When Mark Cavendish sprinted to World Championship victory in 2011, he was hailed as the first British winner since Tom Simpson in 1965. It was a similar story the following year. Bradley Wiggins is still, on the Team Sky website, described as “forever to be remembered as the first British rider to win the Tour de France.” Nicole Cooke has something to say about that. Three years before Cavendish, she won the World title in Varese. Six years before Wiggins, she’d won the Tour De France – and retained it the following year.
Judging by one of the more explosive cycling autobiographies in recent years, now out in paperback, it would be a brave man who said “yes, but they were the women’s titles”. The narrative coursing through Nicole Cooke’s The Breakaway is that British cycling, for all its 21st century successes, has been inherently – perhaps even institutionally – sexist, and unprofessional. “From where I was at that time,” she writes, “it was obvious that British Cycling was organised by men for men.”
It’s a brave – and perhaps even a little sad – cycling book that derives its power not in some of Cooke’s incredible achievements on the bike, but in her battles with authority off it. The charge is absolutely clear, British Cycling could not cope with a strong-willed female who, backed by her father Tony, had specific ideas about how to be successful that were not part of an agreed performance plan. There are pages – even legal battles – about her refusal to sign the British Cycling Team Agreement where the rider had to “obey every instruction of the coach”. Given that one of her chapters is entitled: “The GB Plan: Stop That Girl”, you can guess what she thought of that.
Such politicking becomes an obsession for Cooke (she was beating products of British Cycling’s World Class Performance Plan regularly but not selected for the Sydney Olympics) and her father, who constantly seems to be writing letters and e-mails to the likes of then WCPP director Peter Keen and, later, Dave Brailsford. There is a sense in the early parts of this fascinating insight into the world of professional women’s cycling that neither Nicole nor Tony ever stopped to wonder why they were continually fighting battles – their confrontational approach probably didn’t win them many friends.
They would probably argue friends weren’t as important as real change. As Cooke’s rollercoaster career progresses, the weight of evidence surrounding the second-class attitude towards women’s cycling in Britain does seem crushing. A particularly dark (and unverifiable) moment comes when Cooke reveals her nascent Vision 1 Racing team struggled for funding because an agent had told her “Dave Brailsford would not recommend us to any sponsor were they to approach British cycling”.
Current Technical Director Shane Sutton is similarly roasted for his attitude towards women’s cycling in The Breakaway – so it was intriguing to hear his response on the Cycling Podcast when the hardback was first published last year. “People don’t understand what level of abuse that Dave Brailsford and myself endured when she was with us,” he said. “I learned a lot from the leadership of Dave during that period because of the abuse he took from Nicole’s father, basically. We put everything into Team Cooke.”
As did Team Cooke – to a failing. Away from the British Cycling battles, some of the most interesting passages surround her constant battle with knee problems. All elite athletes suffer from injury at some point in their careers but here there’s a real sense of the despair at not being able to participate in the one thing she’s really good at – and paid to do. She overtrains to try to mitigate against time lost to injury, and suffers hugely for it.
Cooke, in the end, retired in 2013, at 29 years-old. She refers to her retirement statement more than once in The Breakaway – to the point that it might have been nice to have included it in the book. That statement called out drugs cheats as sporting frauds, and in the book she has absolutely no time for David Millar, despite his post-ban contrition. But it also mentioned that, in the end, British Cycling “stepped up” to solving the problems in women’s cycling that she brought to light.
As she says at the end of this absorbing and outspoken autobiography, trailblazing as she did involved a lot of knocks. “But so what… now girls can see a route and a destination. Others will eclipse me… but I have sackful of firsts that people can have only as seconds or thirds.”
Including a Tour de France win for Britain.
The Breakaway: My Story by Nicole Cooke (Simon & Schuster) is out now in paperback