sam, it’s clear his dad played a huge part in getting him to the start line of many of Sam’s races and picking up the pieces when it didn’t go to plan. Seeing his dad race on the amateur circuit ignited a passion to follow in his father’s footsteps.
From rural farm to race circuit
“I remember there was a National Cup in Auckland somewhere. Before dad's race, there was the under 15 race and we convinced the commissaires and organisers that 10 or 11 year old me could do the race,” he laughs adding that officials agreed only if his dad followed him the whole time. “There he was behind me and I was there crashing down dark banks, and he's dragging me out and going for the lap. And that's really how it first started,” he says.
From then on, Sam set about carving a future in cycling. He made lifelong friends and raced up the New Zealand ranks. Eventually, he set off for his first overseas competition in Australia which resulted in him winning the King of the Mountains jersey. It was at that point Sam realised he might just have what it takes to pursue a career on the bike.
He relocated to Europe, living out of a car for 6 months on a budget of just 150 euros a week. He recalls a particularly memorable road trip with his friend Adrian behind the wheel. They left Andorra and by the time Sam woke up, he found himself in renowned enduro honeypot Finale Ligure on the Italian coast. It was then and there that he realised just how far away he was from New Zealand.
Moving to a new continent at such a formative age meant that Sam missed a lot of life-defining moments among his friends and family: friends off to university, weddings, babies. The list goes on.
Committing yourself to professional sport and being at peace with the sacrifices it demands is difficult without victories. So many would-be champions never “make it”, so it takes a deep belief not only within yourself but from those around you to pursue the dream. Is he content that it’s been worth it? “I'm comfortable with the fact that I've sold my soul to the sport a little bit. You can be obsessively passionate or passionately obsessive, and one's a lot worse than the other. I always try to make sure that it comes from the right mentality and then I'm okay with going into the pressure cooker.”
It takes a deep belief not only within yourself but from those around you to pursue the dream.Sam Gaze
His first world championships race
Having established himself in the youth and national ranks in New Zealand, it was time for Sam to line up against the world’s best in Nové Město, Czech Republic at his first ever Cross-country World Championship race in 2016.
“It was my second to last year U23 and I was determined to win a world title in front of my dad.” Says Sam. Up to this point, Sam’s dad had only seen his son race against a handful of people while in New Zealand. Imagine the family’s reaction upon seeing a start list of 140 riders and 20,000 spectators eagerly cheering on the future world champion.
Having won two of the three World Cup races (Cairns and Albstadt) and podiumed in two others (La Bresse and Lenzerheide) ahead of the World Championships, Sam Gaze was in good form. Despite the odds looking in his favour, disaster struck in the lead up to the race.
“Two weeks out from my dad’s arrival, I got food poisoning,” said Sam, the disappointment still clear in his voice 6 years later. “I was beside myself, you know, like, my dad who'd done so much for me coming up through the sport. I wanted to give him that memory so bad. And the fact that I thought I wasn't going to was tearing me up.”
Sam’s innate fighting spirit drove him to keep trying. He refused to let a bout of food poisoning come between him and a shot at the rainbow jersey while his dad watches from the other side of the tapes.
“One morning, I woke up and it's probably four days to go, and I said, ‘okay, if I can do these [training] intervals at this speed, I have a chance,’” explains Sam. And to his relief, he managed it. He was ready to contest the biggest race of his career so far.
Race day came around and emotions ran high among the Gaze family. “I remember the morning before the race, my dad and step-mum came over to the apartment that I was staying in. I was all kitted up and had my backpack and everything ready to go. I was already crying just because of what that day meant to me and what I wanted to accomplish.”
Following a warm up lap, the time had come for Sam to prove himself on the world stage.
“I had a plan going into the race. There's 20,000 people wrapped around this course, it's four deep in most places, but the only place where there was no one else were my parents. So, for 30 seconds of that race each lap, I felt like I was 12 years old back out with my dad again.”
