There’s no denying that Sam Gaze’s emphatic victory and Evie Richard’s triumphant return after a torrid season so far were impressive. But how relevant where they given the quality and quantity of the other riders?
In the Men’s XCO race Sam Gaze and fellow New Zealander Ben Oliver took the lead after the first turn and enjoyed what looked like a tempo recovery session for the first few laps. While the commentary team tried to inject some drama by claiming it was a flat out head to head fight between the two teammates it was clearly just a cruise around the Cannock Chase for the two Kiwis. Gaze was even chatting too and patting Oliver on the back as they swapped positions on the start straight halfway through the race.
That left the chasing groups to create the excitement and they didn’t disappoint. Australian Sam Fox was looking strong until a front wheel puncture took him out of the lead group. That left Cameron Orr (Northern Ireland) and Joseph Blackmore (England) trying to hang onto newly crowned UK National Champion Charlie Aldridge (Scotland) who’d clearly had his power porridge. He wasn’t going to make it easy for Cameron and Joseph to catch up on fueling either, launching a sneaky attack when both the other riders went for gels on the start/finish straight. That wasn’t the decisive move, but it was clearly noted by the karma police as when he did establish a clear lead later, a slide out on the bone dry course ripped his rear mech clean off leaving him with a 2.5km run to the pits.
Presumably happy that the huge advantage that they’d worked together to build was enough to ensure a first and second result for New Zealand (it would likely have been a first, second and third lockout had Anton Cooper not caught Covid the week before). Gaze accelerated away from Oliver on one of the longer climbs, eventually establishing a 30-second lead over his teammate who still finished 1:30 ahead of third place.
With Alexander Miller (Namibia) and Sam Fox and Dan McConnell (Australia) way back in the woods ,the Bronze medal battle looked set to be between Orr and Blackmore. Both tried several speculative attacks on the mostly fast rolling, trail center singletrack with the odd rock feature, but none stuck and they either got tired or relaxed ahead of a final furlong showdown. 21-year-old Namibian, Miller, wasn’t done though and he attacked hard to close the gap on the two riders ahead at the start of the final lap. Pausing briefly to asses the situation, he didn’t wait long before attacking again, powering ahead to a nine second gap over Cameron who edged out Joseph by the depth of a semi-slick tire knob in the photo finish.
England ease to victory
While the men’s start line of just 26 riders (Wales and Canada concentrated their cycling teams purely on track and road and other federations weighted attendance heavily into drop bars not dirt) was threadbare, the women’s start field of just eight riders was a total comb-over. Even World Champion, Evie Richards, was only lining up on her custom rainbow striped Trek because her team had given her a sick note excusing her from the Snowshoe and Mt St Anne World Cup weekends that bracketed the Commonwealth Games. That was because the normally ebullient English star has been plagued with back problems and Covid since she won the World Champs and while she was fresh from a National Championships victory, she was unsure she’d last the distance at Cannock Chase.
Richards almost false started too, leaving Isla Short (Scotland) to take the lead into the first turn. Richards was clearly on a charge though, powering around the opening kms until only Short, Candice Lill (South Africa) and Zoe Cuthbert (Australia) were clinging onto her wheel. That didn’t last long either and Richards was soon solo time trialing to a win where she was visibly faster through the various extended rockery, slab sender and sweeping berm technical sections. The trickiest rock section also put the young Jersey rider, Emily Bridson, into the undergrowth, finishing her race early although happily she looked unscathed as she walked away from the track.
As Richards extended or held the gap – seemingly depending on how she felt on any given lap – over the chasers eventually lapping the Kenyan Nancy Debe and Lisa Mansell from Jersey. Short continued to do her best to secure silver by using her light weight to hurt the others on climbs. For most of the race it looked like Zoe Cuthbert would be the one not getting a medal, falling back by up to five seconds when the course went up and looking tired on the tech sections too. The tall, young Aussie was head down but still hanging in when Isla Short and then Candice Lill attacked repeatedly on the uncharacteristically dry forest climbs. It was Short who lost contact when 21 year old Cuthbert attacked hard up a momentum sapping, rocky step climb, nearly collecting lapped rider Mansell in the process
With just over an hour done and two and a half laps left, Richards almost ‘did an Aldridge’, losing her back wheel on a dry grass corner in the finish arena. Fast footwork kept her upright and the bike unharmed she was soon back on the gas, extending her lead again ahead of Cuthbert and Lill who were now battling for Silver and Bronze. Cuthbert repeated her rock climb attack on the penultimate lap to go clear, but while she had an eight-second gap at the bell, she was clearly in a world of pain while her more experienced South African pursuer looked comparatively fresh. The Australian dug deep in hot, dusty, homeland-like conditions and probably wasn’t expecting to extend her advantage over Lill to add the Commonwealth Silver to four National Youth and Junior titles.
Next up, the Worlds
While Richards' win didn’t look as effortless as Gaze’s – with some stumbling on tech sections before the end – the eventual margin was bigger, with a 47-second cushion to rest her gold medal on. It was clearly a relief for the Malverns rider to have completed two successful races and get National and Imperial gold medals out of her season. Whether she’s back to strong enough form to defend her Worlds jersey is still in doubt, as while her gap over Short in this race was eventually 2:08, the Scottish rider was 5:47 off Anne Terpstra’s first place at the Vallnord World Cup.
Based on the same Andorra arithmetic, Sam Gaze certainly has a better chance of being in contention for a rainbow jersey in France as he was just over two minutes off the pace in the Pyrenees. We’ll only have to wait three weeks to find out too, as the World Championships returns to the iconic Les Gets race tracks after an 18-year hiatus.
In the meantime, the Cannock Chase XCO course will now be open to the general public to ride, although some sections like the ‘Deer’s Leap’ rock drop and the bridge into the finish will apparently be removed. Hopefully it’ll still attract more riders and be more relevant to the growth of cycling participation than the actual Commonwealth Games races were, and while MTB was definitely undermined by decisions of track obsessed national cycling federations, it was great to see impressive numbers of spectators for the events. Maybe something those cycling federations should take note of, although we’re not holding our breath.