Marlborough cyclist Callum Saunders overcame both the reigning Olympic champion and the current world champion to take out the kierin title on day three of the World Cup track cycling meet in Hong Kong on Sunday morning [NZ time].
Saunders got the better of Olympic gold medallist Jason Kenny and world champion Matthijs Buchli in a thrilling final.
Saunders has had limited opportunities for the powerful Kiwi sprint team but made the most of them in Hong Kong.
Under sprint coach Rene Wolff, Saunders only got to ride in the individual events with the team sprint trio returning to Cambridge to prepare for their home World Cup later this week.
Against many of the world’s highest-rated sprinters, including 11 of the world’s top 20-ranked keirin riders, Saunders was only able to place third in his heat, sending him into a winner-take-all repechage, where he held off a strong group to win and progress to the semifinal.
There he drew the No 1 spot to slot in behind the derny. Despite being swamped early when the pace went on he recovered to edge his way into third in a bunch sprint to claim the last place in the final.
He again drew the No 1 slot for the decider with Kenny behind. This proved crucial because, when the Englishman opened up his sprint to push to the lead with two and a half laps remaining, his speed was such that the Marlborough rider maintained his place in the trail.
Saunders held off the threat by world No 2-ranked Malaysian Mohd Awang on his outside and in the final straight the New Zealander pushed past Kenny to win by the width of a wheel, with world champion Buchli flying home for third.
Saunders said immediately after the race, “It’s my first-ever time lining up at a World Cup so I just went in with an open mind … didn’t set myself any goals, just went for it.
“I can’t put into words how much it means.”
The next leg of the Track Cycling World Cup series takes place in Cambridge from December 6-8, followed by the December 13-15 leg in Brisbane and the January 24-26 round in Canada.