Interview: The Nicole Cooke Effect
She’s the greatest woman road cycling champion Britain has ever produced and the very definition of kickass. But more than that, Nicole Cooke has changed the face of her sport for the better. Here, Suze Clemitson reveals the secrets to her #JFDI difference…
Nicole Cooke has won Olympic and World gold, 10 National titles, two Tour de France, the Giro, two UCI Women’s World Cups... the list goes on. But her achievements go way beyond the physical. Her hero status has been cemented by the way she’s spoken out against drugs, sexism and exploitation in her mission to improve women’s cycling.
The greatest female road cycling champion Britain has ever produced, she’s the very definition of awesome. But more than that, Nicole Cooke has changed the face of her sport for the better, leaving it in a far better place than when she entered it. When we chat to the Welsh wonderwoman, we’re on a mission to unearth the magic formula for her #JFDI difference.
So, what does she consider is her greatest achievement? “It has to be the 2008 double," she says. "Becoming the first cyclist to win world and Olympic road race gold in the same season was the highlight. These were the races I'd dreamed of since I first discovered road racing at the age of 11. I'd worked so hard for those wins.”
She explains just how difficult a race like the Olympics can be – the variables of weather, team and motivation, riders prepared to gamble everything on winning gold.
What does she put the double-win down to? Pinpoint-perfect preparation. In addition to the physical training, she is a master tactician. She found a hill that replicated the finishing drag in Beijing. “I marked out the distances from 800m down to 100m so I could replicate the finish in my training sessions and sprint from any distance out to the finish line.”
She worked through virtually every possible scenario in her mind so that she would “be ready to make those split-second tactical decisions when the desire to win risks clouding judgement”.
That attention to detail and meticulous preparation worked, with her sprinting away from a world-class group of five riders: “I was so focused and gave it absolutely everything until I had crossed the finish line.” Nicole Cooke is a racer above all else. It was a road race masterclass. Her body language, her face, her tactics – they all said so and it was a joy and a thrill to watch.
Back in the saddle
After just one week celebrating at home, Nicole went back to training with a focus on winning the World Championship. Again, there was the attention to detail.
“I rode the course many times, doing intervals on the climbs and memorising the final kilometers to the finish in the weeks leading up to the race.” She knew it would be tough. “There were a lot of riders with a point to prove after the Olympics.”
Her opposition that day reads like a who’s who of elite women’s cycling: Marianne Vos, Trixi Worrack, Judith Arndt, Emma Johansson and Susanne Ljungskog. It was Vos – one of the few women whose palmares match Nicole’s own – who launched the decisive move. “We came into the stadium with 300m to go and Marianne hit out first for the finish line,” Nicole remembers. “I dived into her slip stream and started to close. With 100m to go we were sprinting shoulder to shoulder for the finish line. It was the toughest and most dramatic sprint of my career.” It was the perfect end to her Golden summer.
So what, I wonder, does she think marks her out as different? “I have a determination and drive to push myself to the limits and never give up, and that makes me a very fierce competitor,” she says. “I always gave it everything I have in training and racing and I think that laid the foundation for what I achieved.”
Nicole Cooke was born in Swansea in 1983 and caught the cycling bug at the Cardiff Ajax Cycling Club. “Riding was always part of my life growing up. At first I enjoyed the adventure of exploring new places on the bike, then as I saw more races I wanted to race too,” she recalls. “I still love cycling and, in addition to commuting by bike, I also get out on the road bike for a long ride with friends on weekends.”
She is quick to thank her parents Tony and Denise for the support they’ve given her throughout her career, “for providing a grounding that kept things in perspective even when there was chaos and corruption in cycling”.
I ask her about her struggle to get British Cycling to stage and Under 16 girls track championships, in parity with the boys. After British Cycling initially refused, it took every bit of that steely Cooke determination to get them to change their minds. Like her opponents in cycling, they knew when they were beaten, and Nicole lined up at the first U-16 championships the next year.
“Now the track championships are a huge success and a key milestone for riders aspiring to make the Olympic track cycling team and I’m very proud of having been able to contribute to such a change,” she says. We wonder how British Cycling could ever have refused such a powerhouse in the first place.
