Nicole Cooke says ‘no more heroes’ but, truth be told, she is one of mine. And to top all that off, she is so damn nice too. I met Nicole through her dad Tony, who responded to an article of mine which was on about how the bad guys get Gran Fraudos but the clean folk get nothing, like Obree and Nicole, and how much that sucks.
He sent me an email next day which said:
“If you’re interested in talking to Nicole perhaps I could set that up, I know her quite well.
Tony (Nicole’s dad)”
This is how it came about that I contacted Nicole to see if she was interested to come to Taiwan to be an invited journalist for the Taiwan KOM Challenge. She said yes and she was here all last week.
She was impressive as a cyclist of course, and her manner off the bike was equally striking. I’ve never met a professional rider as aware of the legacy they created nor as measured or as thoughtful in their answers . She was kind enough to give me time for an interview, and it was a conversation that went on long after the recorder was turned off.
The full transcript follows.
crankpunk: Hello Nicole!
Nicole Cooke: Hi Lee.
cp: How are you doing?
NC: Very good thanks, really enjoying Taiwan.
cp: It’s not your first time in Asia of course.
NC: No, there there was Beijing when i came out in December 2007 and things weren’t looking very ‘Olympic’ back then, but I rode the course, and then of course I was there for the actual Olympics too.
cp: How were the crowds?
NC: In some sections there were people cheering at the sides but by the time we got to the Great Wall of China and the actual circuit – there were only crowds allowed at the actual finish line so we had only about a kilometer of crowds cheering there. There was a lot of fuss at the time about the authorities getting in the way of the sporting side of things but yeah it was….not very well organised!
cp: This is a very difficult question but when you crossed that line did it hit you immediately as to what you had just done, or was something that came to you later?
NC: Yeah it was at that very moment. It was what I’d been working for for 15 years, it was years in the making. Absolutely everything was thought through for that race.
The amount of attention to detail was absolutely immense and I had thought through virtually every tactical scenario. So yes, it was the moment that I crossed the line that it hit me [big smile from Nicole here].
cp: Races so rarely go to plan, be advised that first, second or even third. Was this one is that did?
NC: Well there was the team dynamic, when Emma Pouly the attacked everything went out the window.
cp: Was that planned?
NC: It was planned by by Shane Sutton who hadn’t been to one women’s race that year. So obviously it was great for Emma to get her chance but the chances of success of it actually working out for me were quite slim, with a move like that.
So I just watched the moves and luckily the German team decided to do the bulk of the work to bring the break back.
Luckily I was on the back of that and back racing again.
cp: Important question here, do you ever practice victory salutes when you are out training?
NC: [laughing as though the thought alone is risible – and no, cp never does that either ahem] No! [more laughter]
NC: [still laughing] Never. I like riding no-handed if that helps…
cp: Moving on. We were talking talking earlier today about women’s cycling and the fact that for many years you were fighting an uphill battle in your career against the hierarchy and status quote that exists in cycling. Did that have a galvanising effect on your as a rider and as a person?
NC: Absolutely. In terms of creating a pathway for a British rider to go from new talent to Olympic gold, yes, that didn’t exist before I came along. And as for a track championships for U16 girls, that was a year and a half of writing to the authorities as to why there should be such a championships.
Now there are those and the road U16 championships for girls which is a part of the legacy. I still think there is a way to go with British Cycling and then getting behind women’s cycling. They’ve shown they can do it on the track but not on the road.
cp: You seem to be a very instinctual rider. How did you get on with coaches, how much of an influence can they have?
NC: Well my Dad when I was younger was the biggest source of support for me, talking about the tactics of the races and about how they played out was a big feature of what we did after every race. I learned the tactics so that they became instinctive and doing that from a very young age was.very important. But I was very happy to also go and as and do a lot of learning by myself so going to race in Holland and learning from my frustrations really helped me to develop tactically.
Most of my races though were very thoroughly thought out so that I really developed tactically.
cp: Some riders have just about all that is needed to win but lack calmness. Would you say that your own calmness helped you in your career?
