Breaking Away: how Nicole Cooke rode to success on her own terms
Liz Smith reviews Nicole Cooke’s autobiography and recognises many of the sexist attitudes still prevalent in cycling
If you’re female and you love cycling, then you will know without doubt the name Nicole Cooke; the unassuming but tough-as-nails girl from a small Welsh village who rose, seemingly from nowhere, to the top of the women’s cycling game. Coached by her dad and cutting her teeth on bikes made from an assortment of second hand parts sourced by her dad and uncle from the local classifieds, Cooke made not just a name for herself in women’s cycling, but stuck her stake firmly in the ground.
It wasn’t enough for Cooke to race and win a few trophies, she was determined to level the playing field, not just for herself but for the generations of female cyclists to come; that gives Cooke her enduring appeal. She has the admiration of many in the sport, at every level from professionals at the front of the peloton to the “Weekend Warriors” slogging it out on the roads and trails while other, more sensible, folks are still snoozing in bed on a Sunday morning. And it was for this reason, when my copy of Cooke’s autobiography, The Breakaway, was handed to me by the postman, that I ignored all other commitments, put the kettle on, and opened the cover.
Graham Obree’s foreword is testament to the respect Cooke inspires across cycling, as an athlete, a worthy competitor, and a campaigner for fairness in her sport. As one of the aforementioned Weekend Warriors, I am keenly aware of the disadvantages women still face at all levels of cycling, and the indifference of many men to the attitudes that still pervade the roads and trails. Obree hits the nail on the head in observing that “the general attitudes … portray women as second best” and as a female cyclist, this is something that you will undoubtedly experience at some point in your cycling career.
For amateurs, it will perhaps be a hoot of derision from a group of men on a mountain bike trail, or a patronising bike shop salesman assuming you know nothing about groupsets and derailleurs and trying to sell you a pastel-coloured lemon of a bicycle. Irritating enough, but for professionals these institutionalised attitudes were the cause of many a demise of a promising career. For Cooke, not one to give in easily on the bike or otherwise, the male establishment would be a continual thorn in her side, and source of stress and distraction, when she should have been able to concentrate on training and winning for her team and country.
Cooke’s success, and even at times, her existence, is an affront to the cycling establishment, and they do their best to put road blocks in her way, at every step
Cooke describes in fine detail both her triumphs and setbacks, leaving few stones unturned, and is completely unafraid of exposing the uglier side of the sport. From the “arms race” in the early years of her cycling career, where children and teenagers trying to break into the sport faced competitors riding the best “superweapons”, to the politics of her later career, where she struggled against the establishment as a woman, and worse, as a woman who had not been a product of the British Cycling development programme. Cooke’s success, and even at times, her existence, is an affront to the cycling establishment, and they do their best to put road blocks in her way, at every step.
It might sound like a bleak read, but alongside the struggles, there are wonderful depictions of the high points. I particularly enjoyed Cooke’s description of her childhood experiences at Helmond in the Netherlands, where the attitude to competition was completely different to the British one. She describes kids riding on stripped-back bikes, and a Tour de France style welcoming committee for the finishers, as well as games and good old-fashioned fun – something notably absent in Cooke’s experiences of similar camps in the UK. Reading this chapter, I recalled a childhood experience of going on a mixed-gender mountain bike skills course at Cannock Chase, where the girls were largely ignored by the male instructor who also made derogatory comments about the bike I was riding for not being expensive enough. The “arms race” isn’t just for the pros, it seems. Cooke’s description of her experiences at Helmond reminded me of why I always loved cycling – it wasn’t about how much anything cost, as a kid, it was just the sheer freedom and fun of being on two wheels.
In my experiences riding with all-female mountain biking groups, I have always found it much more about pure fun than riding with men; I have rarely discussed the cost of my bike or its components with another woman, nor have I ever been made fun of for passing on a trail feature that I might not have felt able to ride that day.
While this might be my experience of women at “Weekend Warrior” level, providing a welcome escape from the competitiveness of the groups of men on the trails and roads, “riding off their hangovers” as Cooke puts it, at professional level, make no mistake, women are cut-throat competitors. Cooke’s experience at the British Road Race Championships of 2000 was one of being relentlessly chased down by the established World Class Performance Plan riders. The tactics were no secret, they were handed directly down from the team directors and coaches, because they wanted to stop Cooke winning at all costs. The growth of such attitudes sees the premature end to a few careers, understandably, whilst Cooke, at the time still an A-Level student, gets her second wind and plugs on.
Cooke’s descriptions of the arduous physical training she had to go through to achieve what she did should leave nobody in any doubt as to the mental and physical toughness of elite female athletes. Anyone who thinks that women don’t train as hard, or struggle as much, needs to read Cooke’s account of back-to-back mountain bike and cyclo-cross events, lone training in the Welsh hills and valleys battling the elements, and excruciating rehab journeys after injury.