“I remember making the move and breaking the elastic and being by myself for a lap and a half to go on the front of the race. My dad calmly said to me [before the race] ‘be in the moment’. So, from that moment until the finish line I was completely locked down. I couldn't tell you what country I was in or where the hell I was just completely ‘rock, line, go, stop’. It wasn't until I hit the tarmac onto the finishing straight that I just fully stepped on my heart. And just…euphoria, you know?”
Adrenaline. Raw emotion. Blissful relief. And there was not a single other rival around him. Sam Gaze had won his first world title.
“The first thing I wanted to do was look for my dad and I spotted him through a crowd of 100 people. It was like a movie, you know, and it was after everything my dad did for me to come up through the sport and everything that he had to go through. For me to do what I did, to give him that, was the best day of my life.”
Cape Epic and the race that never was
South Africa hosts the biggest cross-country marathon event in the world: Cape Epic. It’s every XC rider’s dream to compete in this unique stage race.
Sam made that dream a reality when he took part in the 2019 edition. He lined up alongside his teammate and defending champion Jaroslav Kulhavy. The pressure was on to retain the jersey.
But disaster struck during stage one when Sam suffered a big crash. Struggling on, he managed to finish the stage. He even made it through stage 2. But on day 3 and still feeling the effects, he knew something wasn’t right and withdrew from the race. This also meant that his teammate would no longer be able to defend the title.
Sam was subsequently diagnosed with a concussion.
Recovery was long and difficult. It gave Sam time to dwell on other parts of his life that he had given up chasing a career in mountain biking.
“I struggled so much after the head injury because there is that realisation that you ride your bike fast, but when you don't ride your bike fast, what are you doing in life?”
Soon after the concussion diagnosis, another one followed. Depression. The two are closely linked with recent research suggesting concussion causes depression. As such, the condition is usually referred to as post-concussion depression.
The trail back to the top
Sam returned home to New Zealand to recover. He spent the 18 months since his diagnoses building back up to full fitness both mentally and physically.
During that time, he watched his closest rivals continue on their path of success. Friend and now teammate Mathieu van der Poel won the 2019 Amstel Gold Race in a stunning display of sporting talent. Though this was just after Sam’s concussion, he reached out to the Dutchman to congratulate him on his victory.
“I used to race with Mathieu quite a bit in the 2018 season. We were both on the podium at Stellenbosch World Cup, and we sprinted for the win at the XCC World Cup together and we did some nice things,” he recalls. At this point in their careers, they were on opposing teams. “After Matthieu's Amstel Gold win, I said congratulations for the ride that he did – it was just staggering. He asked me how things were and I said, ‘yeah, not super good, you know, like, things aren't going so well.”
What followed would change the course of Sam’s career for years to come.
“[Mathieu] said, ‘give me two minutes’ and within ten minutes Philip [Roodhooft] and Christoph were in touch to try and organise something with Alpecin-Deceuninck to carry on my future."
With contracts signed and sealed, Sam returned to Europe in June 2020 when lockdowns eased in order to prepare for the summer season.
I like to think there are two people that sort of saved my career and Mathieu was one.Sam Gaze
We can call this a comeback
Sam’s first season with the then-named Alpecin-Fenix started well with a number of top 10 finishes. It would be another 12 months until he began to seriously contest World Cup races again. Towards the end of the 2021 season, he became a marked man.
More setbacks came at the start of the 2022 season. Having had a promising start, double knee surgery three weeks out from the first World Cup was less than ideal. “I remember talking to my dad on the phone, leaving the hospital and bawling my eyes out crying, thinking like, ‘when's it gonna stop? You know, how many hurdles do I have to get through here?”
He continued the season dedicated to his training with three World Championship titles as his focus. After his struggles with mental and physical health, he now began to feel like himself again. The real Sam Gaze was back.
He successfully defended his Commonwealth Games title, putting his name down as a favourite for the World Championships a few weeks later.
Sam plays down his XCC victory at the Les Gets World Championships but it’s clear it was a crucial stepping stone in his long journey.
