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The Breakaway, by Nicole Cooke (Part 2)

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In this second part of the review of Nicole Cooke's autobiography, we look at some of the off-the-bike problems that beset Cooke throughout her career, and consider one of the book's key messages.

Bryn Lennon

"Road racing has never been an exact science and never will be, but the British cycling performance director Dave Brailsford and his team have been working on it and it showed yesterday. When Nicole Cooke sprinted across the line to claim Britain's first medal of these Olympic Games, it not only marked the pinnacle of the Welsh woman's eight-year international career but was also the culmination of a meticulous planning process going back more than a year.

"That planning went to one extreme that few cyclists have contemplated: a dress rehearsal on the road of the most likely scenario for a sprint finish, so that when Cooke arrived within sight of the line yesterday, she had in effect been through the sprint before. "We were trying to cover all options and we were hoping that exactly that would happen," said the women's road-team manager, Julian Winn."

So wrote William Fotheringham in The Guardian on the day after Nicole Cooke became Great Britain's two-hundredth Olympic gold medallist by winning the road race at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Of that final sprint that won Cooke the gold, Fotheringham quoted Winn further:

"We knew the point, at 200 metres to go, where we wanted Nicole to go. We knew at what point the legs would be getting heavy. [...] We wanted her to make sure she laid off coming into the final corner, but perhaps not that far. We were afraid someone might come down in front of her, so we told her to keep to the left. We knew she could chew them up after that."

Reading the reports of Cooke's win, it was one of the finest examples of PlayStation cycling the sport has ever seen, Cooke a cog in the well-oiled machine that was the Manchester medal factory, her coaches the men pressing the buttons that drove her across that finishing line first.

Nicole Cooke, Beijing, (c) getty

Would it surprise you if I told you it was utter bollocks?

Here's how Cooke recalls some of the lead up to Beijing, some of the steps in that meticulous plan, starting with her defence of the Grand Boucle title she had won in 2006 and 2007:

"Fifteen years after Robert Millar's heroic defeat, I was on that same mountain, also riding to defeat, my dreams shattered. I was deliberately deserted by British Cycling's 'marginal gains' machine, the system that was cosseting and looking after every whim of its chosen stars. Mum and Dad were there of course, cheering me on every yard, even as I lost my crown, despite all that the childhood friend and her team could do to assist and deny the inevitable. Olympic team-mates were not in evidence. Deadliest of enemies on the road were my team-mates the year before."

For 2008, Cooke was riding for Team Halfords, a home for the U23 WCPP stars and a few others (including for some bizarre reason Rob Hayles), with Cooke's points getting them entry to the best races. The Grande Boucle had been scheduled as Cooke's last major race ahead of the Games, apart from the British national championships. Until, that is, Shane Sutton decided to scrub it from the meticulously planned schedule. Julian Winn was delegated to inform Cooke, by email, that Team Halfords would not be going to the Grande Boucle. Instead, Sutton wanted her to return to Wales, where she could do some club races in Abergavenny with Olympic team-mates Emma Pooley and Sharon Laws.

Of the meticulous Olympics plan Fotheringham eulogised in his post-Beijing report, he quoted Cooke saying this:

"I stuck to the plan and I believed in it."

And she did. Sutton may have changed it, without consulting her, but she stuck to it, finding a berth for the Tour Fém with the Swift Racing team run by a childhood friend, Helen Wyman, and her husband, Stef.

As petit as the Grande Boucle had become - actually, it had grown marginally since 2006, to seven stages over six days - it still featured iconic stages. Ghent hosted the grand départ, a stage that threw the Kluisberg at the riders. The second stage sent the women over the cobbles of the Arenberg Forest. The final two stages took the riders through the Alps, the first taking the peloton to the ski station at Villard-de-Lans while the final stage saw them scaling the Col d'Izoard as well as Montgenèvre before finishing with a climb up to Sestriere.

