’Olympics are where the glory is' - Sam Gaze on rivalries, road racing and chasing cross-country titles

The Kiwi rider still has unfinished business on the mountain bike, but he is keen to make his mark on the road, too

“I’ve always made the joke that if I win the Olympics and Paris-Roubaix then I’m done,” Sam Gaze laughs. “I’ll pack my bags and go back home to New Zealand. Maybe one year, eh.” It’s good to have dreams; even better to be in pursuit of them when they’re achievable.

Many readers might not know much about Gaze. To the uninitiated, he’s The Other Alpecin-Deceuninck Rider combining mountain biking and road cycling. He’s not got the star profile of Mathieu van der Poel, and nor is his road palmarès anywhere close to being comparable to his team-mate’s, but he is the superior mountain biker, and in 2024, he wants to deny the Dutchman the Olympic gold he craves so badly. “I’m 28 now and this is going to be the best opportunity I’ll ever have to be Olympic champion,” the Kiwi states.

In mountain bike circles, Gaze is regularly a race favourite. He’s won successive short track cross-country world titles and the 2022 mountain bike marathon championships in the past two seasons, triumphs that go alongside U23 and elite cross-country world and Commonwealth gongs. He is, without a doubt, one of the best in the world. 

But the elite world and Olympic cross-country race has so far eluded him. At the 2023 Super Worlds in Glasgow, he finished second behind Britain’s Tom Pidcock – “to be the second best mountain biker in the world is quite nice, but I believe, I know, I can win that race.” – and there’ll be a rematch this summer at the Paris Olympics. “Being completely honest, the Olympic cross-country race is the one I really want to win,” he tells Rouleur. “I’m grateful and happy for the short track world titles, and extra world titles are nice for the memory bank when I’m too old and wrinkly to be racing bikes, but the Olympic cross-country is where the glory is at. That’s what I want.”

As a child growing up in New Zealand’s north island, Gaze first dabbled in motocross before becoming hooked on cycling, largely thanks to his father, Chris, who raced as an amateur. “The first time I represented New Zealand was on the road, and I won a King of the Mountains classification in one Australian race,” he reflects. “But as an U19, I realised the road was a lot harder to crack, and I was also passionate about mountain biking, so I committed to that.”

Gaze made his Grand Tour debut last year (Image by Getty Images)

He was immediately successful, winning a silver medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games aged 19, and four years later he took his first World Cup title; he’s since won another four and claimed 13 podiums. “I just love racing my mountain bike,” he smiles. “It’s 90 minutes, super intense, and it just so happens that the racing suits my strengths and I’ve been successful in it.”

The road dream has always lingered, though, and in 2020 – a few months after a short stagiaireship with Deceuninck-QuickStep – he joined what is now Alpecin-Deceuninck; in five seasons, however, he’s only raced 61 days on the road. “I can’t deny that my passion for road cycling is really high,” he says. “Pairing both codes is a hard compromise, though, and there’s only a few who can successfully do it. It’s a lot easier said than done.

“To be honest, the only similarity between the two disciplines is that both have two wheels attached to a bike frame. In mountain biking, if you’ve got the legs, it’s very easy to break the elastic. But if you have a bad two minutes, it’s game over. On the road, I think there’s a lot more danger: there’s crashes, other guys to watch out for, technical elements. You can also hide for 20 minutes as the races are so much longer, but the overall endurance of these guys is really incredible.”

He has his gaze set towards a more full time transition to the road, and last summer made his Grand Tour debut in the Vuelta a España, only for a viral infection to force him out at the end of the first week. “My size and the quality of rider that I am lends me to the Classics,” he says. “I enjoy the dog fight, the consistency of it being crazy. The idea of putting everything on the line in the big days of Roubaix and Flanders really excites me.”

Gaze with his team-mates at the 2023 Vuelta a España (Image by ASO)

Before all that, though, he’s got unfinished business in mountain biking, and Paris 2024 is looming. “I really feel like mountain biking is on the up and going in the right direction. We’ve got Tom, Mathieu, and [Peter] Sagan racing with us, the standard has stepped up across the board, there’s more coverage, and the sport’s being talked about way more than it was 10 years ago. The sport’s in a great place and I’m very grateful to be part of it. 

“I’ve not made a decision on what’s next post-Olympics. I’ve been on the circuit for a decade now and I don’t want to completely leave it behind. That said, I like to think I am a bit of a dreamer, and if I can win a world and Olympic title, then I can say I’ve done a lot in mountain biking, and I can turn my attention to road and the Classics. But first I want to complete my mountain biking dreams.”

*Cover image by SWPix.com

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