Friday Feature: An interview with Nicole Cooke

She retired with a heartfelt speech in January but Nicole Cooke still waves the flag for the sport she loves with an open letter to British Cycling penned in the aftermath of the Operation Puerto trial. She has also been forthright in her opinions on how women’s cycling should be developed, most recently in a Guardian article. In the first of a two-part Friday Feature, she’s agreed to share her thoughts on the state of women’s cycling and what the future now holds for her.

Sheree: What triggered your decision to retire? 

Nicole: I’d given everything I could to the sport from the age of 12. For some time I’d had the thought at the back of my mind that I’d like to compete in the London Olympics and then decide what I wanted to do in life and my cycling career. After a couple of months’ reflection, it felt right to stop at the end of 2012. It was as simple as that, really. I’d achieved everything I’d set out to do in my career. I was satisfied and ready for the next stage in my life. You can’t race forever.

Sheree: I know it was back in January but that was some retirement press conference. Was it a coincidence that it was scheduled the same week as the Lance Armstrong interview with Oprah Winfrey]?

Nicole: We came up with the date back in December 2012 and it was chosen totally independently. But afterwards we thought it might coincide with Oprah but it didn’t change what I wanted to say. It probably even helped. With hindsight it worked out very well, even though it wasn’t planned.

Sheree: Would it be fair to say that you could only say what you did because you have the results to back it up? Success lends credibility?

Nicole: I’m aware that I have a certain platform because of my achievements and I did feel it was an ideal opportunity to speak on behalf of other riders, particularly my friends who have potentially lost out on an entire career thanks to dopers in cycling, and the doping culture that excluded riders who wanted to ride clean. So yes, it was a chance to speak out on behalf of those people with whom I’m close and who didn’t enjoy the same career as me or enjoy the same possibilities in women’s cycling. Of course, it equally applies to the guys too.

Sheree: What you said in your retirement speech really resonated with so many people, including a number of the male professional cyclists.


Nicole: I know, it was amazing. Months afterwards people were still getting in touch, including many current and former riders, plus a whole raft of people I’d never even met who said that my speech was amazing and very heartening. It seemed as if many shared my thoughts but that no one had said what I said or put it into a proper context.

Sheree: You weren’t part of the problem but would you like to be a part of the solution? The sport of cycling badly needs credibility. What specific changes would you like to see?

Nicole: Leaving aside the doping, one thing I made very clear in my retirement speech was the need for fundamental change in women’s cycling. The lack of protection in place for women cyclists makes them very vulnerable and nothing has changed in the intervening period. I’d like to see a minimum wage introduced because it protects the riders and lends credibility to the women’s road scene. It would also give both sponsors and event organisers more confidence about investing in women’s sport. I’ve had numerous legal battles over the years with various teams over unpaid contractual wages and unless someone is prepared to challenge them it reinforces the idea that they can just get away with it. The good work of the majority of people in women’s cycling gets undermined by a minority.

Also, when I sat on the UCI’s Women’s Commission back in 2004-5, I pushed for equality in terms of Olympic events at a time when there were seven medals on offer in the track for men and only four for the women, but it fell on deaf ears. It was only after Beijing that changes were made.

On the same commission, we sent recommendations to the UCI about television coverage which is vital to educate the fans about the riders, the characters in the peloton, the rivalries, who to follow and so on. I feel they missed a golden opportunity after the women’s road race in the London Olympics to promote the World Cup series with its smaller teams and very different dynamics to the men’s which makes it more, not less, exciting.

I’d also like the UCI to get more involved, take a closer look at the women’s scene and see what could be changed. They’re rarely present at any of the women’s races. It would also help to have someone champion their cause on the UCI’s management committee.

Sheree: New UCI President Brian Cookson has tasked vice-president Tracey Gaudry with championing women’s cycling. That’s definitely a move in the right direction. Before we look into what the future holds for you, perhaps you could indulge me with a bit of a trip down memory lane. In a career of so many highs and moments to treasure, what were your three favourites and why?

