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The Breakaway, by Nicole Cooke (Part 1)

The autobiography of a maverick.

Bryn Lennon

Nicole Cooke, The Breakaway - My Story Title: The Breakaway - My Story
Author: Nicole Cooke (with an introduction by Graeme Obree)
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Year: 2013
Pages: 458
Order: Simon & Schuster
What it is: The autobiography of Nicole Cooke
Strengths: Cooke can bring joy and passion to the things she writes about, particularly the on-the-bike side of her story
Weaknesses: A lot of people have already made up their minds about the off-the-bike story and won't want to hear Cooke's side of the story

Friday, 30 June, 2006. In Strasbourg, it was the eve of the ninety-third Tour de France's Grand Départ, and the cycling world was reeling as revelations from Operacíon Puerto laid waste to the peloton, stripping the race of Jan Ullrich and Óscar Sevilla (both T-Mobile), Ivan Basso (CSC), Francisco Mancebo (AG2R) and the whole of Manolo Saiz's Astana-Würth team - the Kazakh capital having only weeks earlier replaced Liberty Seguros in the team's name - after the loss of Alberto Contador, Joseba Beloki, Sergio Paulinho, Isidro Nozal, and Allan Davis left it with insufficient riders to take the start.

Seven hundred kilometres to the south, another Tour de France was drawing to its conclusion, the women's Tour de France, the peloton tackling the penultimate stage, from Valréas to L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, south of Carpentras. En route lay le géant de Provence, Mont Ventoux.

The history of the women's Tour is chaotic. The great Jean Leulliot - a race organiser who too often doesn't receive the credit he deserves - started the ball rolling in 1955 with a Tour de France Féminin won by a Briton, Millie Robinson. Félix Lévitan picked up the ball in 1984, running the Tour de France Féminin alongside the Tour de France, as he had with the Tour de l'Avenir in its initial runnings in the 1960s. Lévitan's Tour Fém only outlasted him by a couple of years (he was ousted in 1987) and in 1990 the Société du Tour de France separated the Tour Fém from the grande boucle and joined it to the Tour de l'Avenir, which since 1986 had been run as the Tour de la Communauté Européenne. As it had with the Tour, the Tour Fém ran alongside the men's Tour de la CE, in September. The Tour de l'Avenir reverted to its original name in 1991 but the Tour Fém continued on as a Tour of the EEC for another couple of years, its last edition being in 1993, by which time it was called the Tour de la CEE Féminin.

That, though, was not the end of the road for the women's Tour de France. The previous year Pierre Boué - a man with connections, having worked for Jacques Chirac in the 1980s - and Racing Club Olympique de Toulouse had launched the Tour Cycliste Féminin (coincidentally, an alternate name used by the Tour de la CE in 1990). Despite having no connections with the Société du Tour - Boué and RCO were actually rivals - the Tour Cycliste Féminin was seen as the spiritual heir to the Tour Fém of the 1980s, because of its scale and geographical scope. In 1999 Boué's race became La Grande Boucle Féminine after ASO challenged its naming in the courts.

As with the Tour Fém of the 1980s, Boué's women's Tour ran two weeks in duration, typically with 14 stages (the Tour Fém of the 1980s started off with 18 stages which reduced year by year until it had only 12 in its final edition). By the early years of the new millennium, though, the race's finances were in trouble, Boué struggling to cope with the post-Festina economic reality of sponsors turning away from cycling and the obstacles continually thrown in his path by first the Société du Tour and then its successor, ASO (similar, no doubt, to those thrown in the path of Jean Leulliot's Paris-Nice race). Between one thing and another - one of the others being a dispute between Boué and RCO - the Grande Boucle disappeared from the calendar in 2004 and, when it returned in 2005, it was in a truncated form, running to just five stages (the same length as Leulliot's first Tour Fém). Further challenging its status was the fact that, in 2006, the end of the Grande Boucle overlapped with the start of the women's Giro d'Italia.

So yes, it might be fair to say that, in 2006, the women's Tour de France was a pale shadow of the men's Tour in whose glory it basked, was overshadowed by bigger and harder races on the women's calendar (which included the Tour de l'Aude and - to confuse the whole Tour Fém thing further - 2006 saw the launch of the Route de France Féminine). Covering just 467 kilometres in six stages across five days, the 2006 Grande Boucle was very much a petite boucle. Until, that is, it got a grand gesture from its leader Nicole Cooke who, wearing the maillot jaune, left team-mates and rivals behind her early into the climb of Mont Ventoux and soloed her way to its summit and an epic stage victory.