The year before, when Cooke had successfully defended her Tour Fém title, she had done so the same way Greg LeMond had won the 1986 Tour, by defeating a team-mate (Priska Doppmann) who felt the victory should have gone to her. Now her former team-mates were riding to defeat her, under the Cervélo banner. Going into the time trial on stage five Cooke was within shouting distance of yellow, a few seconds in arrears, time lost through bonifications. In the contre-la-montre, though, she shed more than two minutes, ending the day 2'35" off the new maillot jaune, her former team-mate Karin Thürig (Cervélo). And between Cooke and Thürig was another former team-mate, Christiane Soeder (Cervélo). Two minutes was not an impossible amount of time to pull back across two mountain stages, but with two Cervélo riders ahead of her, Cooke had a major fight on her hands.

One of the features of Pierre Boué's Grande Boucle was major transfers and after the time trial to Clairvaux-les-Lacs the whole peloton was expected to pile into their team cars and drive the 450 kilometres to the start of the next stage and the Alpine finale. That long drive, perhaps, helped explain why the first day in the mountains produced no change in the GC. And so it all came down to the last day, three mountains, the first of which - the Col d'Izoard - Robert Millar raced over that day in 1993, en route to defeat on the climb to Isola 2000. On the final stage Cooke fought valiantly but, out-numbered two-to-one by the Cervélo pairing, she just couldn't produce the upset needed.

"I started the race believing I could make it three in a row [a feat only achieved by Jeannie Longo in the 1980s and Fabina Luperini in the 1990s] and I had been defeated; the winner inside me was bitterly disappointed. But the spirit of how we went about it and how some sincere, long-term friends had so readily come to my aid and done all they could to help me, contrasted with my treatment by the BC WCPP and fired up my passion."

