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New Zealand cycling's young guns have collected a three-medal haul from five riders at the UCI Track Cycling World Championships that finished in Minsk, Belarus today.
Auckland 21-year-old Sam Webster had to settle for fourth place in the sprint, taking event winner Stefan Botticher of Germany to a deciding ride in the semifinal before narrowly going down in the bronze medal ride to Frenchman Francois Pervis who won three medals in Minsk.
Webster became the first New Zealand rider to qualify for the sprint finals at the world championships and along with Simon van Velthooven, it is the first time two Kiwis made it to the final eight.
"This is the first world championships that I've turned up to with really good condition. After the Olympics, we made some big changes to training and the way we approach training which gave me the mental freshness," said Webster.
"I am really happy. Today in the second day I did make a couple of mistakes which is why I finished fourth but that experience will be invaluable. I am happy I beat the Olympic champ two straight and took the eventual winner to three rides.
"I didn't have an easy way through and have been in some hard rides so I am pleased with how I stepped up. It was good that it came together and now gives me a good platform to build on."
The team finished with the gold medal to 22-year-old Aaron Gate in the omnium, silver medals to the team sprint and Van Velthooven in the 1km time trial and fourth placing to Webster in the sprint.
"The focus was taking a small team away who were all capable of winning medals and they have delivered on that, even exceeded that," said BikeNZ high performance director, Mark Elliott.
"From this world championship it proves our sprinters now deserve to be in the position to ride for medals. We spent the last few years developing them to where they can challenge, but now our expectations will be that we can get them into medal positions all the time.
"With the experience they have received from these world championships it will stand them in really good stead in the next three years.
"They have a lot of physiological development to go and we have a really strong sports science and strength and conditioning programme that lays the foundation. Then we have to get that right at the top racing experience.
"We need to do that more often and combine it with the sports science and you just don't know where these sprinters will go in the future."
Elliott said he was also thrilled with the performance from Gate and a vindication of the European-based development programme over the last four years.
"We spotted his talent four years ago and he has spent that time doing his apprenticeship riding with top team pursuiters like Marc Ryan and Jesse Sergent. Now he has taken that tactical knowledge and that power work we did early on and transferred that across to the omnium.
"The fact he is the world champion is exciting for us. We want to see him grow from that and dominate this discipline and for us it is important that this knowledge he gains can transfer across to the team pursuit.
"Aaron came through our development programme that we put in place more than three years ago and the fact we now have a world title out of it shows the positive nature of that investment. This year we are not just doing that with two or three riders but we are sending eight to Europe and that will hold us in good stead not just for this Olympic cycle but beyond."
The young sprint quartet, with an average age of only 22 years, has moved into the top echelon of sprinting. With a silver medal coming after victory in the recent World Cup, they are now a genuine threat in the team sprint.
Webster became the first New Zealander to make a medal round in the sprints after becoming the fastest Kiwi at sea-level in qualifying.
He took the honours to Botticher in the first semifinal, controlling the sprint and holding off the German in the challenge. The second race was the closest with the German only just rolling Webster, with only 8/1000ths of a second separating the young Kiwi from qualification to the final.
Botticher jumped Webster from behind to take the inside run, and his sudden move gave him the winning break and a place in the final.
The 21-year-old, a former triple junior world champion, made a strong move from the front in the first race in the bronze medal rider against Pervis, but the Frenchman got over the top 10m from the line to go one-up. While Webster challenged strongly in the second, Pervis had too much power.
Men Sprint, semifinals: Stefan Botticher (GER) bt Sam Webster (NZL) 2-1, Denis Dmitriev (RUS) bt Francois Pervis (FRA) 2-1.
Final: Botticher bt Dmitriev 2-0.
Bronze match: Pervis bt Webster 2-0.