American former professional rider (he has just retired at 35) Matt Cooke came on the radar screens at crankpunk HQ when he commented on an article i wrote about dopers having those wonderful gran fraudos, as they do. we then chatted a little about doing an interview but never got round to it.
then i saw a comment from Matt on a photo of Zabriskie, attending some awards dinner or something recently, where Matt basically said ‘dude you robbed me’, and i knew we had to get that interview done.
so here it is, unedited, unabridged. one thing i am sure of is that he means every word.
crankpunk: Why aren’t you a doper?! Scared of needles?
Matt Cooke: I’m not a doper because I have never done drugs. Beyond that I think it takes away from what is great about sport. Or at least what we are all taught is great about sport ie. that it is a fair competition.
cp: Why should we believe you?
MC: That’s a tricky question because it’s hard to prove of course. But the real reason you can believe me is because if I took PEDs I would have progressed beyond continental racing in the US a long time ago. I am natural climber and I am actually pretty talented in that respect but if you gave me PEDs man I would go REALLY fast.
cp: How and why did you decide not to dope? Family environment? Experience of other riders? Or…?
MC: I like to think most people are pretty bright but the older I get I am finding out that is not so true. The choice not to do drugs is pretty easy. I want to do this sport fair. If I get beat I want to be able to actually congratulate the guy. I also don’t want to have to lie to everyone I know. It would kill me inside too. The truth is I am just too damn honest and I’m too sympathetic and I would feel for the guy I cheated.
But I did have a good family with very good values. There was never any pressure to perform at bikes. Maybe that helped. I was an Eagle Scout. All my friends had good families too. My friends were honest. As kids if we did the smallest thing wrong we felt bad about it. We had good values growing up.
cp: You’re pretty vocal about doping and about others who have been caught and continue to be lauded, so what are your thoughts on Zabriskie, Levi et al?
MC: I wish other riders would speak up because we could make a change. But some are still racing and they are afraid of losing their jobs, and they actually should be afraid. Hincapie runs a team so those guys can’t say anything. It would make the work environment pretty uncomfortable at Garmin if riders there spoke up. But when people like me speak out, we are actually saying the truth. How can the truth be wrong?
Fans do not like to have the curtain pulled back. They want to keep cheering for their favorite rider and not really think about what he did. They think “Oh he did a little cheating. But everyone was doing it. And he did his time.” ALL FALSE. One, they all blood doped, remember that is taking your blood out and putting it back in later! That’s just insane. Two, not all of them took PEDs, I never did and look where I am, I quit the sport because of how diseased it is (more on that later), and three, they did not do their time – most of them did six months in the off season and Ryder [Hesjedal] did no time at all.
And after those six months are done they go back to getting paid six figures. And remember they got to that pro tour level and they got on that clean team because they were once massive performance enhancing drug users – i.e. career criminals.
Without the drugs they wouldn’t have been there.
Let’s take them at their word for argument sake that they all did stop doping in 2006, independently and at the same time – well, they did drugs for many years prior to that. They got to do many grand tours, they did countless long classic races, they had access to the best training methods, coaches, doctors and places to train.
They were given access to all those things because they got great results because of their drug use. Without the drugs they would never have gotten to that point and that is what many people forget. Those people are so-called fans, fan-boy journalists, former and current racers and now I see it includes race announcers here in the US also.
This is the take away – you would never know their names if they had never taken drugs.
Something else that is painfully obvious but everyone seems to ignore or maybe they are just too dumb to see, is that we would never even know their names if they hadn’t have taken drugs.
Where would Tom Danielson be if he had never taken the drugs? Where would Levi be? No where. They got their fame through cheating and that included stepping on many clean riders like myself and many, many others. Even if they really did stop, they did all those grand tours and training for the grand tours, which is an advantage I and others like me never had.
If you’ve ever raced at a high level you know that the riders who have done grand tours have an advantage over the riders who haven’t.
Those guys I just mentioned, Horner too, came over to the US to do “training races” and they beat all our butts. And the fans cheered for them. They clamored to get their autograph. What a bunch of horseshit. They took prize money and podiums from us.
I just read a piece I wrote for a magazine in 2007 about my neo-pro season with Navigators (I could say a lot about that team too) and I was writing about the Cascade Classic that year. I was on the final climb and Levi attacked. There was a hesitation from the field and I said to myself “the hell with this” and I rode across to him.
I think I was there for ten seconds or so before I blew sky high and finished way down that day. That race and other instances just like that changed me, it changed how good I thought I could be. I thought “Oh I guess I am not as good as I thought I was. I need to reevaluate how high I can make it in this sport.”
Can you see how that changed what I thought I could do in this sport? Levi and all the others that are too numerous to name almost, not only stole money by way of placing’s but they stole the imagination of clean riders to reach the highest points of the sport.
And its also not just prize money, people forget about the opportunities us clean riders missed, spots on big teams, higher salaries. I have finished second in important races to riders who I knew were geared up. Imagine if I had won those races. I would have looked a lot more attractive to bigger budget teams.
Would you like examples? Several of the US Pro Championship races George and Levi won back to back. Then Cascade, Gila, Tour of California, Tour of Utah and the Pro Challenge. At all those races, guys who were totally lubed up stole major placings from clean riders.
cp: You recently sent a post to a FB post about some riders (it was Zab right? And…?) being patted on the back for some ride or other – can you tell us about that and, any blowback from that from the apologists?
MC: I think a lot of people have backed off because I was vocal. I feel fine with it because I am actually right. I’ve called out current pros from sucking up to Levi and they backed off from me. I don’t mind it but that is my business. I don’t understand why any clean rider would ever back off a guy who is fighting for his and her cause. I’m on their side yet sometimes they want to be closer to the guy who cheated them for years. I say, that’s their problem not mine.
