In the beginning, it was a small chip on Sam Gaze's shoulder. And that chip morphed into rage.

And the rage created an incandescent energy.

And that energy was the difference between second and first; between silver and gold. But it didn't end there.

The gold medal unleashed another wave of emotion. And that emotion circled back to rage. And the rage led to contrition. And the apology put an ill-fitting lid on one of the more extraordinary days in Commonwealth Games history ... and kept the fires burning under what has become a great rivalry in New Zealand cycling.

And it was good.

"Yeah, it is good," says Kashi Leuchs, a pioneer of New Zealand cross-country mountain biking.

"We have two guys who could be on top of their sport for the next 10 years or more," says Leuchs, who represented New Zealand at the Sydney, Athens and Beijing Olympics.

Leuchs played adviser to Anton Cooper when he was a teenager trying to cut his tyres in the increasingly competitive class of cycling.

In many respects, the Christchurch rider has become almost incidental to the story, yet it was Cooper who fuelled the rage, and before that, the chip on Gaze's shoulder. For all that, however, he was like everyone else - a bystander, a witness to Gaze's moment of victory and infamy.

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It was Cooper who Gaze chased down during that frantic last lap on the Gold Coast. It was Cooper who Gaze passed, and Cooper who stood a step below as Gaze's contempt washed over proceedings from the top of the dais.

He would have been, Leuchs reckons, slightly bemused by Gaze's antics, at being called out for unsportsmanlike behaviour, but largely unruffled. His vision is inward.

"He just wants to be the best rider Anton Cooper can be," Leuchs says. "That's what motivates him to get on his bike day after day."

Gaze gets his revenge on the Gold Coast but still carries a huge chip on his shoulder. Photo / Greg Bowker
Gaze gets his revenge on the Gold Coast but still carries a huge chip on his shoulder. Photo / Greg Bowker

With Gaze, it's more complex. After canvassing a number of people in New Zealand's small but robust cycling community, one adjective stood out when connected to Gaze in the word association game: intense.

That intensity can rub people the wrong way. "That would be a fair comment," says Mark "Cabin" Leishman, one of the godfathers of New Zealand mountain biking, whose long career has seen him cross generations, competing at one point against Gaze's father Chris, all the way through to a young Cooper.

"Sam has always had that burning intensity. He always had a more obvious outward confidence about what he was doing than Anton," he says. "People noticed, yeah."

This rivalry has a neat dichotomy.

Cooper, 23, is the quiet(er) achiever; the one who rides with his mind as much as his legs. Gaze, 22, is perhaps the more naturally talented, a hot-head who pedals with his heart as much as his legs.

There might be an element of truth to it, but nothing is as simple as it seems.

Cameron Mackenzie, a freelance photojournalist who follows the mountainbike scene closer than most, knows both riders, though he's closer to Gaze.

"Sam's had to work really, really hard and he's sort of lived in Anton's shadow," Mackenzie says.

Whereas Cooper was probably blissfully unaware he was even casting a shadow, Gaze was using it as motivation.

"He sees Anton as a bit more upper class, where he is this blue-collar racer. He wants to be a superstar - and probably enjoys that [notoriety] a bit more."

Their career trajectories are similar, but it's the differences that fuel Tokoroa-born Gaze. His brashness, his fire, invites amateur psychology.

Cooper grew up in Christchurch and his talent was obvious from an early age. He was noticed by adventure racers Steve Moffat and Steve Gurney. They gave him access to their fundraising networks, heightening the perception his route to elite level was less rutted than others.

Cooper was small but asked big questions of those more experienced.

"Anton really impressed me coming through the ranks," Leuchs says. "He would approach me to talk about strategies and those kinds of things. He was always a smart rider. He was an incredible junior and had probably had a choice of pro teams."

Gaze was riding domestically as Cooper made a name for himself in Europe. When Gaze got there himself, he ended up living out of a van for six months. "He was literally on the bones of his arse," Mackenzie says.

Not getting the results he wanted, Gaze was probably wondering why the chips were falling Cooper's way and not his.

