Racing cyclist Nicole Cooke announced her retirement today. Multiple world champion and memorably Olympic Road Race champion at Beijing in 1988
Tonight I heard her giving an excellent interview to the BBC in which she is her usual robust self when describing her views on drug cheats and the impact they have on other riders’ careers. (link below) In the week that Lance Armstrong appears to trying to salvage his reputation on the sorry ground of the Oprah show I think we should salute a real star of our sport.
I am biased about Nicole because I have been following her career for long time and I know that she really is an old school champion, one who made her way up through the sport just before the British Cycling machine started producing champions with almost conveyor like regularity.
Back in the 1990s I was living in Cardiff and I restarted my club riding and racing career with the Cardiff Ajax Cycling Club, then a long standing club with a nice family atmosphere. Down in the schools category a name started to appear regularly – a twelve year old girl was beating all the boys at cyclocross and started winning national championships in unbeatable style. Within a year she was getting a national reputation. I recall Cycling Weekly magazine commenting that most of the senior men could learn a bit from watching her bike handling.
But along with her racing supportive parents Tony and Denise had brought up her and her brother as all round cyclists with a real appreciation of the pastime as well. They had cycled to school and been on cycle touring holidays too but Nicole was always a ferociously competitor and outgrew the gentle riding and school category years ahead of her time. Scarily bright too, doing exams early so they didn’t clash with her racing and a good speaker at social functions and prizegivings.
I have memories of the 15 year old Nicole handing out a thrashing more than a few times at any discipline. A 100 mile February reliability ride in freezing rain and snow, most of the top local riders left my group for dead. While we old men were dying in the café the “youngster” was going the whole way with the lead group – perhaps ideal preparation for that horrible day in Beijing ten or so years later?
Or later that summer when she was given special dispensation to ride outside her youth category with the local senior men as a bit of training. I was well dropped when I pulled off the circuit to watch the race finish, but even by then I had been terrified trying to follow her wheel round some of the corners on the old airfield circuit. Everyone else sort of rode round the corners, Nicole just hauled her bike round in a juddering arc, unforgiving on bike and rider. Not only did she ride with the seniors just below elite level and stay with them all race, she burst from the pack to win the bunch sprint embarrassing some quite handy individuals into the bargain.
She then became our club icon, followed by everyone and gradually a champion respected by everyone throughout the cycling world. Junior champion at every discipline, me shouting at the Eurosport coverage in each victory. Then the Commonwealth Games put her on the national stage, coming from behind after missing a corner after a typical piece of mad and fearless descending.
And that was her style. A colleague of mine at CTC Mick Ives also ran a pro cycling team which Nicole rode for a junior and he said she was relentless and unforgiving on herself and her equipment, driving herself to the limit, probably racing and training too much. Actually now I write this I realise how much she sounds like our other champion Beryl Burton who I have written about quite a bit in the last year or so. (tagged below)
I guess I was one of those who probably believed that she was destined never to quite get the world or Olympic titles she deserved, especially with the coming career of the similarly amazing Marianne Vos. But as if the Olympic title wasn’t enough the sheer bloody mindedness with which she outsprinted Vos for the world title in the same year was the one that had me almost break furniture as I jumped in the air.
That was probably her last brilliant year and it has been tough going since then with injury and team problems, not to mention internal tensions in the British team as her status waned but she remains high on my list as a rider that I would never tire of watching, there was always a possibility that she would do something in almost every race.
She deserves a successful retirement now and the continued respect of our whole cycling world. If she gets her moment in some sort of truth and reconciliation process after all the current rubbish in men’s cycling she will be a force to be reckoned with because she will not hold back.