2008 Grand Boucle Féminine Internationale Stage Winner Maillot Jaune
Tue
17 Jun
Stage
1
Gent to Wattrelos
74 starters - 67 finishers
73.2 km
1h51'30"
39.4 kph
Diana Žiliūtė (Ltu)
Safi - Pasta Zara Manhattan
Diana Žiliūtė (Ltu)
Safi - Pasta Zara Manhattan
Rated climbs: Hotond-Hoogberg (158m) Jolanta Polikevičiūtė (Ltu) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo; Kluisberg (145m) Jolanta Polikevičiūtė (Ltu) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo
Other leaders: Points - Diana Žiliūtė (Ltu) Safi - Pasta Zara Manhattan; QOM - Jolanta Polikevičiūtė (Ltu) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo; Sprints - n/a; Youth - Edita Unguryte (Ltu) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo; Teams - Cervélo Lifeforce Pro Cycling Team
Wed
18 Jun
Stage
2
Wallers to La Louvière
67 starters - 67 finishers
59.5 km
1h31'04"
39.2 kph
Loes Markerink (Ned)
Team Flexpoint
Loes Markerink (Ned)
Team Flexpoint
Other leaders: Points - Diana Žiliūtė (Ltu) Safi - Pasta Zara Manhattan; QOM - Jolanta Polikevičiūtė (Ltu) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo; Youth - Edita Unguryte (Ltu) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo; Teams - Cervélo Lifeforce Pro Cycling Team
Stage
3
La Louvière to Fourmies
66 starters - 63 finishers
88.9 km
2h31'43"
35.2 kph
Diana Žiliūtė (Ltu)
Safi - Pasta Zara Manhattan
Diana Žiliūtė (Ltu)
Safi - Pasta Zara Manhattan
Rated climbs: Côte de Jeumont (???m) Jolanta Polikevičiūtė (Ltu) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo; Côte d'Anor (???m) (1er passage) Jolanta Polikevičiūtė (Ltu) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo; Cote d'Anor (???m) (2em passage) Karin Thürig (Swi) Cervélo Lifeforce Pro Cycling Team
Other leaders: Points - Diana Žiliūtė (Ltu) Safi - Pasta Zara Manhattan; QOM - Jolanta Polikevičiūtė (Ltu) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo; Sprints - Edita Unguryte (Ltu) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo; Youth - Edita Unguryte (Ltu) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo; Teams - Cervélo Lifeforce Pro Cycling Team
Thu
19 Jun
Stage
4
Montdidier to Drancy
63 starters - 58 finishers
108.5 km
3h03'27"
35.5 kph
Diana Žiliūtė (Ltu)
Safi - Pasta Zara Manhattan
Diana Žiliūtė (Ltu)
Safi - Pasta Zara Manhattan
Rated climbs: Longueil (???m) Jolanta Polikevičiūtė (Ltu) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo
Other leaders: Points - Diana Žiliūtė (Ltu) Safi - Pasta Zara Manhattan; QOM - Jolanta Polikevičiūtė (Ltu) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo; Sprints - Edita Unguryte (Ltu) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo; Youth - Edita Unguryte (Ltu) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo; Teams - Cervélo Lifeforce Pro Cycling Team
Fri
20 Jun
Stage
5
Domaine de Chalain to Clairvaux-les-Lacs (ITT)
56 starters - 56 finishers
43.3 km
55'34"
46.8 kph
Karin Thürig (Swi)
Cervélo Lifeforce Pro Cycling Team
Karin Thürig (Swi)
Cervélo Lifeforce Pro Cycling Team
Other leaders: Points - Diana Žiliūtė (Ltu) Safi - Pasta Zara Manhattan; QOM - Jolanta Polikevičiūtė (Ltu) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo; Sprints - Edita Unguryte (Ltu) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo; Youth - Elena Berlato (Ita) Safi - Pasta Zara Manhattan; Teams - Cervélo Lifeforce Pro Cycling Team
Sat
21 June
Stage
6
Lac d'Aiguebelette to Villard-de-Lans
56 starters - 54 finishers
102.8 km
3h19'15"
31.0 kph
Rasa Polikevičiūtė (Ltu)
USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo
Karin Thürig (Swi)
Cervélo Lifeforce Pro Cycling Team
Rated climbs: Côte de la Rozière (???m) Jolanta Polikevičiūtė (Ltu) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo; Col du Blanchet (???m) Suzanne van Veen (Ned) Team Flexpoint; Côte d'Attignat (611m) Suzanne van Veen (Ned) Team Flexpoint; Col de la Placette (587m) Rasa Polikevičiūtė (Ltu) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo; Villard-de-Lans (1,041m) Rasa Polikevičiūtė (Ltu) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo
Other leaders: Points - Diana Žiliūtė (Ltu) Safi - Pasta Zara Manhattan; QOM - Jolanta Polikevičiūtė (Ltu) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo; Sprints - Diana Žiliūtė (Ltu) Safi - Pasta Zara Manhattan; Youth - Elena Berlato (Ita) Safi - Pasta Zara Manhattan; Teams - Cervélo Lifeforce Pro Cycling Team
Sun
22 June
Stage
7
Guillestre to Sestriere
52 starters - 51 finishers
83.9 km
3h08'05"
26.8 kph
Christiane Soeder (Aut)
Cervélo Lifeforce Pro Cycling Team
Christiane Soeder (Aut)
Cervélo Lifeforce Pro Cycling Team
Rated climbs: Col d'Izoard (2,361m) Sereina Trachsel (Swi) Swiss National Team; Col de Montgenèvre (1,850m) Jolanta Polikevičiūtė (Ltu) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo; Sestriere (2,035m) Christiane Soeder (Aut) Cervélo Lifeforce Pro Cycling Team
Final Classification
Pos Rider Team Time Age
1 Christiane Soeder (Aut) Cervélo Lifeforce Pro Cycling Team 16h21'35" 33
2 Karin Thürig (Swi) Cervélo Lifeforce Pro Cycling Team + 0'12" 35
3 Nicole Cooke (GBr) Swift Racing + 2'29" 25
4 Jolanta Polikevičiūtė (Ltu) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo + 5'42" 37
5 Maribel Moreno (Esp) Multijaca + 6'35" 27
6 Diana Žiliūtė (Ltu) Safi - Pasta Zara Manhattan + 7'13" 32
7 Grace Verbeke (Bel) Lotto-Belisol Ladies Team + 9'39" 23
8 Rasa Polikevičiūtė (Ltu) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo + 13'58" 37
9 Loes Gunnewijk (Ned) Team Flexpoint + 16'01" 27
10 Priska Doppmann (Swi) Cervélo Lifeforce Pro Cycling Team + 17'09" 37
Lanterne Rouge
51 Claire Maugras (Fra) Bourgogne Selection + 2h22'39" 21
Points
1 Diana Žiliūtė (Ltu) Safi - Pasta Zara Manhattan 32
Queen of the Mountains
1 Jolanta Polikevičiūtė (Ltu) USC Chirio Forno d'Asolo 37
Sprints
1 Diana Žiliūtė (Ltu) Safi - Pasta Zara Manhattan 32
Youth
1 Elena Berlato (Ita) Safi - Pasta Zara Manhattan 19
Teams
1 Cervélo Lifeforce Pro Cycling Team