Leuchs, for his part, says Cooper's easygoing attitude and sponge-like ability to take in and retain new information made him an attractive proposition for professional teams. While still in his teens, Cooper had been signed to workshop teams Trek and, when they shifted emphasis to downhill racing, Cannondale.

Anton Cooper and Sam Gaze at the 2014 Glasgow Games. Gaze believed he was robbed. Photo / Greg Bowker
Anton Cooper and Sam Gaze at the 2014 Glasgow Games. Gaze believed he was robbed. Photo / Greg Bowker

But it wasn't actually easy. That's where some people get Cooper wrong. He suffered from health issues - notably chronic fatigue syndrome - and for a long time was not getting the results he felt he owed his teams.

He all but qualified for the London Olympics but was too young and the New Zealand Olympic Committee could not get him dispensation.

He was forced out of the Rio Games four years later due to illness. His spot was taken by Gaze, who suffered mechanical issues and finished out of contention.

"He had some really hard times," Leuchs says of Cooper. "It would have been easy for him to call it quits."

He didn't.

After Gaze won on the Gold Coast, in all the bluster about Cooper's lack of sportsmanship (which everyone, on and off the record, dismissed as a red herring), he said something that was almost missed: that he felt he was robbed of victory in Glasgow four years earlier.

"No one else believes that," Leishman said, explaining that he felt Gaze's attention was focused too much on Australian Dan McConnell, who would finish in third, and Cooper brilliantly spotted an opportunity to make the decisive break.

"No one believes it bar one person: Sam Gaze. Now I don't condone what he did and what he said after the race but I have no doubt that his belief he was robbed four years earlier, his 100 per cent conviction in that belief, drove him to win."

Mackenzie has a similar line.

"Anton outsprinted him in Glasgow and I know how much that hurt Sam," he says.

"Then four years later, he's watching his chances sprint away again and he's probably thinking, 'Oh f***, my day is done'."

So he flipped the bird, gave Cooper the finger, and Mackenzie can understand that. He can feel where that's coming from and saw Gaze turn that negative energy into a positive on the bike.

Mackenzie was also understanding, though less forgiving, of Gaze's lack of grace after the race but the problem with using anger as an energy is that it's difficult to turn on and off like a tap.

Gaze apologised, or was made to apologise. Either way, it doesn't really matter. It was pointless. Like Mother Nature saying sorry after a storm. You know, eventually, she'll send another one on the way.

It was Gaze's hot-headed rage that spurred him to chew up the 28-second deficit as surely as it was Cooper's coolly calculated opportunism that created it.

This could be the template for the next decade. While people might choose a favourite, everyone agrees that these two have the potential for greatness. They aren't just Commonwealth good, they're world-class.

"Either of them could become world champions, Olympic champions," Leishman says. "They're that good. What motivates them internally is quite different but what they can both do is turn themselves inside out on the bike."

Leishman battled his own demons while chasing a career in the sport. He has his doubts that using anger and perceived slights as motivation is an effective long-term strategy.

"The risk to Sam is his volatility. Can he keep this up for a long period of time?

"Elite sport is not that healthy. You spend a lot of time inside your own head. If you can't process stuff properly, you run the risk of losing the plot.

"I've been there. I know that. That old chestnut that sport doesn't build character, it reveals it - well, high-performance sport just magnifies that."

When Leuchs was racing to make a name for himself in what was then a sport battling for mainstream acceptance, he had the sort of "space" that Cooper and Gaze will never enjoy while they're fighting for the same prizes.

"It's funny," Leuchs says almost wistfully. "Most people will [be satisfied] with being in the top 10 in the world, or the best in their country. That was me. I never had to fight for my space, if you like.

"It's always going to be a lot different having a rival so close to you. There'll be no easy success for either of them."

It's that dynamic that will continue to fascinate. Neither is going anywhere fast except up, down and around the side of hills. Cooper is ranked sixth in the world, Gaze 16th, both have factory backing (Trek and Specialized respectively), and they are two of just three under-25s in the world's top 20 cross-country riders.

They are going to be sharing space for a long time.

"They're never going to be friends," Mackenzie says. "I think they just see the world differently. But they do respect the hell out of each other."

In the future, they might even start to enjoy each other's successes.

The rest of us should sit back and watch.

It will be good.

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