Nicole Cooke retires from cycling

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.

Nicole Cooke wins Olympic Gold

Cooke won Gold at Beijing 2008, going one better than Armitstead at London 2012

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 and Armitstead

Cooke and Armitstead’s relationship came to a head at the 2011 World Championships

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.

Nicole Cooke wins 2008 World Championship Varese

Cooke also won the World Championships in 2008 in Varese, Italy, a double never previously achieved in the sport

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.

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A handy cycling infographic.

In a series of recent posts I have been profiling different types of professional cyclists and their attributes. Sprinters, time trialists, climbers and domestiques alike.

But I’m down with the kids, and I know that sometimes people don’t want to read big old articles, which is why I’ve made this smart infographic to round this little adventure into cycling types off.

It’s your basic old run of the mill Venn diagram, but I think it covers the bases. Any suggestions for any amendments are welcome, as are any ideas for cycling subjects you’d like to know more about.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the recent blogs. I’ve got explanations of the big races of the year in my sights, as well as looking into all the different pro-tour teams and their targets for 2013. I also think I have had time to process the whole Lance Armstrong incident, and I think I might finally be able to put my thoughts down into something resembling an article. Chuck in a couple of cycling based book reviews along these lines, and we’ll be cooking with gas. Or changing to the big ring.

CHD.

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A Guide to Professional Cycling – DOMESTIQUES

Sprinter, climber, time trialist. These three categories neatly explain different riders with different styles. Those who can straddle climbing and time trialling exceptionally well might even win a grand tour.

But what if you are good, but not exceptional? What if you are an enthusiastic bike racer but you know that stage wins might always evade you and classification jerseys are just a dream? Well, there is another role in professional cycling. It is often overlooked, never really fully recognised, and yet often the riders who carry it out are the true lovers of cycling in its purest sense and often they are in the most pain. They are the workhorse. The layman. The loyal servant. The domestique.

To understand the role of the domestique, it is first necessary to understand something about the fundamentals of professional cycling. The team leader is the team leader. Riders very rarely, and certainly not without permission, ride for themselves – everything they do is to a game plan, and that game plan is always formulated around their team leader’s chances. Domestiques bear the brunt of this rule. In French domestique means ‘servant’ and as such, they have a series of jobs to do almost all of the time in order to keep the team’s tactics on track. In this sense, it is perhaps the most versatile of all the cycling roles. The most obvious (because it makes good TV), is the task of keeping the team fed and watered. In order to do this, domestiques drop back from the peloton to their team car, unzip their jersey and then proceed to stuff it with as many full water bottles and energy gels as possible. They then ride back up to the bunch solo (laden with extra weight remember), and distribute the goodies as is necessary. They are like the fuel-man at the Formula 1 pit stop, except that they have to take the fuel to the car, whilst it carries on racing.

Cavendish as a domestique

When Cavendish’s green jersey chances disappeared, Team Sky put the World Champion to use as a domestique

The list of chores for the domestique doesn’t stop there. In the ever ebbing and flowing tactical melange that is the peloton, domestiques are also the pawns that team leaders and managers use to try and break opponents. If a break-away gets off the front of the main group and it contains  your leader’s rival, as a domestique you may be charged with getting yourself up to and into the break-away, before doing your best to make a nuisance of yourself. This is done by not taking turns on the front of the break-away gradually slowing the rhythm and disrupting the speed of the break, giving your team mates and leader a chance to catch it up from behind. When climbing mountain sides, domestiques are sometimes used to make leg breaking attacks off the front of the main field in an attempt to pull rivals into chasing them down. Unless of course, it is another team’s domestique who has done the same, in which case you may be asked to chase it down for your leader. Domestiques are regularly used to power the lead out trains that put sprinters over the line, so you can often see them, on the front taking exceptionally long turns in order to give their man a greater chance.

The responsibilities of the domestique are sometimes even more basic than that. As cycling author Matt Rendell puts it in his book on the subject, A Significant Other, “Whenever his leader punctures or needs a toilet stop, someone must be on hand to pilot him back to the front or, in an emergency, give him a wheel, two, or the entire bike… the domestique can expect little recognition from the public, and less from the press.”

