A riveting race for the bronze medal in the men's team pursuit between New Zealand and Australia turned hollow on the track of the Izu Velodrome on Wednesday night, with the Kiwis losing a rider to a crash inside the final 1700m of the 4000m race.
Riding on the back of the quartet, Aaron Gate got his wheel on the underside of the rider in front of him, then hit the deck as he tried to correct his position while Regan Gough peeled off the front to exit the race – as one member does late in the piece in the team pursuit. At the time, the Kiwis held a slim lead heading into what was shaping up to be a frantic finish.
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The crash left the New Zealanders in disarray, with the rider who peeled off the front unable to get on the wheel of the other two teammates still in the race. The two lead riders took a moment to notice, and eventually, the Kiwis were riding by themselves.
The Australian team caught the back New Zealand rider inside the final 400m to overlap the Kiwis, which brought an end to the race and saw Australia claim the bronze.
"It couldn't have happened at a worse time," Gough told Sky Sport after the race. "I was doing what you call a suicide turn and getting out of there, emptied everything I had then ejected, then you hear a guy crash and have to continue, it's literally the worst thing that could have happened."
The New Zealand team were riding at about 67km/h when Gate went down, and there was a loud thump as he appeared to hit his head against the slanted wall of the velodrome.
Gate was able to walk away from the crash but sustained visible burns to his hands and right shoulder from sliding across the velodrome floor, with the combination of the high speed and hard floor causing his skin suit to tear. As he walked away after the race, Gate turned to the camera and mouthed "sorry".
Speaking to Sky Sport, New Zealand men's track endurance coach Craig Palmer said the team was devastated, but no one was looking to blame an individual.
"Sport at this level is pretty brutal," Palmer said. "We had that set up really well, we ran through the first (kilometre) exactly how we wanted to do it. We knew they were going to go faster and we were probably going to be down for the first (kilometre) when in fact we were sitting pretty even.
"We were ready to launch in the second half, and our strength is in the second half and has been all week. We were sitting pretty, we were all under control and looking forward to finishing strong.
"The boys will be absolutely devastated; they are devastated. A lot of work, they knew they were in good shape coming in, and they had executed their first two rides brilliantly. I think they know what they were capable of and what could have happened, but not to get it across the line, they're pretty damaged right now.
"We're all in this together, there's no individual blame. We'll assess it, we'll debrief it, but at the end of the day we all go out there together, we live and die by it. They're a really strong unit so there will be no blame."
The men's team pursuit was the first of three events Gate was entered in during the Tokyo Olympics, with the Omnium - an event made up of four separate races - and Madison endurance race still on his agenda.