Commonwealth Games: New Zealand and Canada golds

New Zealand's Karen Hanlen on Glasgow's Cathkin Braes. Picture: John Devlin
New Zealand's Karen Hanlen on Glasgow's Cathkin Braes. Picture: John Devlin
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THEY streamed out of the city and on to the Cathkin Braes in their thousands with their flags and cow bells, all headed for the new mountain bike trails, a bit of sporting infrastructure that will endure, and be enjoyed, well after the Glasgow 2014 circus has packed up and left town.

“It was like the French Alps,” said Lee Craigie, the Scottish rider who was seventh in the women’s cross-country race. “It was amazing,” said English rider Paul Oldham. “Must have been incredible to be Scottish.”

The sun shone, the wind blew, the rain threatened, and then materialised in a brief squally shower. And there was a tremendous Scottish team performance in the men’s race. Grant Ferguson was fifth having ridden with guts and courage, as well as on his own for virtually the entire race.

The 20-year-old from Peebles was joined in the Scotland team by Gareth Montgomerie, the 31-year-old veteran of the 2006 Games in Melbourne, and Kenta Gallagher, the 22-year-old from Inverness. And all three almost placed in the top ten. Gallagher was tenth, Montgomerie, who had a late puncture, 11th. A pity, as one Scottish official remarked, that there was no team prize.

But the team effort cannot be understood by the finishing positions. They had a plan coming into the race. And they had prepared meticulously, including a week-long training camp in a 
“holiday lodge” by the side of the Cathkin Braes. Before that they went to Girona in Spain. More recently there was a final camp in the Alps.

“We stayed just over the hill there,” said Montgomerie afterwards, “and we rode here, on the mountain bike trails, every day, doing specific sessions, half-lap flat-out efforts, that kind of thing.”

The start of a mountain bike race is like a Formula One Grand Prix. Ferguson, lean and rangy, can struggle with the explosive effort, but Montgomerie helped his young team-mate. When Ferguson lost contact with the leaders Montgomerie went to the front of the chasing pack and rode as hard as 
he could, with Gallagher also there in support.

“It was going to plan,” he said. “Grant was our main man and we did what we could. There was a group just ahead and I’ve got the gas to go up the hills and get Grant back in the race.

“Grant’s been flying all year,” he added, insisting that a medal was the goal. “Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out. It would have been good to get someone up there in my last race.” Montgomerie is retiring to open a bike cafe, Studio Velo, in his native Castle Douglas.

Once Montgomerie had done his bit, Ferguson was left on his own, between the leading group and the chasers, led by the 2006 gold medallist (and technically the defending champion, because mountain biking was omitted from Delhi), England’s Liam Killeen.

Ferguson had a choice, sit up and wait, or battle on. He battled on. “I’d have liked to be in that front group,” he reflected later. “Gareth tried to help me get across the gap, then [Australia’s Daniel] McConnell came past, hit it hard, and I couldn’t quite bridge it. I found myself in no man’s land. To be honest I thought the front group would look at each other and slow down, but they’d gone.” Anton Cooper eventually won from his fellow New Zealander, Samuel Gaze, with McConnell third.

Killeen finally caught Ferguson on the seventh and last lap, giving him a bit of a breather before he put in a dig to drop the Englishman and finish alone, as he had been for most of the race. He raised his hand as he came up the drag to the line.

“The crowd was awesome and I wanted to say thanks for that. All over the track the noise erupted as you went round. It was nuts. The goal coming into the race was to perform my best and a medal was something I wanted, but to come away with fifth having known I’ve performed my best, I’m happy,” he added. “At 20 years old it was the biggest event I’ve done. I was nervous. I’ve put a lot of work into it. It was a big, big goal.”

Craigie was another enjoying a swansong, confirming that, at 35, this was her last international cross-country. “It was a really, really hard race, and a world class field but the support was unbelievable. I owe them at least two places.”

Catharine Pendrel of Canada was the runaway winner with her countrywoman Emily Batty second, and Australia’s Rebecca Henderson third. For the Scots, Jessie Roberts was 11th and Kerry MacPhee thirteenth.

MacPhee’s performance was impressive considering that she is so new to mountain biking, having switched from triathlon.

Then there is the fact that three weeks ago she was in hospital for three days with a severe arm infection that wouldn’t respond to antibiotics.

Just by making it to the start line the 29-year-old from South Uist made history, as the first woman from the Outer Hebrides to compete at a Commonwealth Games.

After the race she was looking forward to going for a run on Wednesday, and catching up with her fellow islander Erraid Davies, the 13-year-old swimming medallist from Shetland.

“It’s the whole island thing,” she said. “We’re such small communities. We really look out for each other and get behind each other. I can’t wait to see 
Erraid actually, to say that I’m so, so proud of her. I’ll look out for her in the dining hall.”