The domestique may be a good climber, maybe a good sprinter, maybe a good time trialist, but they are certainly an anomaly in sport. Breaking the tackle that leads to the try, delivering the free kick that sets up the goal, advising the golfer on which club to use – all of these are sporting assists, but they pale in comparison to the effort, endurance, and silent sense of duty that exists amongst cycling’s servants.

Froome waits for Wiggins

Although he had it in him to win the stage, Chris Froome had to wait for team leader Bradley Wiggins

Sometimes, but not very often, domestiques get the chance to move up. Super-domestiques, or lieutenants as they are often described, have been used by a number of general classification riders in order to enforce against the peloton. They have gained greater notoriety as a result. George Hincapie regularly carried out the role for Lance Armstrong. In the 2012 Tour de France, Chris Froome was such an awesome super-domestique that he finished second overall behind his team leader, Bradley Wiggins. Froome’s superior form actually created a lot of questions – in particular, on Stage 17 from Bagnères-de-Luchon to Peyragudes, Froome had to wait for Wiggins three times on a hill climb, although he clearly had it within his legs to carry on and catch Alejandro Valverde who eventually won the stage. Rumours of tension within the Team Sky camp now exist, with Froome apparently adamant that he won’t play second fiddle to Wiggins again, now wanting his own shot at the yellow jersey. All this serves to show the significance of the domestique’s role.

Domestiques are the unsung heroes of professional cycling, with a high pain threshold, and a self sacrificing nature. Their efforts maintain the strange anomaly in sport that is professional cycling, which walks a strange line between the team and the individual effort. Domestiques help keep cycling so compelling.

A Guide to Professional Cycling – CLIMBERS

Compared to sprinting and time trialling, climbing probably sounds like the most easy to understand element of professional cycling. It is all about getting over hills, on a bike, quicker than the other people who are trying to do the same. This is of course, in part a correct assessment, but it won’t surprise you to hear that it isn’t always as simple as that.

In physical terms, climbers need an extremely good power to weight ratio. This means that they are almost certainly one of two things – small or skinny. The best are both. Having thighs the size of tree trunks isn’t going to help here, because lots of muscle means lots of weight, weight that needs to be lugged all the way up climbs. Good climbers can be tall and rangy like Wiggins, but they are rarely chunky.

Chris Froome takes the Polka dot jersey

Chris Froome climbed his way into the Polka dot jersey at the 2012 TdF

Climbs themselves are also more complicated than you might think. Depending on the type of race, climbs can vary. One day races are punctuated by short sharp climbs in an attempt to break up the field. These short sharp climbs suit certain types of riders who can attack and attempt to get off the front with a few others in a breakaway group.  The grand tours invariably contain mountainous sections, where a number of peak traversing stages are ridden back to back. Stages themselves may contain three or four climbs of varying difficulty or ‘category’. The higher the category number is, the easier (relatively of course), the climb. The hardest of climbs in the Tour de France are known as ‘hors catégorie’ or ‘beyond categorisation’. It is worth pointing out that by ‘mountains’, literally, mountains. Whereas in the winter you might see skiers flying down snow covered peaks, in the summer cyclists fight gravity in order to conquer them.

It’s not just gravity that they have to contend with. Throw into the mix the gruelling relentless switchbacks and the claustrophobic throng of the cycling-mad crowd (who invade the road and run alongside their heroes shouting their support), and all of a sudden, mountainsides seem like a very unpleasant place to be. All this is compounded of course by the physical challenge of climbing itself. Whilst this section is all about climbers and climbing, it is worth pointing out that for every rider who relishes the challenge, there are ten who pedal squares and chew the handlebars all the way to the top.

The overall importance of climbing for general classement (GC) riders cannot be downplayed. Although time trialling can provide the knockout blow in the 12th round that secures overall victory, climbing is the 11 rounds before that, where GC contenders throw jabs, hooks and body shots in an attempt to wear each other down. The mountains provide a massive amount of drama – professional cycling is rarely better for the fan than when two GC rivals are off the front together, battling each other to a hilltop finish, attacking and counter-attacking in an attempt to gain precious seconds and a mental advantage. The noise, colour and fervour of the fans all adds to the occasion. Fans know that when it comes to the leader’s jersey, everything up until the mountains is essentially irrelevant. It can’t be any clearer – in order to win grand tours, you must be able to climb.

