I sat down in the capacious (somewhat palatial, actually), and very red Specialized Racing tent, and with a cracking cuppa from the charming mechanic, Rico, I waited for Sam to arrive from his hotel.
I say a ‘tent’. What I was in was larger than the average house, and probably more well-equipped. I could have had a coffee from an all singing, all dancing machine, but alas I am a true English lady and had tea, and perched politely on the edge of the sofa.
Sam wasn’t long but apologised whole-heartedly for being a little late. He hung up his bike and sat down. He was very much at ease in these very professional surroundings. Why, perhaps, wouldn’t he be? Well, because he is only eighteen , a new kid on the block, and not employed or sponsored by Specialized XC Racing Team.
Sam couldn’t stress enough the wonderful support he is receiving from Specialized whilst he is racing the World Cups. A young New Zealander, a long way from home, Specialized have taken him under their wing.
‘What’s the deal with Specialized?’, I asked. Sam explained that he had come across to Europe essentially on his own, but supported by Bike NZ (who are funding his Commonwealth Games preparation) and his sponsor, Specialized New Zealand, for whom he is an ‘Ambassador Rider’. “Specialized [pro team] were not told to look after me from a higher power, they are just doing it out of generosity. I see them as my friends, they’re not work horses. I feel bad when they tell me to sit down and rest! They have been amazing”.
Being part of one of the biggest cross-country teams in the World is a big deal for anyone, and Sam knows this. He is incredibly thankful for the support of the guys and girls around him, and the chance to be an apprentice to the likes of Jaroslav Kulhavy. “To be surrounded by such world class athletes is a great learning experience. Jaroslav is the rider I’ve always looked up to. Your hero should not just be someone who gets good results but who is a good person. He has had to overcome a lot and yet he is so positive. That’s good to be around”.
So why is this young and still largely unknown Kiwi getting such World class support? It’s quite simple, I think. As well as being a thoroughly nice chap to be around, he’s also rather good on a bike.
There can be a lot wrong with saying a rider ‘burst onto the scene’, but Sam admits that his World Cup XCE win in Cairns earlier this year was something akin to that. “No one expects a first year under 23 to win a World Cup”.
Of course, it’s not like he just jumped on a bike and suddenly became a World Cup winner. “I’ve ridden since I was young. My Dad was a competitive cyclist and when I started beating him I was like, okay, I’m pretty good at this!” Sam went on to ride as part of the New Zealand National Road Team when he was fifteen, but then discovered the fun of mountain biking…
Sam was disappointed with his first World Championships (Saalfeldon, 2012) punctures putting paid to a successful result, but he came back to Europe for the Val di Sole Junior World Cup the following year hoping to crack the top ten and, as he said, eyebrows raised and still with an element of surprise, “I went and won the thing!” Sam was in Europe, riding with the World’s best, and winning. It was nothing short of a ‘dream come true’.
That year he also won the New Zealand National Championships, Oceania Continental Championships and was second at the Vallnord World Cup, all at Junior level. This year didn’t start too badly either: the New Zealand Elite National Championship and Oceania Continental U23 Championship titles to his name.
So, you see, when he won in Cairns, he wasn’t a no-one. However, in front of the World’s MTB media, he suddenly became much more of a someone.
The Eliminator in Cairns was a case of “I just thought I’d give it a go!… It was unbelievable [as you could see on his face as he crossed the line to claim victory!]. To be in the final with the World and European Champ was incredible. It was so unexpected”.
I asked Sam about whether he felt the change in his profile; was he getting noticed; had it become harder to manage expectation? “Yes, a win like that gets you noticed. … I just aim to be the best I can be. I’m still really young.” That could come across as clichéd and a little coy, but it seems totally honest humbleness. No apathy or arrogance, just a realistic, calm approach. Unassuming, like his nature.
Given his success in Cairns, Sam went on to compete in the Eliminator in the following World Cup: Nove Meto Na Morave in the Czech Republic. However, the real focus is XCO and the fast-approaching Commonwealth Games. Third place in Czech Republic was a fantastic result which proved Sam’s XCO credentials as a first year U23. Albstadt the following week didn’t go to plan, but that’s not something that I think will affect Sam too much. He appears to have everything under control.
Looking ahead, the goals are the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in July – where he deserves some attention as a medal contender – and also the World Cup. “I want to start winning World Cups as soon as possible but I know I’m young and there is time. I’d like to be part of Specialized Racing – if I continue posting good results then hopefully I can join these guys in the coming years”.
In the meantime, Sam continues to be stationed in Europe for the Northern Hemisphere summer. “I’m not the kind of guy to get home-sick, plus travelling back to New Zealand just takes too long”. A second home in Austria with his close friend, Jodok Salzmann, gives stability, a great base for training, and the ‘euro’ lifestyle colloquially known as ‘living the dream’! Sam has a great rapport with the Austrian team and with the folk at Specialized. It’s not hard to see why such high class teams and riders are happy to have him around; he’s a really nice young chap who looks to have a stellar career ahead of him.
Sam says thank you to “Specialized New Zealand and also one of the countries leading shops, Cycle Zone, which is based in Rotorua. These two sponsors have given me the opportunities I need to make the most of what I have and am really thankful for the aid I receive.” Also, “Bike NZ have been a massive part of my career so far. I’ve travelled overseas with the National Federation three times so far (World Champs twice and an overseas road cycling tour) and the guys are doing an amazing job in aiding me for my build up to Glasgow, covering flights to Europe from home and all that goes along with organization for the games itself. A huge thanks guys!” And finally “[Jodok] and his family have given me amazing hospitality during my stay and its beginning to feel like home!”
Keep up with Sam’s progress: give him a follow on Twitter – @samgazemtb
He’s also on Instagram – samgazemtb
Best of luck for the Commonwealth Games and everything after, Sam!