If you’d asked me back in 2004, before I took an interest in cycling, to name three cyclists my response would have been Lance Armstrong, Eddy Merckx and Nicole Cooke. Given the low profile of women’s cycling, you might find that last name surprising. But at the time Nicole was a promising Olympian, well-known to the British sporting public and the inspiration for the current crop of British cyclists.
Following our interview with Nicole, here’s the story of how she won everything there is to win in her sport – the Tour de France twice, the Giro d’Italia, the World Championships, Olympic gold – becoming the first woman to dominate both stage and one-day races.
Early start with family support
Nicole started cycling thanks to her father, a keen amateur, who organised family cycling holidays for the four Cookes – including brother Craig – on tandems. Great champions tend to be both determined and bloody-minded. Nicole demonstrated this to great effect throughout her career which got off to a shaky start when, aged seven, she refused to use stabilizers on her bike, fell off and fractured her skull. Her first cycling-related injury, but not her last.
At 11 she started cycling competitively when the father-daughter tandem impressed local club St Cardiff Ajax in a ten-mile time trial. The club wrongly assumed the duo’s engine was her father – not so. In no time at all, she was beating the boys in the under-12 national championships. At 14 she discovered there was no national competition for her to enter and she could no longer race against the boys. So she and her physics teacher father, whom she raced against on the seven-mile stretch to school each day, campaigned and the following year there was a girls’ national championship.
In 1999, aged 16 she won her first senior national road race title, the youngest rider to do so. The following year she was deemed too young for the Sydney Olympics despite becoming world junior road race champion. In 2001, she achieved the unique triple of junior world championship titles in the road race, individual time trial and mountain bike becoming the first ever junior to successfully defend her title. At home she became both the national road race champion – the first of nine consecutive titles – and the youngest-ever national cyclo-cross champion. As a result of those outstanding achievements, she was awarded the 2001 Bidlake Memorial prize for her contribution to British cycling.
In 2002 Nicole turned professional with the Spanish-Italian Deia-Pragma-Colnago team and based herself in Treviso. In her maiden season, she won a number of important one-day races and the Commonwealth gold medal for Wales in Manchester. Her refusal to take performance-enhancing drugs during that year’s Tour de France led to her contract being cancelled.
She then joined Lithuanian-Italian team Acca-Due-O which, as a result of a new UCI rule, was split into two at the start of the 2003 with Nicole riding for the newly formed Ausra Gruodis-Safi with many of the younger riders. By the end of the season, having won a substantial number of prestigious one-day races, she was the UCI World Cup leader, the youngest ever and the first British winner.
The following season, Nicole moved to the now renamed senior squad Safi-Pasta Zara Manhattan with whom she became the first ever British winner of a grand tour – the now renamed Giro Rosa – for which she only received a fraction of the accolades that Sir Bradley Wiggins went on to do. Lack of a sufficiently strong squad to support her Olympic ambitions, combined with a benign parcours, saw her finish fifth at the Olympic road race.
At the start of 2006, she joined the Swiss based Univega Pro-Cycling squad for two seasons and moved to Lugano where she still lives. After three injury-marred seasons, she was back to her best, again won the World Cup and became the first British winner of the now defunct Grande Boucle Feminine – the female Tour de France – and finished third in the World Championships road race in Salzburg, which was the first time I saw her race live.
In 2007, early wins in prestigious World Cup races saw Nicole setting more records, this time for the gap between the first and second-ranked cyclists. She successfully defended her Grande Boucle title but another knee injury prevented her from defending her overall World Cup title.
2008: Olympics and Worlds success
Nicole joined team Halfords Bikehut at the start of the all-important Olympic year. She won gold for Great Britain, its first of the Games and 200th in total on a difficult rain-washed course with a late surge..
She went on to become the first ever female world road race and Olympic champion in the same year with a hard-fought victory in Varese, Italy.
It was only the second time ever I’d seen Nicole race live. Her book Cycle for Life was published in October 2008, in which she imparts her passion and knowledge of the sport.
The final countdown
Finally some recognition when Nicole was awarded an MBE in the 2009 New Year Honours, and she was voted Transworld Sport Female Athlete of the Year and the Sunday Times Sportswoman Of The Year.
Nicole was unable to build on her 2008 success but she still recorded victories in her final three seasons as a professional racer. After her Vision 1 cycling team collapsed in 2009, 2010 was a lean year for her as she raced and trained in the British Cycling team kit. Finally at the end of the year she joined the Italian MCipollini-Giordana team for 2011 and lastly Faren Honda in 2012.
Last summer at London 2012 she raced in support of her teammate Lizzie Armistead, who won silver.
Nicole announced her retirement from the sport on 14th January 2013 at the relatively young age of 29, but after a 13-year professional career in which she garnered a palmares others can only dream about. At her press conference she delivered a blistering attack on both the drug cheats that plague the sport, as well as the UCI which has harboured them and decried its failure to commit to developing women’s cycling.
By way of a tribute, British Cycling Coach Shane Sutton said that Nicole would be remembered as one of the three greatest women’s road cyclists of all time.
Alongside [Marianne] Voss now and [Jeannie] Longo, Nicole’s the greatest women’s road cyclist of all time. She’s right up there with the best of the best.
When you look back when she won two junior world titles in Lisbon she started a pathway there in terms of success for women athletes. All of a sudden we [British cycling] were starting getting noticed on the female front. That was the pathway for others to follow. I think the sport of female cycling owes her a debt, there’s no two ways about that. You’ve got to remember that at the height of her reign it was all Nicole Cooke, winning the Olympics, winning world titles, winning Giro d’Italia and endless other races.
I consider myself fortunate to have seen her race live and have long admired her gutsy performances. If I had to sum up Nicole in a few words, I’d say she was “a woman with huge balls”!