NC: I’d say it was the desire to win, the blind desire to win, the desperation to win that characterised most of my races, and I was able to channel all that into good tactics and good decisions, but there were times for example in the early World Championships where I just wanted to win so much that I was covering all the attacks.
There was a learning process but I suffered a few times from that determination to win despite the odds being stacked against me.
cp: How important is it to be ready to fail in order to win?
NC: Well sometimes you do just have to take a chance and in road racing what your teammates are doing is really vital, to know what they are capable of on a given day. In terms of when a break goes it depends who is in it but, generally it is better to cover them but to try to be second or third.in the line so as to save more energy.
But the Varese World Championships, I already had an Olympic Gold and knew I needed all my energy for the final sprint so, I could afford to take chances and in the end.it worked out really well.
cp: You speak of an absolute desire to win, what has sustained that desire throughout your career?
NC: It’s a desire to be the best I can, and I am very ambitious so really aimed at then top. I aimed high and then tried to bring all the tools necessary to make that happen together.
cp: Would you say there’s an element of madness to all of us who race bikes?
NC: Um… no. Hopefully for most people it’s an absolute love for the sport and that feeling that there’s just nothing better than being out on the bike and being free and feeling powerful as an athlete.
cp: For young kids looking to make it in this sport – can they have heroes anymore?
NC: Well I did an interview in 2007 and said ‘No more heroes’ – for me – because within two years of being out in Italy I’d got to know some of the U23 lads in my area who told me that they were being given the ultimatum of doping or not moving any further forward.
There have been so many positives [tests] that back in 2006 and 2007 I was already over it all. It’s a sad situation to be in.
cp: Why didn’t you dope? So many others did. It seems the cheats win, teams and even some governing bodies appeared to be encouraging it – so why not you too?
NC: I started cycling from a very young age. I had the tactics, the climbing, the sprinting, I had the work ethic and I was successful. Yeah there were times when I was beaten by doped riders but, given a fair crack, there were times when I could still win.
For me it was a case of competing on my terms. I had my morals and I knew where I stood, and I felt that if I can’t compete in that way then I’m going to move away and find some other challenge.
Having other options gave me the perspective that this wasn’t the be all and end all in life.
The support of my parents was excellent and they gave me all I needed, but from a very young age, in particular the ’98 Festina Tour [de France], I was aware that doping was an issue in cycling and that I wanted to compete in that sport, so I started preparing myself for all the subliminal bullying and all the things that were going to happen and did happen.
I knew I had to be ready for what I would say in those positions and to be sure also for example that I’d only room with clean riders. In my first year I was given the option of doping at the Tour de France and was told that the team ‘expected more’ of me, well, no I wasn’t doing that and I didn’t get my wages paid.
So, I was ready for that and suffered the fallout. It didn’t make more determined because I was already very focused but it’s hard to know if I’d have walked away, if I was a male cyclist, in the early years.
cp: Interesting that you say that knowing there is more to life than cycling is important. I think that when riders are defined by the bike and only by the bike,that is a very dangerous starting point.
NC: Yes I agree and I think it’s that and also this massive network around the rider that just keeps chipping away at them. To have yourself surrounded by strong enough people to be able to say no is, well it’s not that easy.
cp: Would you say it is cleaner in women’s cycling?
NC: I’d say that I don’t know exactly what is going on in the men’s side but that I have seen the positives and that I do know the women’s side.
I can say that as a clean rider it is possible to succeed in women’s cycling. So I would say that overall there is less doping, but in my career I have seen all sorts of examples of it. Such as Genevieve Jeanson doping in front of her parents and putting 15 minutes into the best team in the world at that time in races…
Yes there is definitely doping in women’s cycling but I think it is more about individuals than about anything on an organized scale.
cp: People say ‘forget about doping, it’s over, give them a break.’ What do you say to that? Why should we care?
NC: Those people have forgotten what sport is about. It’s just excusing the dopers and once again, it enforces the feeling that there is no consequence to their actions. It reinforces the idea that doping is ok. And that is a very sad path to go down.
cp: Do you have any opinion on what should be done to make things better?