Pantani on the Galibier

Marco Pantani, the charismatic Italian, attacks on the Galibier

This is not to say that every climber is a GC contender. Most real specialist climbers can’t time trial for toffee. For the pure climbers, grand tour organisers developed a separate climber’s jersey akin to the sprinter’s jersey. In the Tour de France and Vuelta a España it is the Polka-dot jersey and in the Giro d’Italia it is the blue jersey. The ‘King of the Mountains’ jersey, as it is known, is awarded on a points basis. Points are available for being first over mountain summits, as well being the first over intermediary climbs.

Another wonderful spectacle afforded by climbing is descending. Not all climbers are by any means good descenders. Some of the best at going downhill are time trialists like Fabian Cancellara, or sprinters like Thor Hushovd. For stage victories and GC contenders the descent is paramount. It is no good pulling out a ten minute lead on your rivals on a climb if they can descend faster than you and catch you back up – you’ll just be where you were before, but you’ll be more tired. With cyclists reaching up to 60mph on descents, they can provide some of the best moments.

Cancellara, Hushovd, Vincenzo Nibali and Yaroslav Popovych are probably the best descenders in the business. Famous climbers include Richard Virenque, David Moncoutié, Marco Pantani, and Samuel Sanchez.

A Guide to Professional Cycling – TIME TRIALISTS

Unlike sprinters, time trialists usually fit into two physical categories. The first category are built like tanks – not short, but thick set with big chests to accommodate big lungs and powerful legs to keep the pedals spinning. Think Fabian Cancellara. Other time trialists are more rangy creatures, with long lanky limbs and not a huge amount of body weight. Their slim builds make them more aerodynamic, and the long legs make for more powerful pedal strokes. Think Bradley Wiggins or David Millar.

Although hill-climbs are perhaps the most unrelenting challenge for professional cyclists, time trials are perhaps the most vicious, simply because there is no place to hide. Time trials are a very simple idea – it is an individual race against the clock over a set distance. The fastest rider over the distance wins. There is no peloton, no groups and no drafting. If you catch the person who set off two minutes ahead of you, then you are obliged to pass them. If you sit in their slipstream, or in the slipstream of a camera motorbike, or in the slipstream of a team car, you are disqualified. It is, quite frankly, rather brutal. The trick is rhythm and cadence – keeping your legs spinning at the same speed consistently for long periods of time is vital, as is keeping a schedule and working to it. As Chris Boardman explains, time trialists have to ask themselves a question – ‘Can I sustain this effort until the finish?’ If the answer is yes, you aren’t going hard enough. If no, then you’ve already lost. The answer should be maybe.

Fabian Cancellara time trial

Fabian Cancellara wears the World Champion’s jersey and has dominated the time trial in recent years

When watching a time trial, there is a clear visual difference to other stages or races. Not only is there no peloton, there is a marked difference in equipment. For a few hours cycling makes a foray into Formula 1 territory, with aerodynamics and weight taking on an even bigger significance than usual. Tri-bars are fitted, which allow cyclists to tuck in their elbows; aero-wheels which slice through the air more effectively are used, special ‘skin suits’ which resemble seriously tight lycra onsies are made to fit each individual rider, and special aerodynamic helmets are worn – all in an attempt to decrease wind resistance. The rider also adapts their position on the bike, sitting right forward on the point of the saddle.

As with sprint stages, different routes can favour different riders and time trials can take on many forms. Some are a very simple flat out-and-back bosh, whilst other courses can be far more technical, with lumps bumps and short climbs, as well as tight corners included. Certain riders thrive on the more technical aspects and are better through corners or up climbs, which is where they gain their time, and others are better at the flat out mosh to the finish. The format that time trials take and how they are used by race organisers can also be varied. Time trials are often used as prologues, providing an exciting start to stage races, they can be adapted to hill climbs, or sometimes they can morph into team time trials. Team time trials are an amazing treat for viewers, where whole teams take to the road in a team pursuit style race along road courses.

