Having begun his professional career in 2000, Australian Baden Cooke has recently hung up his wheels following a distinguished 14 years in the peloton and is looking forward to a new career. Cooke is in the initial stages of creating a rider management agency in Monaco where he has lived since the mid-2000s and spent time with Cyclingnews to discuss his career and plans for the future.
For many cycling fans, the 2003 Tour de France was the first time that Baden Cooke’s name entered their lexicon. Cooke had a stellar 2002 season notching up impressive wins as he won Dwars door Vlaanderen, the overall and stages at both the Herald Sun Tour and Paris–Corrèze and took home the bronze medal at the 2002 Commonwealth Games road race. This was the beginning of a successful stint with FDJ which lasted for three seasons but it was the Tour de France that Cooke made headlines by winning a stage and the green jersey.
Having only announced his retirement last week, Cooke hasn't yet had to the time to reflect on his career and accomplishments and while missing aspects of being part of the professional peloton, Cooke says he is enjoying his new life off the bike. "I miss the camaraderie in the team and the racing but quite frankly, all the hard work and suffering, I won't miss it. I still go out two to three hours a day and give myself a bit of beating just to keep fit."
"It's hard being a cyclist, it is far from glamorous 95% of the time. I'll have a bit more of an easier life now and I don't miss doing 200kms training rides."
Looking back over his career which saw him go on to race with Mercury, Unibet, Barloworld, Vacansoleil, Saxo Bank and finally Orica-GreenEdge, Cooke acknowledges the opportunities that were afforded to him. "I am grateful for my career and opportunities I have from guys like Mark Madiot, Bjarne Riis and Shayne Bannan," explained Cooke.
"They are guys that I learnt a lot from on and off the bike and was privileged to have had worked with them."
The green jersey
The battle for the green jersey in the 2003 Tour was a tussle between Cooke and compatriot Robbie McEwen who had won the classification the year previously. The centenary year of the race was a highly successful Tour for Australians as Brad McGee won the prologue and took the yellow and green jerseys. McEwan moved into green after stage 2 and Australians would lead the classification for all but one stage of the race.
On the final day it was McEwan who was leading the points classification but Cooke ended the stage with a two point lead over his compatriot to win the jersey.
"The [green] jersey was the highlight of my career, of my life, barring my marriage and my little baby. That was certainly the biggest thing, and the stage in the Tour," he said.
"It was ten centimetres that changed my life. It could have gone either way. Looking back, I've read Robbie's book [One Way Road] and he goes into it in depth. He does leave out a couple of things. One being that in one of the intermediate sprints I did beat him but they gave it to him. Had I crossed the line on the champs [Champs-Élysées] I would have won it anyway, and he's never brought that up."
"He knows as well as I do that I beat him in an intermediate sprint on a day to Marseille. That was a four point difference and I would have won it anyway had I been beaten on the line."
Cooke outsprinted Jean-Patrick Nazon on stage 2 for his stage win and spent time in the white jersey in by far his most successful Tour de France.
In October, Cooke had made it known that retirement was an option with GreenEdge informing him that he wouldn't be given a contract next year. There were discussions with WorldTour and Pro-Continental teams although neither could offer an enticing deal.
Cooke is one of many riders who has been hit hard by the sudden departure of a handful of teams. Explaining what happened with the WorldTour team he said "in the end they had no spots and fifty guys to choose from so it just didn't pan out."
While Cooke was keen to continue riding, stepping down to pro-conti level was never really an option. "I had a very mediocre offer from a pro-conti team but it didn't make any sense. I'm 35 now so if I was 30, I would have taken a big hit and gone to a small team and try to have a good year in order to get back to the top level but I'm 35, so I go there and what do I do? At best I go to a WorldTour team after sort of getting nowhere for a year and then I do one year and retire."
Optimistic that he would be able to find a ride for 2014, Cooke is unfortunately a casualty of the tightening of too many sponsors’ belts and an inability to attract new finances across the sport. Cooke recognises that he is just one of many looking for a spot in a WorldTour team squad. "Once I wasn't renewed with GreenEdge, I still didn't think I'd be out of a job but the state of the sport was terrible with 180 plus guys at the top level that had been left out in the cold and some of them are doing far better than I am," he said.
"Look at Chris Horner who still doesn't have a deal and he just won the Vuelta. Things are pretty grim in the sport so I've accepted it and moved on. The fact that I'm 35 made it a little bit easier to accept because it's not like I'm particularly getting my career cut short, I don't have any resentment or anything. I'm happy with my career and I'm moving forward."