She is at times served well by teammates and crew members, but there are plenty of howlers too – clear wrong decisions by inexperienced coaches and mechanics, partly because the women’s sport does not attract the best in this field. Instead of being supported by top professionals, like her male compatriots were, the women’s scene was full of those who either hadn’t “made it” into the elite ranks of men’s cycling, or were still cutting their teeth. It is not hard to come to the conclusion that Cooke, and all the women riding with her, deserved better, and at least there is some cause for hope now. For example the Boels-Dolmans team which is headed up by Lizzie Armitstead.
Cooke’s attitude, even to former cheats like David Millar now working with the anti-doping lobby, is unforgiving and hard line
The dark side of the sport is, of course, the drugs scandals that have dogged cycling since the 1980s. Cooke’s passion and anger on this subject comes through in raw emotion in the chapter about this problem. As with other issues around fairness in the sport, Cooke stands her ground resolutely on the drugs issue, refusing even to share a house with anybody not signed up to clean riding. Happily, she finds allies – the cycling coach and manager Dave Brailsford, and team manager Maurizio Fabretta who refuses to allow a convicted drug cheat into his team, among others.
The tide has turned in cycling, with out-of-competition testing being routine, and some pro-teams adopting a zero-tolerance policy towards drug use. We may be familiar with Brailsford and his hard-line stance at Sky, or with Paul Kimmage and journalist David Walsh who pursued Lance Armstrong for so many years trying to uncover the truth, but most of us won’t have known how involved Nicole Cooke was behind the scenes trying to rid the British cycling scene of doping.
Cooke’s attitude, even to former cheats like David Millar now working with the anti-doping lobby, is unforgiving and hard line. I read Millar’s book, and while I can understand why he caved in to taking drugs, I can also understand why the Cookes and Kimmages are unwilling to forgive or forget, especially when the systems supposed to protect clean riders failed them. However, where I disagree with Cooke is that she maintains that the former dopers do not truly suffer; I believe that many of them have suffered as a result of their actions, both physically and mentally. It is a different kind of suffering than that experienced by those who, like Cooke, refused to countenance any form of doping, but nonetheless, the majority have paid a heavy price.
And this is why all cycling and sport enthusiasts should be praising Cooke and her fellow stalwarts from the rooftops, because they have helped to ensure that future generations of young cyclists can ride clean, and not ever come under pressure from unscrupulous directeurs or medics to make that awful choice.
In the end, it comes down to this: establishments and institutions run by men, for the benefit of men, don’t like a woman challenging them, and particularly not when a woman shows she can do it without them
Opinions may differ on Cooke’s trailblazing career and legacy, but nobody can deny that her determination and refusal to give in when faced with adversity is extraordinary. Cooke is no tactician, and this comes across in the book – her moral code is simple, and can be summed up in one word: fairness. That is all Cooke wanted, a fair playing field for female cyclists in a male-dominated sport, and for all cyclists to be able to compete on the basis of talent, not drug regimes.
Cooke plays a straight bat, nobody could accuse her of having any hidden motives, and this makes the actions of the various institutions Cooke has to battle throughout her career all the more baffling. No woman is an island, however, and we must give a nod, as Cooke herself does, to all those who encouraged her to keep battling, none more than her own close-knit family, who are the subject of many a heart-warming vignette throughout the book. Cooke’s affection and gratitude for her family shines throughout, and actually, it is these parts of the book that I most enjoy, set against the backdrop of what can, at times, seem like a relentless struggle.
In the end, it comes down to this: establishments and institutions run by men, for the benefit of men, don’t like a woman challenging them, and particularly not when a woman shows she can do it without them. Cooke manages for most of her career to be a success even without their help, and when they do give it, it is grudging. Undoubtedly, Cooke deserved their support, but she was also unwilling to accept their control. In her own words: “I will participate in the sport of cycling on my own terms.”
And that, Nicole Cooke, is exactly what you did.
The Breakaway is available to buy now.
[Image descriptions and credits:
1. The front cover of the book. It is a close-up sepia shot of Nicole Cooke riding her bike and pumping her fist, she looks like she is both smiling and shouting. It is overlaid with the book title, author and a quote about the book in white and grey lettering.
2. A photo of Nicole Cooke winning the road cycle race at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing with a close finish at The Great Wall. Cooke is in the lead in the UK cycling colours: blue, white and red. Other cyclists can be seen behind her. It is raining.
3. A photo of Nicole Cooke on the podium at the Olympics. Her gold medal is round her neck, she is holding flowers in her right hand and her arms are outstretched. She is smiling.
All images courtesy of Nicole Cooke]