By Shane Stokes in Nantes, France
Baden Cooke took a Tour de France stage win and claimed the green jersey as best sprinter back in 2003, but since then he has had to watch other Australian riders have the limelight. He is now back and hungry for success after a two year absence, losing out when the Unibet team he rode for in 2006 and 2007 was not selected by ASO.
Cooke was in a relaxed mood at the start of stage three, and said that he was hoping for a good showing. "The legs are feeling pretty good," he told Cyclingnews. "The racing is fairly nervous, as always in the first few days. Hopefully the wind can actually break it up today - the last few days it has threatened to do that but nothing has really happened.
"I think it would make it more interesting for me if the field splinters a bit, and there is a bit more of a fight," he said.
The 29 year-old is now competing with the Barloworld Professional Continental squad, which has earned a wild-card invite for two years running. He's happy with the move, even if it is a smaller setup.
"Obviously our team is the opposite of Unibet…Unibet had the bigger team and the bigger budget but wasn't getting any starts," he said. "This team is smaller but is quite well respected and getting all the starts.
"Obviously it is good to be back in the Tour, I just hope I can pull off a result this week," added Cooke. "My form is good, I feel strong, I feel as ready as I could be. I think I am getting through it fairly well, each day I am feeling better."
Cooke has a clear goal laid out and while he finished back in 57th place at the finish in Nantes, he will try again on every day that suits him. "I would like to come away with a stage win, that is my main objective," he said. "I start every Tour with that objective."
Barloworld will also be keen to achieve that with Cooke or another rider, especially after the squad did so well in 2007. It won stages with Robert Hunter and Mauricio Soler last year, the latter also taking first in the King of the Mountains classification, second in the best young rider ranking and 11th place overall. Hunter was second to Tom Boonen (Quick Step) in the points ranking in 2007.
Soler came to the race aiming for another strong performance, but things got off to a bad start when he fell heavily on the first stage. Soler was lying last overall in the general classification heading into day three and once again lost time, finishing 4'55 behind the day's winner Samuel Dumoulin (Cofidis) in 172nd place.
Prior to the start of the stage, Cooke said that the Colombian's morale was low. "He seems a bit down, I haven't really spoken to him that much," he stated. "He is suffering like a dog but the team is pretty keen for him to stay on, right or wrong. I think he is just going to keep battling on, but I wouldn't be surprised if."
Cooke didn't finish the sentence but, reading between the lines, it seems less than certain that Soler will keep riding if his injury and low morale persist. "I think there is a bit of pressure on him, he has never experienced that before as he has always been an unknown quantity," the Australian continued. "The pressure is probably mounting on his shoulders a fair bit and now that he has crashed, it makes it all worse. But he is soldiering on for the moment."