Garmin team time trial

The Garmin-Barracuda team display the team time trial formation

Time trials are used as individual stages in the Grand Tours, but also possess their own World Championships and their own race at the Olympic Games. There are normally only a small number of time trials that take place within the Grand Tours, usually only two or three, but their significance for the overall standing and the eventual winner of the general classement can be huge. In the Tour de France for example, where there is usually a time trial after the mountains but before the final stages on the run into Paris, time trials have become a virtual king-maker. If two rivals have managed to keep each other in check right through the mountains, then the best time trialist is able to break the deadlock and virtually win the overall title. Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon in the 1989 final time trial by eight seconds, snatching the yellow jersey from the Frenchman. Eight seconds is still the smallest winning margin ever in the Tour de France. The significance of this has not gone unnoticed by professional cyclists – in order to be a serious contender for the overall victory, being able to time trial well is a must.

Wiggins punches air

On winning the final time trial of the 2012 TdF, Bradley Wiggins secured overall victory

In recent times, time trialling has been dominated by one man, the enigmatic Swiss Fabian Cancellara. Nicknamed ‘Spartacus’, Cancellara has used his time trialling ability to good effect, often wearing the yellow jersey in the opening stages of the Tour de France after taking it in the opening prologue. Other fantastic modern time trialists include the current time trial World Champion German Tony Martin, Bradley Wiggins and David Millar. Historically, riders such as Miguel Indurain and Chris Boardman have been acknowledged as fantastically talented at the time trial.

A Guide to Professional Cycling – SPRINTERS

In a series of posts aiming to explain the sport of cycling to new fans, different roles within cycling will be examined. First up, it’s the sprinters.

In the world of professional cycling, it is relatively easy to work out what role a certain cyclist may have by their appearance. Sprinters are usually bulkier than their fellow competitors, squat and with (as would be expected) larger leg muscles. Far better suited to flat stages, sprinters are capable of huge explosions of power in the final metres of a race, reaching up to 40 miles an hour.

Flat stages favour them because they are usually bad in hilly terrain and because flat stages are normally easier for a team to manage – break away groups form, but are less unpredictable. A typical flat stage will see a small group of riders breaking away from the main group (Peloton) and gaining a few minutes lead, before the Peloton slowly but surely turn the screws and catch the breakaway group within a few kilometres of the finish, leading to a frenetic but hugely entertaining ‘bunch sprint’. Sometimes a sprinter can win a sprint by a country mile, sometimes the colourful melee that ensues needs a photo finish, and sometimes it all goes badly wrong and collarbones break all over the place, but they are rarely boring.

There are nuances that exist from sprinter to sprinter – not everyone follows the same formula. Although there probably exists a consensus on what constitutes a stage for the sprinters, teams will try and identify stages for their sprinters to target. The hugely successful bright new sprinter Peter Sagan is quite good at climbing (for a sprinter), and so favours stages that end with a kick, an uphill section towards the finish. The job of the team when it comes to helping their sprinter to win is on paper a relatively simple one – keep their man in the mix right up until the final stages, before attempting to catapult him towards the finish.

Sagan Incredible Hulk

Peter Sagan is known for his different celebrations

With the absence of an actual catapult, the tool available to the teams is widely known as the ‘lead-out train’. The lead-out train sees some or all of the team riding in a single line, much like the team pursuit on the track, with the sprinter protected towards the back of the line. Each team member puts in a turn on the front, punching a hole in the air for the men behind him and bearing the full aerodynamic load, before peeling off and letting the next man take his place. As the distance to the finish lessens, so does the number of riders in the lead out train until, eventually, it is just the sprinter and his designated lead-out man left.

The teams who ride exclusively for their sprinters (with no desire to target the overall classification) usually pair their sprinter with his own lead-out man. The lead-out man is normally a seriously quick sprinter in his own right, and it is his job to get the sprinters legs spinning, delivering the final aerodynamic hole before peeling away and unleashing the beast behind him. The most successful pairing in recent years was certainly Mark Cavendish and Mark Renshaw who, at HTC Highroad, engineered virtual sprinting dominance.

It is important to note that in the sporting anomaly that is cycling, sprinters are never in contention for overall wins in grand tours such as the Tour de France. In the modern age it is incredibly rare to see a sprinter in the yellow jersey, and basically impossible for them to win it. Rather than racing for time, as those concerned with winning overall do, sprinters race for points and their own points jersey. In the Tour de France, the sprinters points jersey is green. Sprint finishes normally have the most significance, but there are some intermediary sprints for points that occur during stages as well.

