Fresh start with Vacansoleil

For a rider who won the green jersey at the age of 24, recent seasons have been a frustrating time...

An interview with Baden Cooke, January 14, 2009

Baden Cooke will be aiming for success on home soil once the Tour Down Under starts on January 18th. He's recently switched to the new Vacansoleil team after a deal with Rock Racing wasn't what it seemed. Cooke spoke to Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes about this change, his reaction to his 2008 season and his goals for the year ahead.

For a rider who won the green jersey at the age of 24, recent seasons have been a frustrating time for Baden Cooke. Taking a stage victory plus the best sprinter's award in the 2003 Tour de France should have been the start of a successful run in the sport; instead, he's spent several years simply trying to get back to that level.

Injury and team woes account for some of that frustration. He rode the 2008 Tour with Barloworld but crashed out on the twelfth stage of the race. Prior to that, Cooke missed out on the 2006 and 2007 editions; he was with Unibet during those seasons and while the team didn't make the cut in 2006 due to its size – it was a developing Professional Continental team then – it fully expected to be there the following year due to the ProTour license it had obtained. However, a bitter struggle between the UCI and ASO saw the team suffer, with the French organisers appearing to use Unibet as a pawn in those battles and blocking it from its events.

Cooke's team woes have continued more recently. He was enticed away from Barloworld by a large contract with Rock Racing, and was initially happy with the deal. According to Cooke, the American team had told its riders around the time of his signing that it would be taking out a Pro Continental license and riding the major European events in 2009. However, Michael Ball's team then withdrew its application and was set to have a far smaller programme on that continent. Financial problems made the situation even worse and, facing up to a six-month contract rather than the agreed two-year deal, the Australian rider jumped ship.

" As an Australian, I think it is the most winnable Classic." - Baden Cooke eyes Het Nieuwsblad, formerly known as Het Volk.

Cooke will now race with the Dutch Vancansoleil setup, a new Pro Continental team run by Hilaire van der Schueren. He worked with the Belgian in Unibet and that link is part of his satisfaction with the new squad.

"I am happy with the team I have found," he told Cyclingnews recently. "With Vacansoleil, we are going to do the Classics, Sanremo, probably the Giro and Tirreno-Adriatico. I know a lot of guys on the team, I think it is going to be one with a lot of good morale. I also know Hilaire, the director, so on that side of things I am very happy to be going there. It is a sure thing."

He will once again miss out on cycling's biggest race, but sees the bright side. "Other than the Tour de France, we are capable of probably doing everything straight away," he stated.

Amongst Cooke's results in 2008 were wins on stages of the Geelong Bay Classic Series, the Clásica Internacional de Alcobendas y Villalba and the Herald Sun Tour. He also took top three placings on stages of the Giro della Provincia Di Reggio Calabria, the Tour de Picardie, the Euskal Bizikleta and the GP CTT Correios de Portugal. His return to the Tour de France saw him nab fifth on stage five, his sole top ten placing in the race before crashing out.

It was solid rather than spectacular. "It wasn't a bad year," he says. "It was probably one of my strongest years in the Classics. I didn't have any big results but at certain moments, if things had gone differently, something good could have happened there. It was pretty disappointing to crash out of the Tour, but obviously to be back in the race after a couple of years out of it was good.

"I had a couple of wins…it wasn't my best year, but all in all, I was quite happy with it."

He's hoping to step up a level in 2009. "Once the programme is confirmed I will know more about my targets, but my first big goal is Het Volk. That is something that I think I could win. Het Volk and Gent Wevelgem are, I think, well within my grasp. Then hopefully we will get a start in the Giro and I will try to go for a stage there."

Cooke has been aiming for several years to develop into a Classics rider. Two years ago he was sixth in Het Volk and eighth in Gent-Wevelgem, and winning either of these would be an important step in his evolution.

Het Volk, now named Het Nieuwsblad, takes place early in the season, and he believes he has an advantage. "Coming from the Australian summer, we are always in good condition at that time of year," he said. "Obviously Het Volk is the first goal. Sometimes the big riders are delaying their peak for the Tour of Flanders and whatever. As an Australian, I think it is the most winnable Classic. I was sixth there a couple of years ago, so it is something that I think I could win."

Besides that, he feels that distance is more suited to him than the big Classics. "As a sprinter, 200 kilometres will always suit you more than 260."

Not happy with Rock

As Cooke previously told Cyclingnews, he is planning on suing Michael Ball about what happened with Rock Racing. Essentially, Cooke says he was given a two-year contract and told he'd be riding the big European events; fast forward a few weeks, and he said he was asked to make do with a six-month deal racing largely in the US, with the assurance that his original two-year deal would be honoured if – only if - a new sponsor was found.

Cooke doesn't disguise his anger about what has happened. He says that he signed his contract towards the end of 2008 but waited in vain for Rock to send back a copy signed by them. After five weeks he requested to talk directly to Michael Ball; when he did, the news was not good. He found out then that things were not as had been agreed.

Times are tough for many sponsors, but Cooke is clearly unimpressed in how things were done. "He [Ball] was not sorry, he didn't say, 'sorry we didn't tell you two months ago.' He is acting as if I should be thankful to him that he is going to cover the team out of his own pocket.

"I told him that he has to pay me, that if he told me the situation two months ago that I would have got a good contract elsewhere. But he is saying, 'no, I am not going to pay you. It is your loss, not the team.'

Up until that point, other members of team management were assuring Cooke that things were fine. "Even the day before I spoke to Michael Ball, Gary Hanson, the guy I had contact with on the team - who himself had constant contact with Michael Ball - promised me that my deal was sound. He promised me that my deal was set in stone, no problem. He said that the only thing that might happen is that the race programme might be less strong."

Cooke spoke to Cyclingnews at the start of this month, and at that point in time he felt that the mood was bleak. "I have spoken to numerous riders, some of the best riders, and they are desperately trying to get out of the team," he stated. "They see the ship sinking. Obviously me leaving won't help the team, because it makes a potential sponsor think twice when a rider leaves as it really doesn't show any confidence in the team, but I don't think anyone would blame me for leaving when you go from a two-year deal to a six-month deal."

New start

Cooke has already competed this season, netting fifth, seventh and second on stages of the Geelong Bay Classic Series, despite a big crash on day three. He was seventh overall in the classification, and used the Australian road race championships last Sunday to continue to get some racing miles in prior to the start of the Tour Down Under.

"I will ride with the national team," he said. "If I recover well from my crash a few days ago I will hope to win a stage and possibly ride for the overall."

He'll then head back to Europe in advance of what he plans to be a good run at the Classics. He may not be in cycling's biggest team, but knows that things are less complicated than they could have been.

"I am really lucky that Daan Luyckx, the manager of Vancansoleil, did it," he said of his signing. "He had already overextended his budget but he dug deep and found some more money. At the minimum I am going to be able to race at the top level next year.

"After things didn't work with Rock my managers contacted other teams. Staying with Barloworld was an option. They were working on a deal, and there was another team as well [in discussions], but that took time and I didn't have time. I just wanted to get something locked in. I was quite happy to go back with Hilaire."

Related articles:
Rock Racing on slippery slope with sponsors
Ball still in play
Finding the power
Back of the bus leads to Cooke's despair
Bring on the Champs Elysées
Cooke's beginning years

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