Three days before the Ventoux, when the Tour Fém had begun in Font-Romeu, high in the Pyrénées, Cooke donned the first yellow jersey, after storming to victory in the opening time trial. Through the next two days of racing - which included a split-stage - Cooke was able to stretch her lead out from nine seconds to 56. The Ventoux was scheduled as the penultimate day's racing and all Cooke had to do was defend her lead over the Giant of Provence - making its Tour Fém début - and then get through the final stage and the win was hers. All she had to so was follow the wheels of her rivals. Ride tactically. Play it safe. And maybe that is what another rider would have done. But, for Cooke, the Grande Boucle was too big to be won in such a cold, tactical manner. The Tour was at the heart of the dreams that drove her to succeed and in those dreams she had dreamed big:

"Since the age of 12, I had dreamed of winning the Tour de France. On the TV, I had watched Robert Millar climbing the mountains. I had ridden the French Alps on our family camping holidays, dreaming as I was climbing that I was on my own ahead of the pack, heading to victory. Now I was standing on the start line, wearing the yellow jersey, about to begin a stage that was going to take us over the famous Mont Ventoux, a climb of special magic to all British riders."

Cycling fans have a very particular view of the Ventoux, one in which it is always a stage finish and always climbed from the Bédoin side. Cooke and the rest of the 2006 Grand Boucle peloton, though, would be tackling the mountain the way it was tackled when first introduced to the Tour de France in 1951, crossing it mid-stage (as it had been for six of the 13 times it had been tackled by the men in the Tour before 2006) and tackling it from Malaucène, on its northern side.

Throughout its Tour history the Ventoux has been a crucible in which legends have been forged. Of Louison Bobet and Charly Gaul winning the stage that included it and then going on to win the Tour. Of Eddy Merckx being the only man to wear yellow and win on its summit. Of Jean-François Bernard climbing so high on it only to tumble so low. And of Ferdy Kübler abandoning after it, of Jean Malléjac collapsing halfway up it, and of Tom Simpson riding to his death on it. For British cycling fans in particular this mountain - Roland Barthes's God of Evil, Antoine Blondin's witches' cauldron, Jacques Goddet's condemned spot - holds special appeal because of Simpson, comes with an emotional charge unlike any other mountain. And comes with a sense of fear and foreboding that can leave lesser riders overawed by all that has happened on its slopes.

Nicole Cooke climbs the Ventoux
Cooke climbs to the summit of the Ventoux (c) Getty Images

For Cooke, though, fear and foreboding were replaced by something else. By a different set of memories. Not of a man with a Union Jack on his jersey collapsing off his bike onto the roadside and dying. But of a little girl watching:

"As we assembled on the start line, I heard nothing. Instead, I saw this quiet figure of a 12-year-old wish me well; she would be watching me from her TV in her lounge, and she would be with me every pedal stroke today. The crowd behind her seemed not to be French nationals but her friends, Sophie and the Jameses, her schoolfriends and teachers, and Geoff Greenfield, Walter Rixon and Ron Dowling [three ESCA coaches who had encouraged the younger Cooke]. This was the day I owed to her and all those standing behind her. Her TV had a special camera that would allow her to follow me every second of the race. I was going to do everything to make it the most special day I could for that innocent little girl with so much hope in her heart. Today was the day, above any other in my life, which I owed to that little girl."

When Raymond Poulidor led the Tour over this summit in 1965, one journalist wrote of his performance that he had done so "with the voracity of a cannibal wolfing down the leg of an archbishop." Cooke's attack of the Ventoux, with just five kilometres of the climb gone, could be described in similar terms. She crossed the mountain in regal style, two minutes clear, riding alone, leading the peloton up past Chalet Liotard, through the Sahara of stones that is the Bald Mountain's moonscape summit and past the memorial to Tom Simpson:

"As soon as we reach the first steep slopes of Mont Ventoux, I attacked hard. I wanted to ride this one on my own, ahead of all my rivals, wearing the yellow jersey, just as I had seen in all the old magazines and books. As I emerged from the trees, I got my first glimpse of the strange lunar landscape. I still had over 7km of climbing to reach the top. I pushed on, wanting to gain as much time as I could. I crested the top and started the descent flying round the bends; I made sure I was within centimetres of the edge of the road at every bend, trying to gain every second."

