On 14 January 2013, Nicole Cooke bowed out of professional cycling.
Her announcement mirrored her racing instinct. It was a low key affair. The 29 year old stated her reasons and said goodbye to the sport she loved, but included a nasty sting in the tail – she took the opportunity to comment on the Lance Armstrong affair, and on doping generally within the sport. It typified Cooke – an understated performer who was quite prepared to go it alone if necessary, whilst packing a truly gutsy punch.
Recent fans of British cycling may even be wondering why Nicole Cooke is even worthy of note. Certainly, one thing Cooke is not and has never been is a poster girl for British Cycling. Lizzie Armitstead and Laura Trott are now the young darlings of the British Cycling set up, as well as being pin ups for a generation of cycling fans across the country. Victoria Pendleton, whose retirement at the end of London 2012 very nearly sparked a period of national mourning, took part in Strictly Come Dancing and is well on her way to establishing the ‘Vicky’ brand. Cooke was never as noticeable during her career and it is unlikely she will be as prolific in her retirement.
So why is she of note? A couple of months ago, this blog featured an article about the women’s Road Race at London 2012. It praised Lizzie Armitstead, who was beaten into second place by the force that is Marianne Vos. Cooke featured in the race, but was a footnote to the final result and Armitstead’s Silver medal.
But in Beijing in 2008, it was a completely different matter – Cooke won a thrilling bunch sprint from 200 metres out, legs pumping, lungs gulping and muscles screaming. She went five better than Vos that day, and one better than Armitstead would four years later, winning Britain’s first Gold medal of the Games and Britain’s 200th ever. She was, quite frankly, awesome. For all Team GB’s success at Beijing, cycling and otherwise, seeing Cooke cross the line in the pouring rain sticks in my memory like nothing else.
That Gold medal is just the beginning. If you look back over Cooke’s race results then it is clear that she is a sportswoman who deserves recognition. Not only did she win Gold in Beijing, she also won the 2008 World Championship title in Varese Italy, a double never before achieved in the history of the sport. She also won World Championship Silver in 2005 and two Bronzes in 2002 and 2006. She won the Grand Boucle (the women’s version of the Tour de France) twice and the Giro d’Italia Femminile, as well as a host of Spring Classic one day races. She dominated the British National Road Race Championships, winning the event a staggering nine times.
Cooke’s determination was certainly the root of her success. It is important to remember that in the 1990s when Cooke was getting into cycling and looking to it as a career path, British Cycling was a shambles that barely resembles the dominating juggernaut that the medal loving public have come to depend on. There is no love lost between Cooke and British Cycling – the support structure for Cooke as a young cyclist was virtually non-existent. As a fourteen year old, she had to ask British Cycling to put on a junior championship for girls as there was not one already in place. As a 17 year old she was outraged and disappointed when British Cycling chose not to fund a campaign to overturn the minimum age of the Sydney 2000 Olympic road race. Cooke was forced to do a lot of it on her own, find her own coaches and her own teams.
Perhaps that is why she was characterised as a bit of a lone-wolf when the graduates of British Cycling in its current form came along. It is obvious that British Cycling was slightly unsure of where Cooke fitted in, her independence not necessarily chiming with their strict game plans and tactical astuteness. Her lack of British Cycling grooming was clear for all to see when her relationship with Lizzie Armitstead came to a head at the 2011 World Championships. Armitstead was picked as team leader, but was involved in an accident towards the end of the race. Instead of waiting for Armitstead and pacing her back up to the leaders, Cooke made the decision to go for the win herself, eventually finishing fourth. Cooke maintained that it was the best chance of a medal, Armitstead criticised Cooke as being unable to ride for anyone but herself.
Her independence was perhaps a double edged sword – it catalysed her success when there was no one else there to support her, but it hindered her when she found that she had to ride for others. Armitstead has also criticised comments about doping made by Cooke when she announced her retirement as being counter-productive. Again, it is perhaps best to see this as a generational difference – Cooke turned pro in the late 1990s and early 2000s and has said that she was offered drugs by her first professional team. Protected by the British Cycling framework, it is unlikely Armitstead will ever be exposed to the same situation.
Nicole Cooke is not an athlete that is especially easy to put in a box. Her independent nature was perhaps as much a curse as a blessing, but one thing is for sure – Cooke’s career should be celebrated by British sports fans and her retirement lamented. Her contribution to sport and cycling as a whole deserves to be remembered.