A cleaner peloton
Having ridden throughout the 2000s when doping was ordinaire in the peloton, the announcement by Stuart O'Grady that he doped in the 1998 Tour was of surprise to Cooke who did not know of his past indiscretions. Cooke explained "I didn't suspect him of doping at all. I completely believe that it was how he said it in that first early part of his career. I didn't know him then at all, certainly in the many years I did know him, I was certain he wasn't taking anything at all."
A good friend of Cooke's and fellow resident of Monaco until recently is Brad McGee who has been outspoken about having been cheated out of results by dopers. "He's [McGee] been an anti-doping crusader throughout his career and I can guarantee that it's all been legitimate," Cooke said. "He's been like that since day one and I felt privileged to have learnt a lot from him over the years. He's a special guy and he never wavered in his beliefs. He probably lost a lot of races because of it, as we all did but he's not bitter about it or anything like that. I think he just wants to see the sport."
Like many, Cooke is sick of the constant doping stories that cloud the sport and feels that cycling has dealt with its murky past and it is time to move on. "What I do feel is that the sport is basically clean now and that’s just a fact and the doping issue has been dealt with really well and what I do believe is that we should get over it and get past it because the riders aren’t doping now and you keep dredging this shit up and it’s just damaging the sport more," he said.
"We’ve done more than any other sport to fix it and we’re probably one of the cleanest sports out there now. The ongoing media and dredging old stuff up is just damaging the sport further. We should just get over it."
The new career
It is in his adopted home that the next chapter in Cooke's life is to unfold. Cooke was one of many Australians who made their home in Monaco during the 2000s. "I'd been living in Nice for about four years before that and obviously the climate and the weather is good. It's perfect for training with great roads."
"I liked the area so I stayed on and when it became viable I made the made the move to Monaco. The Australians just came one by one, in the beginning they were in Nice and then they all came to Monaco afterwards."
While other Australians such as Brad McGee and Stuart O’Grady joined Cooke in the principality, a clutch of riders including Philippe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd and Chris Froome are just some of the riders and sportspeople who live in Monaco. As residents of the Mediterranean city don’t pay income tax, this is a further incentive for riders to make it their base. "I'm working on creating a rider management agency here in Monaco with an office with two lawyers which is in the process of being set up," said Cooke.
"One of those guys has a degree in sports management as well," explained Cooke. Although yet to undertake the UCI riders accreditation course, Cooke is keen to do so as soon as possible.
The choice of Monaco is not just because it's Cooke's hometown but due to the fact "the cream of the crop live in Monaco," he said. "What we can offer as an agency that's based here is that riders can come and see us anytime and we can sort any issues in person rather than over the phone with them. Obviously we can organise anything from residency to motor pacing, anything they need right here as we'll be on the ground here."
Cooke explained that over the last few years he had talked about becoming an agent with a couple mates but they went off into other post-riding careers. Clear in what the agency will offer, Cooke is also definite in how it will operate and is keen to keep it personable.
"We want to keep it fairly small so we can look after the riders properly, I know some agencies have more than 100 or 150 riders so we plan to make it smaller to look after them better with somewhere around 20 to 30 guys."
While wanting the cream of the crop, Cooke wants to build long term relationships and nurture young riders through from juniors to retirement. "We want the top riders, I'm also going to be scouting for outstanding talent," Cooke elucidated. "I have my eyes on a few young guys in Australia who are just kids and I'll be looking to bringing them through from the beginning."
There are several young stars Cooke says he'd love to get on his books such as Caleb Ewan although he doesn't want to get off on the wrong foot, explaining that "I don't want to start a war though and he's already taken."
Cooke will bow out of the sport with a farewell criterium in St Kilda with the GreenEdge team. "A lot of my friends are doing it anyway and since I'm making it my retirement crit, a whole heap of other guys are coming to farewell me. I'm really looking forward to it. The people at St Kilda crit were happy for me to come in and make it my farewell crit and the race is already organised which made it all easy."
The criterium is likely to the last time to catch Cooke racing professionally but his competitive edge may see him pin on a number again. "You never know I certainly won't be coming out of retirement but I wouldn't be surprised if I occasionally get a bit of motivation and string a month together and do a race, an amateur or local race here or there."
It is clear that Cooke is still as enamoured with the sport as ever by his commitment to young talent and providing them with a pathway to the top of the sport and the opportunity to learn from the best in Monaco.