Since leaving Marlborough in early 2014, Callum Saunders’ cycling career has hit its share of speed bumps.
However, the 23-year-old track specialist is currently on top of his game, following a successful stint in the States during late May and June.
As part of a 20-strong New Zealand elite male and female sprint and endurance squad he spent a month competing and training while based in Trexlertown, Philadelphia.
Over 200 riders from 15 countries offered tough opposition, but Callum was thrilled to pick up his first two international victories on his third trip to the States.
He achieved double success in the kierin, claiming a class 2 win then a much-prized tier 1 victory.
“I hadn’t even podiumed at an international event, even as a junior,” said Callum, “so that was pretty special.”
These results follow on from his two podium placings at the 2019 nationals where he claimed silver medals in the team sprint with NZ team-mates Ethan Mitchell and Zac Williams and the keirin, behind the powerful Eddie Dawkins.
While he has obviously enjoyed recent success in the kierin, Callum divides his loyalties between that format and the sprint events.
“They are both appealing … and hugely different races. I think I’ll just keep training for both and the team sprint, which is what our national programme is based around and see how things progress.”
While at Marlborough Boys’ College, Callum represented his country at under-19 and junior world level, but his progress stalled soon after travelling north to Waikato University. Illness and injury derailed his 2014 season and left him questioning his sporting intentions.
“At the time I told myself that I was doing enough to stay in shape, but it was far from the truth … there was always a subconscious intention to go back to cycling but it wasn’t always shown.”
However, a “kick up the arse” from a close friend in late 2015 reignited the flame and, with the help of long-time mentor Chris Ginders, he got back on the bike and smashed out two personal bests at the 2015 Oceania champs.
After rediscovering his love of the sport, he set his sights on the national champs in February 2016.
A serious accident while training threatened to derail his plans, but he battled through to claim bronze in the team sprint and register another two PBs.
After shoulder surgery resulting from the accident, he raced at the 2017 nationals, bagging silver in the team sprint with the Waikato/BOP team and finishing fourth in the elite individual sprint, his efforts gaining him a place in the elite NZ Sprint programme, based at the Cycling NZ Avantidrome in Cambridge.
Although he was dropped from the elite squad at the beginning of 2018, Callum again rebounded, working his way back into the top tier, being re-selected in May, 2019.
He is now among a group of eight riders in the national elite sprint group, a group that includes several world champions.
While fully aware that the pedigree of his fellow riders makes it difficult to force his way into the chosen sprint team, Cambridge-based Callum acknowledges the benefits of rubbing shoulders with such world-class performers.
“I have found it really humbling to find how gracious [the top riders] have been and how willing they are to share their knowledge.
“They know that they can’t be the best they can be without everyone else people pushing them, so it’s mutually advantageous and healthy competition.”
However, sometimes he has to pinch himself when he realises how far he has come.
He recalls a time in the States recently when the Kiwi team had spent 15 hours at the track, grabbed a few hours sleep then were back into it.
“Bodies and minds were wearing down at a rate of knots and I was sitting in the pits with Sam [Webster], waiting to ride our semi-final.
“Suddenly I thought, eight years ago I had these guys as laptop screensavers and now I’m racing alongside them, talking to them like the great mates and good buggers that they are.”
Next up for Callum is the Oceania champs followed by the annual World Cup events, then the World Champs in March in Berlin.
“I’m hoping to get some rides in the team sprint during the World Cups and I’ll have a go at some individual competitions too.”
He knows all about setbacks, but stresses, “My appetite for the sport is stronger than ever now, it seems to be growing.
“I’m in a really good place at the moment, surrounded by clever, intuitive and forward-thinking people.
“I’ve got a really good level of personal motivation and really cool support from family and friends in Marlborough … that makes it pretty easy to love the sport and what you are doing, eh?”