Sprint finish crash

When sprint finishes go wrong, they go badly wrong

Although some sprinters are better than others in the mountains, they are classically bad at climbing. When it comes to mountain stages therefore, it is imperative that they stay in touch with the rest of the field, or they risk disqualification due to missing the cut-off time for finishing the stage. This has happened to a number of prolific sprinters, Mark Cavendish amongst them. They are the fastest men on the flat, but other sprinters who are able to fight through the mountains win the points jersey in the end. It is important for their teams to make sure that this doesn’t happen by supporting their sprinters in the mountains in any way they can.

Towards the end of their careers, sprinters can become one day race specialists, targeting races that require long range solo efforts.

Great sprinters include Mark Cavendish himself, Mario Cipollini, Erik Zabel and Robbie McEwen.

REVIEW – ‘Racing Through The Dark’ by David Millar

In 2004, Scottish pro-cyclist David Millar was arrested by French detectives investigating doping practices in his team, Cofidis.

On searching Millar’s house the police found two used syringes hidden within Millar’s beloved book collection. To cycling fans and observers everywhere Millar’s story was just like the others that they had grown uncomfortably used to – another cycling prospect was shown to be a weak willed cheat.

For Millar himself, the discovery did not spell disaster. It was a huge relief that the life that he had never intended for himself had come to an end. The transformation from doper, to anti-doping advocate had begun.

Published last year, Millar’s tale gives a viewpoint that is not readily accessible in the world of sport – that of a doper.

Racing Through The Dark by David Millar

As interviews have shown, Millar is a witty and intelligent man, and his recounting of his life and a love of cycling reflects that entirely. He is candid and pragmatic, the description of the breakup of his parents’ marriage in particular is surprisingly open, and yet relatively unemotional. As a reader you are solidly on his side as he becomes infatuated with cycling, a youthful and wide eyed amateur concerned with pushing himself as hard as he can on the streets of Hong Kong.

And yet, as with a Shakespearean tragic hero, you know that with every page you turn, you are getting ever closer to the point where a person who you like is going to wholly fail. You know that as much as you like him, in the back of your mind, Millar is going to dope.

Millar describes his shock and awe at the ferocity of the pro-tour scene and his bafflement at the relative openness of doping within the sport, and how non dopers such as him were viewed as honourable, but stupid sportsmen. His gradual decline into recovery injections, and finally into doping itself is, although not justifiable, is perhaps understandable. Rather than being an unpalatable sordid affair, Millar’s description of his first time doping is a calm and relaxed one, again highlighting the extent of the laid back doping culture within professional cycling.

There are some highlights. The book is at its best when Millar describes individual stages in certain races. It really goes to great lengths to show the reader the romance, competitiveness, madness and suffering that makes up the psyche of a pro-cyclist.

Knowing what we now know, Millar’s descriptions of Lance Armstrong are fascinating. Millar is in a privileged position to be able to comment on Armstrong, due to spending his formative years around the now identified drug cheat. Armstrong is painted as a charismatic personality, exuding a brutal self confidence and an overwhelming desire to win, whilst somehow maintaining a closed off personal superiority. The highlight is the climax of one of Millar’s drunken benders, when he wades in on a dinner between Lance and cycling god Eddie Mercx.

Millar’s viewpoints on Bradley Wiggins and Dave Brailsford are also insightful, and say a lot about the two men. Millar’s praise of Brailsford could not be high enough – when Millar was first involved with British Cycling, Brailsford provided him with advice and guidance the likes of which he had never experienced at Cofidis, and when he was banned Brailsford believed in Millar and went to great lengths to make sure there was a place for Millar when he came back. The book has a foreword written by the Brailsford.

Millar on Podium

Millar’s come back has been a successful one

 

Wiggins is painted as a slightly more aloof character, as is his now well known persona, a sort of still-waters-run-deep man. Millar is critical of Wiggins at one point, particularly with regards his relative apathy towards Garmin Slipstream whilst Team Sky was being formed.

Racing Through The Dark is a wonderful read, a true page turner with an almost unique viewpoint at its centre. It is a must read for any cycling fan and probably for any sports fan too.