Nicole Cooke bows out, still true to herself

In a week that was all about Lance Armstrong and his so-called Oprah confession, what more can this blogger say?
Instead, let us talk about the retirement of Nicole Cooke, an event that could easily have gone unnoticed in a week so fraught with cycling excitement. Cooke, at the age of 29, announced her retirement from the sport after 15 years at the top. Many commentators focused on her excoriating criticism of Armstrong and his ilk, but they missed the point. And they failed to honour Nicole’s legacy as surely one of the greatest cyclists this country has produced, male or female. We have new riders full of ability and brilliance who are bringing the women’s sport to the forefront. Cooke (in the tyre tracks of the incredible Beryl Burton) was a pioneer, competing professionally in an era when cycling in general – and women’s cycling in particular – was widely ignored in the UK. Undeterred, Cooke was a determined adventurer who opened up the frontier for the women who now grace the scene.

Cooke wins the World Championship in 2008

Cooke was not without controversy – she appeared hard-headed, determined, even abrasive at times, often at odds with the cycling authorities and teammates. Many will say she was difficult to work with, but they fail to see that this was borne out of a principled outlook on life, and simply standing up for her rights. Hence her hard-hitting statement about cheating. Fellow riders – both rivals and colleagues – said Cooke’s retirement statement was a rant, but if anyone actually takes notice of the content of the statement, it will be those colleagues and rivals who will benefit from her words.
I interviewed Cooke in the year after her world-championsip/Olympic double. She was at the pinnacle of her career, but even then she was having trouble finding a regular ride, to the extent that she sank her own money into forming a team. Running a team takes a lot of money, time and organisation, and Cooke found it impossible to be both rider and team principal, so she was eventually forced to abandon the project, but her ambition was never thwarted.
We will never know what she would have achieved if she’d had backing anything like Team Sky’s support of Bradley Wiggins, but I am certain that she would have more than swept the world away. As it was, she was miles ahead of Britain’s male riders in the success stakes. In 2004, by winning the Giro d’Italia Feminine, she became the first British woman to win a grand tour. The following two years she won the Grand Boucle – the women’s equivalent of the Tour de France – but that feat went unnoticed by the mainstream press. No knighthood, no tickertape parade, just an MBE. All things being equal, if Brad’s Tour de France success is deserving of a knighthood, Cooke should surely have a peerage by now.
“I have ridden through the time of Lance and all the dreadful tragedy that the abuses surrounding him have brought to my sport,” Cooke says in her statement. “I have faced up to the temptations, but have always remained true to the 12-year-old inside me. Yes, I have suffered as a result, in many ways, but so what, I am not alone, I am one representative of that group, those who do it right.”
And for that, Nicole, we thank you. You have always been true to yourself, and you did it right.

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