Over the summit, Cooke still had more than 50 kilometres to ride before crossing the finish line, 20-something of them down to Bédoin and then another 30 down through Carpentras to L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. A chase group was behind her, with three members of the USC squad in it. But Cooke held them off, extending her lead as she went, reaching the finish line four minutes up on her nearest chaser and extending her overall lead to more than six minutes. The maillot jaune had just led the peloton alone for more than 60 kilometres. It was an exploit the sort of which legends are crafted from. It was an exploit almost unique in Cooke's career, a day in which she didn't have to out sprint rivals to take the win, a day in which she simply rode away from everyone else, alone, and won by minutes ("There is a special feeling about a solo victory compared to a victory in a sprint. You have more time to savour the moment and when you come into the finishing straight the crowd is already applauding rather than holding their breath to see who will win."). But for all that it was a very public exhibition of power and panache, it was also quietly private, deeply personal, a day that said thank you to a girl who had dreamed:

"In the last few kilometres, that little girl came up to me again. This time she was leaping about, trying to show me something. She had a picture frame in her hand with a photograph in it. It was of a rider in a yellow jersey, on a bike. There were no other riders around; she was alone with just the motorbikes and the official cars, The mountain background was a moonscape. The 12-year-old was just so happy."

The Grande Boucle finished the next day, with Nicole Cooke as its first British winner. Not many people noticed. What was happening in Strasbourg and Spain received all the attention.

2006 Grande Boucle Féminine Internationale Stage Winner Maillot Jaune
27 Jun
Font-Romeu (ITT)
56 starters - 56 finishers
7.3 km
34.2 kph
Nicole Cooke (GBr)
Univega Pro Cycling
Nicole Cooke (GBr)
Univega Pro Cycling
Other classifications: Points - Nicole Cooke (GBr) Univega Pro Cycling; QOM - n/a; Sprints - n/a; Youth - Pascale Schnider (Swi) Univega Pro Cycling; Team - Univega Pro Cycling
28 Jun
Vernet-les-Bains to Toulouges
56 starters - 54 finishers
70.8 km
38.9 kph
Alexandra Rannou (Fra)
Les Pruneaux d'Agen
Nicole Cooke (GBr)
Univega Pro Cycling
Other classifications: Points - Alexandra Rannou (Fra) Les Pruneaux d'Agen; QOM - Elisabeth Chevanne-Brunel (Fra) Les Pruneaux d'Agen; Sprints - Sarah Grab (Ger) Univega Pro Cycling; Youth - Pascale Schnider (Swi) Univega Pro Cycling; Team - Univega Pro Cycling
Vabre to La Salvetat-sur-Agout
54 starters - 53 finishers
63 km
48.0 kph
Joanne Kiesanowski (NZl)
Univega Pro Cycling
Nicole Cooke (GBr)
Univega Pro Cycling
Other classifications: Points - Joanne Kiesanowski (NZl) Univega Pro Cycling; QOM - Elisabeth Chevanne-Brunel (Fra) Les Pruneaux d'Agen; Sprints - Alexandra Rannou (Fra) Les Pruneaux d'Agen; Youth - Pascale Schnider (Swi) Univega Pro Cycling; Team - Univega Pro Cycling
29 Jun
Le Pont du Gard to Valréas
51 starters - 47 finishers
100.9 km
29.9 kph
Emma Rickards (Aus)
Univega Pro Cycling
Nicole Cooke (GBr)
Univega Pro Cycling
Other classifications: Points - Joanne Kiesanowski (NZl) Univega Pro Cycling; QOM - Elisabeth Chevanne-Brunel (Fra) Les Pruneaux d'Agen; Sprints - Nikki Egyed (Fra) Vienne Futuroscope; Youth - Pascale Schnider (Swi) Univega Pro Cycling; Team - Univega Pro Cycling
30 Jun
Valréas to L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue
47 starters - 45 finishers
115 km
32.1 kph
Nicole Cooke (GBr)
Univega Pro Cycling
Nicole Cooke (GBr)
Univega Pro Cycling
Other classifications: Points - Nicole Cooke (GBr) Univega Pro Cycling; QOM - Nicole Cooke (GBr) Univega Pro Cycling; Sprints - Nikki Egyed (Fra) Vienne Futuroscope; Youth - Tatsiana Sharakova (Rus) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo; Team - USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo
1 Jul
L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue to Les Baux-de-Provence
45 starters - 44 finishers
114.4 km
32.6 kph
Elisabeth Chevanne-Brunel (Fra)
Les Pruneaux d'Agen
Nicole Cooke (GBr)
Univega Pro Cycling
Final Classification
Pos Rider Team Time Age
1 Nicole Cooke (GBr) Univega Pro Cycling 467.4 km
33.8 kph
2 Maryline Salvetat (Fra) Interregions Grand Sud + 06'21" 32
3 Tatsiana Sharakova (Rus) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo + 13'25" 21
4 Sonia Bazire (Fra) Vienne Futuroscope + 14'25" 28
5 Laura Lorenza Morfin Macouzet (Mex) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo + 14'35" 24
6 Alexandra Rannou (Fra) Les Pruneaux d'Agen + 15'40" 27
7 Toni Bradshaw (NZl) Les Pruneaux d'Agen + 16'21" 30
8 María Gallastegui Aizpurua (Esp) Bizkaia-Fonorte-Deba + 18'49" 31
9 Nikki Egyed (Fra) Vienne Futuroscope + 21'10" 24
10 Joanne Kiesanowski (NZl) Univega Pro Cycling + 21'11" 27
Lanterne Rouge
44 Marie-Aline Bera (Fra) Bourgogne 3h05'36" 21
1 Nicole Cooke (GBr) Univega Pro Cycling 23
Queen of the Mountains
1 Elisabeth Chevanne-Brunel (Fra) Les Pruneaux d'Agen 31
1 Nikki Egyed (Fra) Vienne Futuroscope 24
1 Tatsiana Sharakova (Rus) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo 21
1 USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo

