Nicole Cooke is relatively unknown, which slightly troubles me. Or if I stop to think about it, it does. Because then I/we have to consider just why a recent World Road Race and Olympic Champion at a sport which is now megatastically at the heart of TeamGB’s New Model Army is so… unrespected; generally.
Cooke was not as likely as (say) Pendleton to attract the adjective ‘lush’, perhaps. Could that be it? Is this key to her escape from our role-call of stars? Or (bizarrely?) the fact she is Welsh born? Or perhaps she simply but foolishly got her dates mixed up; being a real, majestic and irresistible force in her sport just a year or two before that sport – cycling, if you really hadn’t sorted that – landed so explosively in our family-sized bowl of Dorito’s.
In 2008, in one of the most remarkable and, for me, full-on blood-from-heart-drainingly poignant moments in recent sporting memory, an exhausted Cooke hoiked and blasted to victory in the Beijing rain. Rarely has the deep been so dug. She then followed up her olympian Olympic Gold with a World Road Race victory just a few weeks later. Now that may all trip rather glibly off the tongue but it does, nevertheless, represent something really special. As does the fact that she won 3 different World Junior titles – mountain bike/time trial/road race in the same year (2001.) But the accumulation of those two most senior of the senior titles seven years later constitutes a unique achievement in the history of cycling – men or women’s. And given that the pressures around these racing monuments – never mind the sheer physical effort – are utterly World-Cuply/Masters-final-greenly massive, we have to respect this athlete. Properly.
Anyone who saw and felt the quality of these two victories, encompassing as they did that stunning and defining range of champion grit and sublime athletic prowess, would already be fully on-side with my own adulation here. She gave everything, she showed us everything – she won out. Cooke was then, in every sense, a genuine world-beater.
However, many amongst The Great Un-oiled really might legitimately have missed either these or other(s) of Cooke’s serial triumphs on account of their absence from the primest of prime-time television. Cycling – in particular road racing – being a bona fide minority sport right up until a certain mod cruised his Vespa-replacement Module down the Champs- Elysees last year. Prior to that we did have gods on wheels-without-engines but the likes of Hoy and Pendleton tended to flash in and out of our consciousness on a weird, non-populist and only semi-registering basis, largely coincident with that five ring extravaganza. And is it just me, or is it somehow easier to get all steamed up and passionate about something happening in a noisy, nerve-janglacious velodrome? Open roads are different.
Let’s deny the oxygen of publicity to dumbstuff notions of relative ‘attractiveness’, anyway. Cooke was strong; she had a relentlessly powerful cadence on the bike rather than electrifying sprint speed. She had authority, consistency, presence – she absolutely competed. Nicole Cooke won two Tour de France titles and a Giro d’Italia as well as gawd knows how many British titles (10, I think) and World Cup racing events. She could and did dominate. And you buggers really should have noticed. Oh… and she did it clean.
As a travelling pro’ rider, the temptations were there. As a young woman (18/19?) Cooke was dolloped amongst the elite of the Women’s racing posse, an exposed and significant talent, fresh out of school, making her way in a tough and it turns out diabolically cynical world. In her retirement statement, delivered this week (essential read), she details being confronted with the requirement, as a ‘good team member’ to indulge in drug use on more than one occasion. But Cooke is emphatic that she, at least, rode clean throughout her long career.
There is a reflection on a watershed moment when (post a long chat with Dad) dubious bottles were thrown from the team fridge; by her; in a me-or-them stand-off. (The kind of defiance which cost her in an era when using EPO or other stimulants was deemed essential by the team-makers.) Team ethics and team procedures being typically shambolic – up to and including conventions regarding the regular payment of riders – the standard mode amongst the peloton appears to have been one of acquiescence… to just sticking the needles in, to stay competitive. The consequences for those stubborn or bold enough to cut across the conventional wisdoms were brutal. You either got sacked from the team, or you didn’t get paid. There were periods in her illustrious career where this particular, strong-willed World Number One athlete either did not get paid, or had to sue to obtain her daily bread. Partly no doubt, because she was kindof trouble when it came to substance abuse. Or the not doing of it.
During the years of travel, training and competition – even at the most elevated level – money, by comparison with many other sports, was laughably poor. (A moments reflection will not I think bring to mind too many sports where the very best in the world fear that they will actually get paid at all, never mind be remunerated proportionate to their talents.) Nicole Cooke, to repeat, the finest woman rider in the world for part of the mid-to-late nineties, had to fight for her money… and the money was ordinary.
Now, after that cruel zoning out period where invincibility fades, she has signed off. And in what seems likely to be an authentic farewell to her sport, Cooke has spoken out against the cheats. Armstrong, obviously, but also those in the women’s side of the sport that denied her, personally – and it does sounds personal.
Her statement is at once proud and understandably laced with bitterness. Because she knows she pumped those pistons bravely and honestly. She knows that she – very much with her parents help – drove hard, cleared the path for a better, more professional, slightly more equitable women’s tour. In the early days the Cookes seem to have bundled the British Cycling Federation into inventing events where previously there were none; girls events, which Nicole promptly extravagantly won – won with such undeniable force that further events, higher grade events were an absolute necessity. And thus both Nicole Cooke and women’s cycling in Britain grew up.
We’re nearing hagiography here and I don’t want that. Cooke may not have been widely loved; not necessarily because of her stance against doping. Lizzie Armistead (also a truly elite Brit rider) once said something rather biting about her; that (effectively) she never rode for anyone else. (In a sport where the concept of real unity and indeed selflessness is wonderfully expressed, such an opinion might be damning.) However it is likely the comment was meant more as a minor(?) personal slight than – for example – some profound dig at her ‘purity’ re the drugs. Whatever its meaning, if we think of many a stand-out sportsman or woman it’s hardly a killer gripe. Is it too surreal to bring a certain G Boycott into the equation here? And do he and Nicole share a certain slightly spookily brilliant single-mindedness, I wonder? Certainly there were nowt wrong with ‘er applicay-shun, anyroad.
Of course Armstrong may have been similar in this respect. All-consuming, desirous, physically incredible. But he got greedy, or low, or paranoid and… he cheated. As (allegedly) did the Canadian Genevieve Jeanson – named and shamed in Cooke’s retirement statement. The mature 29 year-old from Swansea, formerly of Cardiff Ajax Cycling Club condemns both in her statement, and the culture they went along with. Because they robbed her, because they brought disgrace to her wonderful sport – the one she’d poured seventeen years of her life right into.
In a week where the media have fallen right in behind Armstrong’s choreographed ‘apology’ it seems especially offensive that the retirement of a genuinely world-class British athlete has been so little heard or appreciated. Absurd if you consider how high the profile of our cycling heroes has risen and how much (really) Nicole Cooke did to prepare the way for elite women’s cycling in particular. She was, by a distance, the best in the world. And now if she gets a column inch it will surely be over comments relating to Armstrong and his fellow dope(r)s. She deserves more, she deserved more.