The Grand Boucle behind her, the rest of the pre-Olympics meticulous plan unfolded. Running up to the Games, Sutton laid out the plan for the race itself: Pooley was to get away in a break and Cooke was to sit tight, with the other medal contenders hopefully marking her and thus letting Pooley ride to victory. If that didn't work and it came down to a sprint, Cooke was Plan B.

"I had come all this way without a team and constantly had to take on the might of the cycling world, single-handedly, and had delivered in virtually every race I rode for my country. Now, when there was finally some support on hand, it was being denied and my role relegated to that of a lure. Not only that, but this kind of tactic was doomed to failure. Emma [Pooley] had won continental races and always in the same way, a long, solo attack. Her use of this tactic was now known and there was no way the strong teams would simply let Emma ride away to win the biggest prize in cycling."

Cooke took herself off to Tuscany for a few days, where she found a hill similar to the finish in Beijing. On it, she marked out every hundred metres from 700 out and then set about practising her sprint from each distance. Wherever the sprint started in Beijing - and Cooke was sure it was going to come down to a sprint - she would have prepared herself for the effort needed.

Back in Lugano, where she was based, Cooke was joined by Emma Pooley and the two practised lead-outs, something which the meticulous plan had not scheduled to be done in any of the races they rode together over the previous year:

"It was a very nice and much appreciated gesture. We did it ourselves, away from any official camp. Maybe we would be there for the finish together and we chatted and discussed what might happen."

The final sprint practice done in Beijing, after that done in Tuscany and Lugano? Three days before the race, Cooke suggested it and Winn agreed.

In the race, Plan A unfolded the way it was meant to with Pooley breaking away and Cooke sitting tight. When the break was reeled in, it was time for Plan B. Time for Cooke to read the race and work out what moves needed to be followed and what could be ignored.

The reason Cooke had laid off coming into the final corner?

"This was the part of the circuit where Sharon [Laws] had gone down on the slippery white lines. I wasn't going to repeat my Athens error and decided that I would be better off going through this part on my own, away from the others, especially as I was on my dry weather tyres."

It was far from being PlayStation cycling.

* * * * *

That Nicole Cooke even got to represent Great Britain in Beijing is itself a bit of a wonder, for in 2002 she had been given an option: either sign a Team Agreement binding her to follow every instruction given to her by British Cycling coaches, or sod off. Cooke refused to sign the agreement.

At the end of 2001 a chance to turn professional with the Acca Due O squad had fallen through and Cooke was left considering her alternatives, which included joining the Lottery-funded British Cycling World Class Performance Plan for 2002, where the Team Agreement became an issue. Cooke had been able to get a number of amendments made to that when riding for Team GB over the previous two years, the most important being that she was only required to obey reasonable instructions. In December 2001 Peter Keen and Dave Mellor, the man in charge of British Cycling's women's road section, agreed to make similar changes to the Team Agreement Cooke would need to sign to join the WCPP. Only to be over-ruled by those above them. Cooke took her case to British Cycling's bosses, Peter King and Brian Cookson, but was told either she signed the standard Team Agreement or nothing at all. The latter meant no entry to the WCPP. And no more riding for Team GB. British Cycling was willing to sacrifice a talented rider, rather than change a few words on a piece of paper.

