Nicole Cooke before the London Olympics - Bryn Lennon
It's the end of an era for British Cycling, as World and Olympic Champion Nicole Cooke retires - with very strong words on Armstrong, the UCI, doping in the men's and women's sport, and how women cyclists needs more protection.
"When Lance “cries” on Oprah later this week and she passes him a tissue, spare a thought for all of those genuine people who walked away with no reward – just shattered dreams. Each one of them is worth a thousand Lances."
When Marianne Vos won the Olympic road race and then the World Championships, it was a spectacular achievement - but she wasn't the first to do it. She was following in the path of British superstar Nicole Cooke, a rider who has won pretty much everything on the road, including the three women's Grand Tours, before she became the first ever cyclist, male or female, to win the Olympic and World road race in the same year, after a spectacular 2008.
Cooke's career, however hasn't been plain sailing, and after her truly stellar 2008, illness, injury and team problems - as well as controversy and polemica - have dogged her every year. It's clearly been very difficult for her - so it wasn't a surprise to have it confirmed that she's stepping away from cycling. However, she's not going quietly - in true Cooke style, she's using her retirement statement to make some very, very strong points. Tomorrow I'll be posting a retrospective of her career, but before we look at her riding, I wanted to take some time to look at her statement, and her interview on Channel 4 News tonight - this is must-read, even if you're not a women's cycling fan.
Her statement begins:
Thank you all for coming here today to be with me and hear what I am going to say. I am here to announce my retirement and in one sense that is a simple thing to say and a simple story, but given that the sport I have given my life to has become more ‘fantastic’ than any soap opera and it has just given witness to the greatest ever sporting fraud, about which we get new and wider revelations each day, I thought it appropriate to share with you some of my experiences and, importantly some ideas for the future. And, understanding that for the duration of my career the sport has been through the darkest years, I want to both reflect and look ahead. I hope that in some small way, my experiences can help.
It's an absolutely fascinating read - talking about how as a young girl she not only had to fight the British Cycling establishment to get to race, but how once she became a pro, she faced doping culture in Europe, famously at 19 years old giving her Italian pro team the option of having doping riders on the team, or having her. Cooke fought doping culture, and won - and her anger at the men's peloton is fierce:
Pressure was put on me by the team management but I was determined, and fortunate. I had a very good French team-mate who was in a similar predicament and she took the same stance I did. Team-mates that say "NO" are priceless. I would have been very naive to think that I would not encounter moments, like this. I am appalled that so many men bleat on about the fact that the pressures were too great. Too great for what? This is not doing 71 mph on the motorway when the legal limit is 70. This is stealing somebody else’s livelihood. It is theft just as much as putting your hand in a purse or wallet and taking money is theft. Theft has gone on since the dawn of time but because somebody, somewhere else, does it, does not mean it is right for you to do it. There can be no excuse.
Seriously, read the whole article - it crackles with passion, and anger, at the way doping destroys the careers of clean riders, and how "the cheats win on the way up and the way down".
It also casts a huge spotlight on the state of women's cycling - and how the UCI is not protecting women riders and the women's sport. Her story about how she wasn't paid by her professional team from March 2012 onwards, is shocking. She's had to go to court four times to get paid the wages stipulated in her contracts! This is the rider who was the very best in the world, with a reputation for fighting - what's it like for riders at the bottom? This is her argument for a minimum wage for women riders, and it is particularly interesting to read British Cycling's Brian Cookson's praise of her career in the light of Cooke's mention of him:
To employ a "cleaner" or a youngster to wash up at a bar, an employer must pay a minimum wage. The UCI Road Commission headed by British Cycling's Brian Cookson has stated that whilst a minimum wage is required for all male professionals, female riders do not deserve this. Only as recently as this October the commission rejected this simple request. There are two aspects of this case. One is straightforward and moral. Society cannot continue to leave all those girls in so vulnerable a position. A simple bar placed at the entry point for the sport would dispel all manner of problems. Are these girls that race for a living an underclass? They are somehow a sub-race not worthy of the most basic protection we afford the rest of our citizens in whatever employment they find themselves. Please understand, this is not about money, the main driver is the protection that will come from the placement of an absolute starting point for payment. The second factor is the one that demolishes the argument that it is sport; surely they are doing it for fun? Well what makes it different for men then? Why is there a minimum wage put in place for male riders? It protects them from being taken advantage of. Why are women not worthy of that same protection?
However, despite all this, Cooke doesn't see the sport as irredeemable - she may be walking away, but she has hope for the future. Speaking on Britain's Channel 4 News, she talked about how we might be at the lowest ebb - but that because all the conspiracies have been uncovered, we're at a point where we can construct and build on, and create an environment where drugs cheats are not welcome.
"It's taken catastrophic events...to bring the reality of it to people's attention, but there is so much going on with people like myself who do want to ride clean... and hopefully those people will stop being the minority now, and actually become the majority" "
There's so much more in the statement, it's the perfect reminder of why Lance Armstrong should not be allowed to get away with what he's done, why doping doesn't just affect who wins races, but also how it destroys careers of clean riders. Tomorrow we'll take a look back at Cooke's phenomenal career - but tonight I'm celebrating her passion, bravery and outspoken-ness, in the face of corruption. Here's hoping she's as successful in whatever she does next - and that the UCI, and Federations like British Cycling, take note, and start protecting the riders who want to clean.
Click here to download a full copy of Nicole Cooke's retirement statement.