Then there’s her ability to achieve success by using that tactical intelligence and determination, by being prepared to go deeper than her opposition to achieve results. As Nicole puts it, “there were times when, despite not being the strongest on the day, I could win races because I rode smart and knew how to give everything I had”.
Shock it to them!
In 2013, Nicole announced her retirement at the age of 29 and published a bombshell statement that shocked the cycling world by exposing the sexism, drugs and inequality at the top in women’s cycling. She was motivated by the fact that the gains that had been made for women in cycling – many of them as a direct result of her own actions during her career – were at risk of being lost again if “the fundamental chauvinism of the sport” wasn’t dealt with.
When Nicole turned professional in 2002, both the women’s equivalent of the Tour de France and the Giro were two-week races and she won them both. The Giro Rosa remains as a week-long stage race, but the Grande Boucle Féminine Internationale has long since disappeared – the victim of disorganisation, poor information and lack of respect for the riders. Cooke says the root cause of the Grand Boucle’s demise was the way women in the sport are perceived by the men who organise it. “
For male riders there was genuine professionalism, with a minimum wage being introduced by the UCI for all teams down to U23 level. Yet, for the women, there was no such protection. Even if you were fortunate enough to have a contract defining a living wage, it meant little.”
So little, that Nicole was forced to take four teams to court over unpaid wages during her career. Despite UCI financial regulations governing team bonds, these often went unenforced and serial offenders were allowed to simply start up a new team using the same equipment with a change of logo. In her retirement statement, she called for a minimum wage as exists in the men’s sport.
“Brian Cookson was keen to take it up in his manifesto, pledging to have it in place within 12 months of taking office, but four years later it is still not on the horizon. This is about setting a minimum bar for teams, riders and the UCI and to provide protection for female riders, just as is the case in all other walks of life and forms of employment. Why should female cyclists be left so vulnerable to exploitation?”
She is also quick to commend the progress that has been made for female riders in Britain, and the legacy left behind “so that today’s riders now have a defined talent pathway through to the Olympics with National championships at all age groups for girls on the road and track: very different to the path I faced when starting out”.
This is a pathway that Nicole had been absolutely instrumental in putting into place and a legacy that has helped future generations, including Rio heroine Laura Trott, who made history by becoming the first woman to win three gold medals.
Despite the progress in some areas, Nicole admits that: “I’d raced my whole career under the shadow of drug cheats and a corrupt UCI that acted to cover up doping rather than kick the cheats out.” It was this that really rocked the boat, and it’s still an issue that she feels is not being dealt with.
“In the fight against doping, drug cheats are still welcomed back into the sport by teams, being appointed Directeur sportif or even given coaching roles. Many in the media and sponsors are quite happy to give them visibility which continues to send out the message that it pays to dope,” she says.
“The UCI is still soft on doping, the fines and penalties are still way out of proportion to the damage each positive test does to our sport and its credibility. The UCI is to be commended for the strong deterrents for mechanical doping and large fines, but why does it not apply the same fines to doping offences?”
Nicole’s passion and determination to improve women’s cycling hasn’t dimmed a bit. She wrote a stinging critique of British Cycling’s ‘sexism by design’ in a Guardian piece defending Jess Varnish in the British Cycling sexism row. Just when you thought you couldn’t love her any more, she came out with a full-throttled paean to the sisterhood of cycling, and Nicole is definitely as devastating with the pen as she was on the bike. In an extract from the piece, published in April of this year, she writes: “Hypocrisy and double standards with respect to gender are ingrained in cycling... but this is hidden in reports of events. I am often asked, how can it be stopped?
Athletes with their Olympic dreams on the line are never going to be the source of information on ill treatment... Instead, the solution has to come from the top...”
So, what can we all learn from one of our favourite #JFDI cycling inspirations? Have a dream, never give up, stand up for what you believe in and never stop riding.
"Nicole Cooke's autobiographical The Breakaway is both a powerfully-written testament to the measure of that achievement by a former World and European champion on the road plus a well-argued critique of the barriers that stand in the way of women's cycling." Huffington Post