NC: First of all, WADA and the other anti-doping organisations should bring in lifetime bans.
cp: For a first time offence?
NC: Yep, absolutely.
cp: One of the common arguments against that is that people could get spiked or could unwittingly take a banned substance.
NC: Well, then there is the appeal process. But, to make this sport credible yes, it is an injustice but, is it worth it. I’m saying that it might be a small price to pay if we can have a clean and credible sport.
No one wants to see an injustice done and samples can be frozen and retested and maybe that process can be sped up somewhat in just five years say someone could be cleared I have to say that for the sake of the sport it [the introduction of lifetime bans] is probably a necessary step. Cycling needs a clean out and that is not happening.
cp: You’re talking about management…
NC: And teams and riders, advisers, race organisers…
NC: Commentators haven’t tested positive.
cp: I’m thinking like Richard Virenque.
NC: Ah yes absolutely. Anyone with a doping past should be out of the sport. This has to come from strong leadership and from the UCI and from journalists as well.
All this froth from journalists just aids and abets the doers and that is a huge role to play in all this. People are fed up with a sport they cannot believe in but if you leave it to the fans they will always be drowned out.
cp: I feel the same way, but people say “Well these people have the experience to run these teams and to coach these top guys.”
NC: What are they gonna teach? How to dope? That’s not an excuse at all. There are so many honest and decent riders, all those who couldn’t or didn’t want to become top professionals, they are waiting in the wings to step in.
There is management talent and we are probably missing out on a lot of talented managers because it stinks.
cp: Should you be rich right now?
NC: i never had a right to expect that I knew it was a Cinderella sport in the UK when I got into it and I did it for myself. I think if what I achieved can be put into perspective would be brilliant, but ultimately I did this for myself. I know what I did and I know that I raced in a way that meant I could look in the mirror. I am so proud of all that and that is the sort of thing that you can’t buy.
cp: Should women receive equal prize money?
NC: Because a woman who gives her all cannot give anymore. It comes down to how society values men and women. The norms in society do value men as superior in so many walks of life, for example in the wage gap. So many of these, all across society, are wrong. They shouldn’t be like that.
But equal prize money, again that is something that the UCI has to take the lead on in terms of national and world championships.
All of this stuff about ‘oh well the riders aren’t there and the races aren’t there’ – well give them the opportunity. Give it five years of equal prize money and then I’m sure women will say ‘Yes, sport can be a career path where I am taken seriously.’
For a lot of aspirational girls and young women, they look at sport, particularly cycling, and think ‘Well that’s a joke. Why would I put all that effort in to get no rewards when I can do something else and be rewarded more fairly?’
So yeah, that’s where I sit with regards to this.
cp: Throughout your career you were always very dedicated but how did you let your hair down? Was it always salad and rice cakes?
NC: [laughs] No, I think just being able to hang out with my friends and going to a concert, that was my release.
cp: Wow, so you had non-cycling friends?
NC: Yes! Thankfully!
cp: What’s your favorite kind of music? What would you listen to before a race?
NC: Uh, normally something energetic, like rock.
cp: Any particular bands?
NC: Yeah… [hesitant for the first time in the interview]. Like, older stuff, Arena, Everon, a bit of Deep Purple…
cp: Nicole Cooke likes Deep Purple!
NC: Yeah something with a bit of attitude! Been to a Deep Purple concert, love it! But yeah most of the time I’d just get in the zone and think of what the race was about, what was coming.
But a bit of MeatLoaf…
cp: Any Queen?
NC: Oh yeah.
cp: I like to ride my bicycle?
NC: Not that one!
cp: Ok, haha. So you are out here riding the KOM, not entered but just doing it, are you going to be riding your bike all your life?
NC: Absolutely! And why? For the love of sport. For the love of riding my bike and the adventure that comes with discovering new roads and new hills, meeting new friends. It’s always a challenge, I think I’m learning now that I’m not as fir as I used to be but that feeling of doing a big ride and pushing myself even if it’s to my limit today and I’m unfit compared to yesterday, it’s still such a buzz.
cp: Nicole, it has been an absolute pleasure, thank you.
NC: You’re very welcome.