Nicole: It would have to be my first two junior world championship wins starting with Plouay (2000) when I was a rookie. There had been no one from Britain on the world stage and it was something I’d worked towards since I started racing in my teens. The following year in Lisbon it was very different, there was loads of pressure from being the red-hot favourite but I was still riding on my own. To be honest, nearly every year of my career there’s been something special to cherish.

Winning gold at the 2002 Commonwealth Games was a massive highlight so early on in my senior career and it continued with the 2003 World Cup, 2004 Giro d’Italia, 2006 Tour de France, World Cup and number one ranking all the way through to the 2008 Olympics and World Championships. That was a very special season, when all my dreams came true.

2007 World Cup winner Nicole (image: Nicole Cooke)

2007 World Cup winner Nicole (Image: Nicole Cooke)

Sheree: Of course, if you’d been a guy, you’d probably have won Sports Personality of the Year, made a Dame and become a celebrity.

Nicole: That’s the way things were back then and still are now. I knew all that coming into cycling and I raced to please myself. As time passes I can look back on my legacy to the sport and the magnitude of what I achieved. I didn’t do it for fame, or fortune, just a love of the sport.

Sheree: What were your three career lows and why?

Nicole: I was bitterly disappointed after the 2004 Athens Olympics. I went into the race as hot favourite and came away empty-handed. It took me a long time to get over it. Then at the end of 2007, I had the third keyhole surgery on my knee. Months later I was still experiencing pain and my Olympic dream once more looked to be fading away. I contemplated retirement as there was no pleasure in cycling, only pain. It was one of the hardest times in my career. But it was my stubbornness that kept me going in early 2008. If I was going to fail, it wouldn’t be through any lack of effort on my part. I wasn’t able to train properly until April and it wasn’t until mid-May that I came back from a ride and realised that I’d enjoyed a pain-free one and I was once more looking forward to racing, though at that point I wasn’t sure I’d make the GB team.

Sheree: One of the qualities of a great champion, a never say die attitude.

Nicole: I’ve always had the ability to push myself to the max, whatever the level of pain. Not because I want to win but because I need to know that I’ve given of my best, that I’ve given it everything.

Sheree: As you go down in the cycling annals, how would you like to be remembered?

Nicole: When I started, I wanted to be regarded as a complete rider, one who could win all the major races – Tours, Classics, World Championships and Olympics – and become the number one-ranked rider in the world. I was very ambitious and none of the women racers had ever been complete in the same way as, say, Eddy Merckx. Of course, Marianne Vos has quickly followed in my footsteps and, while I don’t like to blow my own trumpet, I do feel that I set higher standards and raised the competitive bar for female cyclists.

In addition, I’ve been an honest and truthful competitor. I didn’t win every race. I made mistakes along the way but I made the best call I could in the circumstances. Moreover, I went down a path previously untrodden by a Brit and, certainly for the first part of my career, was going down it alone. There were lots of hurdles and now, looking back, I sometimes wonder with the benefit of hindsight if I could have done things differently. But at the time it was bloody hard being in the dark and trying to work everything out on my own as best I could.

Sheree: So what’s next for Nicole Cooke? Have you made any decisions about your future? If so, can you share them with us?

Nicole: I’ve been writing my autobiography which has proved to be a long and very demanding exercise. To a certain extent, I was very apprehensive about going back over things which I’d locked away and not given any thought to for some time. But it’s been quite cathartic looking at things with a fresh perspective.

Longer term I’m playing around with a few ideas but I’m not there yet and there’s no rush. I’m just enjoying my new life.

Sheree: You’re still cycling?

Nicole: Of course, a mixture of mountain biking – there’s some lovely trails around Lugano – and road riding, discovering places around here that I’ve not yet visited. I’ll always ride, it’s been such a big part of my life from a young age. But I don’t miss competing, particularly not the training and dedication that goes along with it.

Sheree: Keep us posted and we look forward to reading ‘The Breakaway’, which will be published next July. It’s sure to be an absorbing read. 

Nicole, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a fascinating chat and all of us at VeloVoices would like to take this opportunity to wish you every happiness and success in your future endeavours.

In part two of our Friday Feature later today, we’ll take a look back at Nicole’s racing career.

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