Those instructions from the coaches, it needs to be stressed, wouldn't just be about what to do in a race. They would be about how to prepare for a race. British Cycling had become coach-centric, not rider-centric, and it was assumed that the coaches always knew best. Cooke had been in charge of her own coaching - relied on the advice of people like her father, Tony Cooke, and others who she trusted - since she first started racing. If a British Cycling coach disagreed with the way she trained, he had the power to impose a different training regime on her, without her consent. In an ideal world, coach and rider should be able to discuss and agree on the changes needed, each should be willing to cede ground, accept when they are wrong and the other is right. Cooke's experience of British Cycling coaches, though, suggested that that would not always happen. Hence her intransigence on the issue.

Cut adrift from her own federation, Cooke was able to find a last-minute berth with the Deia-Pragma-Colnago trade team and prepared for a future in which she would never again ride for her country. Her first race was to be to GP Castenaso and she took the start in her new Deia-Pragma-Colnago jersey. And wearing that jersey she finished seventh, a decent achievement in her first professional outing and a good showing for her team. Only ... well it wasn't a decent performance for the Deia-Pragma-Colnago team. Because just before the race started, having already signed on, Cooke had been asked to go and sign on again, and given a new race number, one for a different team.

The rules for the GP Castenaso required that teams start with a minimum of six riders. Unbeknownst to Cooke, a GB team had turned up for the race but with only five riders, not having read the rules about the minimum number of riders required. The six-rider rule was a UCI requirement, so everyone was willing to find a workaround solution. Cooke being the only other Briton taking the start, the race organiser approached her team boss and asked if he wouldn't mind loaning Cooke to Team GB for the day. So when Cooke signed on for a second time, she was signing to ride for Team GB. Everyone got to race, everyone was happy.

Well ... not everyone. Because now a precedent had been set: Cooke had just raced for Team GB, from whom she was supposed to be exiled, without having signed the Team Agreement that was the cause of her exile and without which no one was supposed to ride for Team GB. Even better news was that, after much badgering, UK Sport - who controlled the Lottery purse strings - had finally agreed to take up Cooke's cause and challenge British Cycling's right to block her from Lottery funding that would have come from being with the WCPP. Faced with these two blows British Cycling had to back down on both the Lottery funding and the Team Agreement. With the agreed amendments having been made, Cooke was welcomed back into the fold. Albeit without open arms.

* * * * *

Nicole Cooke, The Breakaway - My StoryThroughout The Breakaway, alongside the stories of races won and lost, Cooke details many of the off-the-bike problems she had to deal with, from forcing British Cycling to treat her fairly though the problems she had with trade teams making offers that fell through or failing to pay her the salary agreed. It could all be quite wearying - in the way, say, that Bradley Wiggins's tales of woe with his trade teams is wearying in In Pursuit of Glory - but it isn't. In the battle of the wills between her and British Cycling, Cooke is the underdog, the David taking on Goliath, she's that throwback to the days of that odd "maverick with talent, ability and a stubborn refusal to bend to the will of others." You admire her spirited determination, you root for her to win. And you have to admire what she achieved, not just with her palmarès but also with the changes she forced on British Cycling. And throughout The Breakaway, for all the problems encountered that Cooke details, she is quick to note when change has been embraced, to note that her federation has improved.

But The Breakaway isn't just about battles of the past. There are lessons that British Cycling still need to learn, such as the manner in which they support their junior riders (or whether they want to support them or instead rely on the ability to find outside the sport those with the right gene- and mind-set to prosper within their system). Cooke writes with joy about her early years, her experiences with ESCA and the Helmond Youth Tour, about how it all started out as fun. Maybe the sport needs machine-tooled automatons in order to bag the bangles and baubles that keep the Lottery funding flowing. But it also needs those who enjoy the fun side of it.

The biggest battle of the future, though, is for the status of women's cycling:

"Women's cycling will not be fixed until those in charge at the UCI and British Cycling treat female competitors and women's race organisers in exactly the same way as they do on the men's side. If, instead of allowing the women's versions of the great classics to be abandoned, the UCI had insisted that its World Cup organisers needed both a men's and a women's event, then the whole cycling scene would be completely different. This lever remains available today, but for that to happen we need leaders with vision."

The question is, will those in power in Manchester and Aigle - men for whom Cooke was a thorn in their sides throughout her career - even bother reading The Breakaway, let alone treating it as a learning opportunity?