If ever anyone was in any doubt about how important a Commonwealth Games gold medal is to a New Zealander, they should track down Anton Cooper’s celebration as he crossed the line on Cathkin Braes. Having attacked off the front inside the final kilometre, Cooper’s sprint and fist-pumping success was worthy of Peter Sagan.
A group of four riders including Cooper broke clear almost on the start loop and, ominously, there were two New Zealanders (Cooper and Sam Gaze), an in-form and fancied Australian (Dan McConnell) and a Canadian, Max Plaxton, a representative quartet from the strongest teams here.
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Agonisingly for the home nation, Grant Ferguson was 10 seconds behind them after a lap and, on the exposed sections of the course, had to battle into the wind on his own. It was an impossible task, though the 20 year old Scot stuck gamely to his task, cheered to the skies by a partisan crowd. There’s a limit to how much difference a cheering crowd can make though and, inexorably, Ferguson slipped back.
Ahead, the quartet rode as if in a team pursuit, with Australian McConnell leading the two New Zealanders with the Canadian often bringing up the rear. At the start of the final of seven laps, 28 year old Aussie McConnell led over the line with the New Zealanders sandwiched between the Canadian, Plaxton. One of these guys was going to be disappointed.
McConnell pressed on, Plaxton moved from fourth to second and the jockeying for position started in earnest, as though the whole of the final lap was a road race final kilometer, each rider trying to place himself to attack or cover. In the end, the selection was made from the back with Cooper forcing the pace and Plaxton slipping back, leaving the two men in black to work over the Australian. Cooper was doing all the pressing, McConnell merely following and Gaze, watching.
At the two kilometer to go board, Cooper was still forcing the pace, Plaxton in the worst spot of all, fourth, a tantalising 16 seconds from a medal. Cooper looked over his shoulder and attacked on a short climb, but the Australian responded and it looked like it was all going to come down to the final grind to the line. Cooper tightened his shoe straps, jumped hard and, in a flash, was gone, with McConnell stuck to the spot and Gaze sprinting around him in pursuit of Cooper. There was no catching the New Zealander though and he crossed the line, fists pumping the air in furious delight.
“I was worried about McConnell because he’s been going well and halfway through the race he looked really easy,” said the Christchurch-based Cooper, “but as the race went on I felt OK, I felt fresh, even on the last lap. In fact I could have gone for another couple of laps,” joked the new champion.
“My coach did a great job getting me into shape for this race and I liked the course, the surface was pretty similar to what I train on at home – though the climbs are longer in New Zealand.” In the final lap, on that final climb, Cooper didn’t need anything steeper or longer to dispose of his two remaining rivals who had sat on his wheel and still couldn’t get round him.
“The World Cups might be bigger globally, but back home, this means a lot,” reflected Cooper, whose notoriety in New Zealand will have ratcheted up another couple of notches.
Commonwealth Games, men’s cross-country mountain bike
1. Anton Cooper (New Zealand) 1-38-26
2. Sam Gaze (New Zealand) at 3 secs
3. Daniel McConnell (Australia) at 10sec
4. Max Plaxton (Canada) at 23sec
5. Grant Ferguson (Scotland) at 3-09
6. Liam Killeen (England) at 3-31
7. Raphael Gagne (Canada) at 4-37
8. Cam Ivory (Canada) at 4-54
9. Paul Oldham (England) at 5-03
10. Kenta Gallagher (Scotland) at 5-19
Cathy Pendrel of Canada wasted no time en route to winning gold at the Commonwealth Games cross-coutry mountain bike race