And to be honest I have spoken out a lot but it is actually only a small percentage of what I want to say. There are some things I am afraid to say because there are powerful people in the sport that would give me a hard time. Not physically but we have mutual friends and I don’t want there to be tension.
cp: Do you get any feedback from others in the peloton/out on the road?
MC: Yes several riders came up to me and said ‘thanks for saying what you are saying’. ‘You are right Matt.’ Things like that. They are in a hard spot because if they speak out they won’t get jobs, and I understand that. I was leaving so I said “the hell with it, I am saying how I feel.”
cp: Might you possibly be risking an advancement of your own career here – being branded a ‘troublemaker’?
MC: Well I am not racing any more so I’m not too worried about that. It’s a shame because this could be a great sport but it really is so corrupted that it is hard to turn your head at the race buffet and not see a major cheater or hypocrite or enabler somewhere in your glance.
And really how could I be called a trouble maker? I believe it has been proven that Chris Carmichael actually did dope juniors, also I believe it has been proven Levi did test positive in 1996 and Will Frischkorn and another Saturn rider said a rider who is still racing in the pro peloton taught them how to use EPO. And I am sure you figure out who that is on your own. But I am just repeating these things. I didn’t do the drugs and steal the money, they did.
cp: Is cycling really getting cleaner?
MC: I do think it is getting cleaner. You can win races clean. At least here in the US and I’m sure you can in Europe too. Maybe not consistently over there but I believe you can. But that is just a small part of it. Look at the people still involved in the sport. Many of them were heavy PEDs users and they are the ones in charge. And then you tell yourself “Well once all the cheater riders retire it will be a better environment.” But that’s not true either because all those guys will be the next directors and team owners and coaches.
So my feeling is that this sport has no hope until after I am dead because I am about the same age as all those pathological liars.
Also consider how these guys like Levi are treated by current riders. So many of them love him. They go to his grand fondo, they have podcasts with him. It’s unbelievable. This guy actually stole from them and here they are having tea with him.
Did you see Chris Carmichael just got a podcast? Remember the law suit regarding the juniors? They were kids for christ’s sake. And he built an empire off of his lies. The bio on his website has no mention of Lance, yet he wouldn’t exist if not for Lance. They did books together for christ’s sake, how do people forget this stuff.
cp: Any thoughts on why American supporters of American dopers are so particularly gung-ho about still loving these guys?
MC: As you can tell what I’ve written I see no reason to love them. I do see how you could sympathize with them. You could imagine yourself in their shoes and start to rationalize the choices they made, but that doesn’t mean they were the right choices.
The reason the American supporters love them so much is they just want to be around famous people. That is where most of these “journalists” fit in. They are just terrible, none of them actually lived the sport. They are just fan boys. They can argue with me till the cows come home but the truth is they have never stood in my shoes and have not seen the things I have seen and so it is not possible for them to even come close to reporting the truth.
Why does Velo do an interview with Levi and not once ask him about his positive test from 1996? They’ve interviewed him multiple times over the past year but every time they asked softball questions and with no push back or follow up.
Now I’m sure they could and will come back and say “hey Matt we did ask 1 little itty bitty follow up.” But the point is the interview was just an opportunity to give him more sympathy and show how great of a guy he is. The fact is, he’s a career thief.
Is there any other way to look it him? No, there isn’t.
cp: Feelings on former dopers being involved in pro teams or coaching?
MC: They should not be involved, period. George is sponsoring some young guys which is commendable. I don’t think he is coaching them. I believe that situation of a team needs a very clean delineation of who is involved with what.
cp: What are your thoughts on the current two year ban?
MC: It’s too short. Four years and they need to be tested during their ban at their expense.
cp: How did it feel – and when did it dawn on you – when you realized that there were these two separate tiers on the peloton – and that, as the evidence has shown was actually true – you and others like you might be being robbed of wins?
MC: It dawned on me a few years in. It was more recently for sure. I knew I was getting beaten by cheaters but I never knew the extent of what they did and how big the advantages they gained were. I was teammates with guys who heavily used EPO for years but I didn’t find out until years after the fact.
Over time I realized that my early years in the sport were partly shaped by guys who cheated and that is a big reason I am so angry. I am not blaming them for the entirety of my career, but there were important things that were changed by them.
Of course I’ve never taken PED’s but I was told a few years after leaving Navigators by someone who was a teammate at the time “Oh you didn’t know? We were all using.”
He was exaggerating, not everyone on that team was using PEDs but many were and it blew my mind when he told me. So then I think back and remember instances in specific races where guys would make a big move in a race and I was cross eyed from trying to go with them. Or two guys I later found were juiced up racing each other for seconds in a TT and other blowing the field away. Stuff like that gets you mad because you know you could have done super well in a certain race had you not been going up against a guy who was geared up.
After Nav’s broke up at the end of 2007 guys went everywhere and the ones who were the big users kept using and kept at it on their new teams for several years after that. Those names I can’t not say right now because I don’t have photos or taped conversations but I do know it happened and authorities are being notified.
But if you put your thinking cap on it is not too hard to find out. I wish USADA and the magazines would put those thinking caps on because they could do a great deal of good.
cp: Any advice to young kids looking to go pro, and/or to their parents?
MC: If you like cycling go for it. Clean guys can win races these days. At least here in America they can, probably Europe too.
cp: What are you hoping for your own future?
MC: I hope to be as happy and as fun loving as I have always been. I have a great life. I have a wonderful wife and dog and I am doing a job search now that is a little scary but I believe it will be rewarding. Ultimately this is a big diverse world we live in and I want to see as much of it and do as much as I can before I die.
cp: Thanks Matt.