* * * * *

Nicole Cooke was born in 1983, three months before Laurent Fignon won his first Tour title and put Bernard Hinault in the shade. It was the year that Robert Millar rode his first Tour de France. Ten years later Cooke watched Millar on TV as he rode his last Tour. It was the eleventh stage of the race, the last day in the Alps, and Millar attacked on the Col de la Bonnette (2,800 metres, the highest paved road in the Tour's history), soloing his way across the roof of the Tour. At the foot of the final climb to the ski station at Isola 2000 Millar led the chasing peloton by 42 seconds. That was quickly eaten away at and the Scot passed. Then, four kilometres from the summit, Millar went again, refusing to bow down without a fight. For two kilometres he again led his pursuers before finally the light was snuffed out and he was passed by his pursuers. That show of defiance was not totally fruitless, though:

"When the programme was over, I ran outside, jumped on my bike and headed for the hills behind Wick where I rode up and down the steepest climb I knew, five times. I did it as fast as I could, inspired by the deeds of Robert Millar. I still don't know what possessed me, given that I had not even started competing, but there was something about the event and the notion of being King of the Mountains dressed in the polka dot jersey."

Within a couple of years dreams of polka dots were replaced by dreams of yellow. A dream that was realised in that 2006 Grande Boucle victory.

* * * * *

That Tour Fém victory was far from the highlight of Nicole Cooke's career. Two years before she was the first British winner of the women's Giro d'Italia. She already had four rainbow jerseys as a junior rider, three of them - road, time trial and mountain bike - won in the same year (2001). Bar one, she had worn the British national champion's jersey every year since 1999. She had won the Flèche Wallonne three times, the Amstel Gold Race once. Ahead of her still lay the successful defence of her Tour Fém title, victory in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, and a double of Olympic gold and the senior arc en ciel in 2008. And those are just the highlights, the races whose names are recognisable to all cycling fans. You can challenge, if you want, just how big a deal Cooke's crossing of the Ventoux in 2006 really was, given how small the Grande Boucle had become (though you cannot touch its import to the rider herself). You can forget that Cooke beat Chris Froome to the summit of the Ventoux and forget that she beat Bradley Wiggins to the maillot jaune. But how can you not celebrate a palmarès that includes all those other races, craft legends of Cooke winning the Giro on the Madonna del Ghisallo, of Cooke winning the Flèche Wallonne on the Mur de Huy, of Cooke winning the Ronde?

There is ample material in The Breakaway to craft such legends, I didn't have to pick the Ventoux. And yet there are really only two races from the whole of Cooke's career that have really been mythologised, their stories told and retold by all who celebrate Great Britain's cycling renaissance: her Olympic and Worlds victories in 2008. But if you read the myths of those victories you will find Cooke relegated to the role of a cog in the machine of Dave Brailsford's Manchester medal factory. But Cooke was no product of British Cycling's brilliant and innovative post-Lottery management structure, she was a throwback to the days of that truculent Scot, Robert Millar, and the other odd "maverick with talent, ability and a stubborn refusal to bend to the will of others," a throwback to the days of the Pioneers and the Foreign Legion. And since myth-busting those stories requires taking the focus away from what Cooke achieved on the bike, and focussing instead on what she had to achieve off it in order to earn those wins - and since here I wanted to tell a happy story - that is something I am going to leave to part two of this review.