Maxxis-Rocky Mountain team rider Cameron Cole, 22, has surpassed even his own expectations by finishing second at Fort William, Scotland yesterday in the second round of the 2010 UCI World Cup.
Gee Atherton, of Great Britain, won the race in a time of 4:35.70 – pipping Cole by less than half a second.
"I don't know what to think or say – it has just been unreal," an excited Cole, of Christchurch, New Zealand, said afterwards.
"I didn't really expect my first podium to be a second place – I thought maybe I would pull a fourth or a fifth, but to be second and to nearly win has been pretty amazing."
Cole, a former world junior downhill champion, said he was surprised when he qualified third, but didn't think too much of it.
"I just rode my own race all weekend. On the morning of the race I was very nervous – especially when I was in the gate at the start. But I just rode my own race and fixed up the bits of the track that I needed to. I managed to save some time on the dry and slippery corners and then smashed the pedalling at the bottom part of the course," he explained.
Getting to the bottom part of the course is a relief for all riders as the course becomes less technical, but fast with some big jumps. For Cole that relief was crucial – in 2009 and 2008 he had crashed in his race runs higher up on the course.
"It was cool to get to that part of the course and have the opportunity to show my power again and to get to the finish line," he laughed.
"My final run didn't feel amazing – it just felt like another run – that is maybe a good thing."
All of a sudden Cole found himself at the bottom of the course and in second position, but it hadn't sunk in.
"I thought the last two guys to come down might beat me and relegate me back to third or fourth, but it never happened," he said.
Those last two riders were fellow New Zealander Sam Blenkinsop and former World Cup champion Greg Minnaar, of South Africa. Blenkinsop finished sixth meaning Minnaar was the only rider left who could knock Cole out of second.
"When he was coming down I was just sitting there looking at the ground, I wasn't really paying attention – I knew I was on the podium so I was just trying to get my head around that," he explained.
"Justin Leov was with me and he said, 'dude, you're second', and he was nearly crying and I was nearly crying – it was amazing."
With 18,000 people through the gate over the weekend Cole estimated that somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 people were at the race.
"Gee Atherton was amping and the crowd was going off, everyone came over to shake my hand – it was a pretty wild atmosphere."
For Cole's Maxxis-Rocky Mountain team it was a double celebration as team mate Sabrina Jonnier, of Hyères, France, won the elite women's race.
"It's pretty good for the team to have Sabrina win as well. Everything is working well with the bikes and the Fox suspension has been particularly good this season. It's good for me to have the bike working so well and all the products performing," Cole said.
The level-headed rider is wary of the effects of a good result.
"Last year, after I did well in South Africa, I got a bit distracted and I didn't ride how I thought I should have at the next races. Though I had the speed and the fitness my head wasn't there. I worked on that over summer with my coach Hamish and those small things can make a big difference. I am still young and I am still learning so much," he admitted.
"I would like to think that maybe I can be a contender for the World Cup next year, but for my next race this result won't change anything – my goal is to finish top 10 still. I have now done that two races in a row so I won't change my approach. I will still be happy with eighth or ninth. I am now in third overall – that means qualifying at Leogang will be pretty tough."
Cole said it would have made his day to have had Sam Blenkinsop or Justin Leov up there on the podium with him.
"All three of us are in the top 10 overall – that's more than any other nation, so it's pretty cool," he laughed.
He said there were about 15 Kiwis racing at Fort William and a silver fern-toting individual who helped spur him on.
"There was a random guy at the top of the hill with a sliver fern flag and I remember seeing him in my race run – maybe I should have been concentrating on riding, but I had met him the morning of the race and he said, 'good job yesterday, Cam' and he was right into the sport. That sort of thing helps so much when we are racing on the other side of the world."
Cole's 0.48ths of a second off the winning time is very close on a track that is four and a-half minutes long, but this level of competitiveness is defining the 2010 season.
"From first back to 20th it is as close as it has ever been this year – there are 30 or 40 guys who could be in the top 10 at any race this year," Cole said.
Cole will now prepare for Round 3 of the series, which will be held in Leogang, Austria in two weeks