“Don't get me wrong, I was over the moon to win a world title, but I was so focused on the XCO world title and to battle against guys like Tom Pidcock and Nino Schurter. I told myself so many times in the mirror that I could do it, that I believed that everything that day was going to go perfectly.”
“Then the crash happened and it was just like that – gone. Trying to digest that…At first I closed up quite a bit and I didn't want to talk to anyone about it. My partner was hoping for two or three day holiday in Italy after the worlds this year. Instead, she's driven overnight to Belgium, and I'm sitting up in hospital wondering what the hell has happened.”
With no cross-country world title, it took Sam a few days to come to terms with the result.
“I fully broke down. I think the lesson that I learned is that nothing is owed to you in this world. And even though you felt validated the fact that you feel like that's owed to you, it's not. After that, I sort of knew that, for my own sanity, I needed to do the marathon worlds.”
On his first week out of hospital, Sam jumped straight on the turbo trainer despite his broken ribs and collarbone. “I felt like a 90 year old person getting out of bed, you know. And I sort of really had some real big doubts in the last week before when I was thinking, like, Come on, man, this is just pushing the envelope a bit too far here.”
“I arrived in Denmark having prepared as best as possible. And I felt good and confident. But at the same time, I knew that it's not worth feeling like this was owed to me. If I did everything right, then it would happen. I felt like that much bad luck meant that if I just did everything I needed to do, it would happen for marathon worlds.”
He realised two things going into the race. “I couldn't drag XCO Worlds into marathon worlds. I couldn't be going there looking for redemption because it’s not the right mentality to come in with. The second thing was if it didn't work out, I need to be at peace by the time I started the off-season otherwise it's going to eat me alive.”
The race set off with a bang and Sam found himself in front of a chase group with one hour remaining.
“I told myself, ‘alright, this last hour is what I've been waiting for the last three weeks: to let out what I need to let out from the last months. Now we're here what are you going to do?’ And then yep, I put myself through the wringer.
Sam tells how his body began to give up on him towards the very end just as the defending marathon world Champion Andreas Seewald homed in on him. Luckily, the German fell sort of reaching the kiwi as Sam crossed the finish line.
“I was definitely emotional after the marathon world title, because there’s a lot of stuff that, luckily, I could get out in that race and that I could sleep better at night afterwards from, you know?”
His aim might not have been redemption but it’s hard to classify it as anything but. After Sam’s journey since Cape Epic, a rainbow jersey at the marathon world championships brings his recovery full circle. At last, Sam Gaze is back.
What’s next for the world champion?
At the spritely young age of 26, Sam Gaze is far from finished.
“In the short term future, I want to do everything I can to be the best mountain biker in the world at the Paris Olympics. We’re living in a very exciting time in mountain biking. The thought of having a guy who wins a stage of the Tour on Alpe d’Huez [Tom Pidcock] and a guy that's multiple Tour of Flanders champion [Mathieu van der Poel] standing on the [mountain bike] podium at the Olympics or be able to close a chapter on the mountain bike I think for me it'll be a dream come true to be able to really make the most of what I've worked for.”
Perhaps more surprisingly though, it’s successes away from the mountain bike that really take Sam back to his roots.
“I'm a dreamer. I'm still a 12 year old boy in a lot of respects and I dream of winning Paris-Roubaix. I have a dream of being in the final of Flanders. Being in this team, I dream of being a right-hand man to a guy like Mathieu, and to be able to be in the final of these massive races with him and know I’ve played a part in winning these things. I grew up watching the Tour de France. I grew up watching Flanders and Roubaix.”
Sam’s dreaming is infectious. He wants the best for himself and why shouldn’t he? His family, in particular his dad, has made countless sacrifices to give him the best chance of success. Sam himself has sacrificed a comfortable life in his native New Zealand in favour of chasing his childhood dreams. It’s clear he’s not doing this for selfish reasons, but to show the world that hard work, dedication and sacrifice is worthwhile.
“I want to be able to go back on the plane when I'm 34 or whatever — retired. Look my dad in the eye and be like, ‘I did the best I absolutely could.'”