Exclusive Q&A: Nicole Cooke

Former Olympic champion on her career, the struggles in women's cycling, and British Cycling

Nicole Cooke retired at the start of 2013, bringing to an end a highly successful and at times controversial career. Currently studying for her Masters degree at Cardiff University, Cooke, who won gold at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, recently took time out to talk to Cyclingnews.

We caught up with her at a book signing for her autobiography in Bath and talked about her career, the difficult relationships she had with cycling’s biggest authorities, the struggles within women’s cycling and doping.

Cyclingnews: How's retirement going?

Nicole Cooke: It's been brilliant. It has been a bit more action-packed than perhaps I expected and the first few months in 2013 were fairly low-key, thinking about what I was going to do. I wanted to study and eventually I took the plunge and got sorted to do a masters degree in business administration which I started last September at Cardiff University.

And within a couple of months of retiring I met with Simon & Schuster who were interested in doing the book after seeing my retirement statement, and last year, the whole autobiography idea took off.

CN: How was your retirement statement received?

NC: Very, very well. In the actual press conference it was kept quiet as to what was going to happen but there was applause at the end and I think from all the articles and commentaries afterwards people were ready to hear some common sense being talked.

CN: Reading it I suspect it still came as somewhat a shock to some people, as apart from legal reasons you didn't seem to pull any punches

NC: No, at that time it might have been my parting shot to cycling. I wasn't sure it I was going to do an autobiography so I really wanted to make sure that if that was going to be it, that I said what I wanted to say.

CN: So what made you then do the autobiography?

NC: Well, the interest from a prestigious publishing company, who really wanted to do it, and the fact that I was going to get the backing was very reassuring and I felt that there were some things and some episodes that would really be done justice if they were brought out in a book where there really was time to develop. And I think it's brilliant to have the record for me of what was obviously a very special time in my life and hopefully for other people to look at that and learn from it and its a kind of record of history as it was.

CN: Why did you decide to retire when you did, I'm not sure you specifically answer it in the book?

NC: When I was in my teens and thinking what would be the best cycling career ever, it was could I race for ten years up to when I'm 30 ,which for me going into professional racing at 18, racing to win from the very beginning, so if I could have ten years at the top that really would have been everything I wanted and getting to London 2012 I really felt it was a great time to call it a day. I had achieved everything I wanted to and I think when the time came I also had quite a list of things I wanted to do and interests outside of cycling

CN: Are you planning on getting back on the bike?

NC: Yes, I still ride out to see friends, and the bicycle as a mode of transport is still a preferred way. I'd like to go on some cycling holidays.

CN: Are you still in touch with any of your former teammates?

NC: Yeah, I had some very close friends among the cycling community but very few of them are Brits

CN: How did you find writing the book?

NC: It was, to start with really good, a case of just getting it down there, but then I needed to go back over all my Polar heart rate records, all my training sessions. These start from 1998. I know I've got it and can look at it any time but going back over it... I was about 15 and really getting serious, but I don't do Strava and I didn't go out with my HRM today; the HRM is just an occasional thing these days.

CN: Did you have a ghost writer?

NC: No, it really was just me. There was a serious cutting down process, from the second draft down to the third draft. And at one point it was around 180,000 words, but I got it down to 130-140,000. My Easter holiday was spent cutting out 20,000 words, which worked very well, because it made me think, what's this book really about, and I think it really it really sharpened up the story. My publisher said it was a little on the long side, the first version was a little rambling, the second – by last February – that was starting to get to the point but it was still too long. The editors came in from Simon & Schuster for the third draft and that\s when we started doing the fine tuning. I got to reread my diaries, which weren't that interesting, but rewatching the videos was – races like the Athens Olympics I had a very different impression of the race riding it from what I actually saw on the video. This reflects on how disappointed I was with the result, which translates into me thinking how badly I rode it. But I was up against a fantastic Australian team who were riding very well.

But it also gave me a chance to revisit events, particularly with the British Cycling Federation, and actually see how many chances there were to develop the women's British road team. The 1998-99 start, the 2002 start that didn't happen, the 2003 start that didn't happen, the 2005-6 start, the 2007. Five chances in all...

CN: How do you feel now about how BC treated you? It's hard from the book to work about why they treated you so badly...

NC: I think there was a shadow over the relationship with British cycling that was created in the 1999 British championships where the British were funded for two years with lottery money, they'd been travelling all over the world, having the best of everything – and then along comes a kid who's still in school and whips their arse. It wasn't just that I did it once – they called it a fluke and tried to hide their blushes – I did it again five or six months later in May 2000 and they really had to face up to the fact that they weren't doing a good job. I think it's a shame and a waste that they weren't doing a good enough job, but it's really the reactions of the executive at BC.

CN: Has it changed?

NC: It was almost like they had a culture and they weren't ready to change. While I was coming along – very successful, very young and doing everything by myself – it obviously didn't fit in with the 'importance of the coach' and all those dynamics. It really was a clash of cultures, and all of issues that came of that, I addressed them and when British Cycling and their executive board weren't really addressing the issues that I was raising. It then meant that I had to go to UK sport to whom British Cycling are accountable and it did mean that Peter Keane resigned after three recorded delivery letters arrived at the HQ of UK Sport, and so I really think that I can look at all the things that have changed and the improvements they made and hope that my constructive criticism at the time was actually a part of it.

CN: Do you think the culture has now changed both in British and women's cycling in general?

NC: Looking at the last couple of years I think there is still no strategy for the women in British Cycling for the road and this really isn't making sense to me. There are riders that are huge medal potentials that deserve to be supported seriously (considering the budget that Sky has and BC has) and I think we're at the point where they've got the know how, if it's not happening it's for other reasons.

CN: Have you thought of mentoring any young cyclists?

NC: Well, I've been so busy since I've retired that I've not had time for anything else. While I was racing I did mentor a lot of the younger teammates of mine which was really nice seeing them develop so it's something that I would be happy to do again, but what I'd really like to give most to is governance, whether the UCI genuinely is addressing the real issues in sport...

CN: Do you think they are being addressed at the moment?

NC: Well, one of the big parts of my retirement statement was the protection for female riders and the minimum wage and that's something is still feel very strongly about and it's been identified … by putting in a minimum wage you suddenly bring about a whole load of structure to the women's road scene and that then gives credibility to the teams that there is protection in place for female riders, it makes it an attractive career for aspiring riders, it gives sponsors more confidence that they are investing in a credible system and it would probably really make the UCI find out the realities of what's going on at the ground level.

CN: Do you have hopes that is changing or is going to change?

NC: I obviously hope it's going to change. I must admit I am disappointed that we've had Brian Cookson for a year, it was one of the major pledges of his manifesto and it's not going to come in for 2014 and we'll be lucky if it comes in for 2015, so things like that are really quite straightforward to put in place and it's almost like you just need to get on with it and face up to some of the difficulties and what I'd like to see is the governing body leading the way, breaking down the barriers, and dragging cycling up rather than all these arguments of 'organic growth' and 'it needs time'.

The sad reality is that in women's cycling in the 80s we had the first Olympic event for women – the road race, the Tour de France started, in the 90s we had a two-week Tour de France, a two-week Giro and a two-week Hewlett-Packard, the Tour de l'Aude was 10 days, the World Cup was global, we had teams that were racing all over Europe, you could have two squads within the teams there were that many races and now it's a shadow of what it was. So what I'm trying to say is that this organic growth is not a valid argument because we've actually seen a decline.

CN: What do you think caused that?

NC: I really think, 'what has the UCI, the governing body, done at that time?' - they've really just ignored women's cycling. And as the Tour de France was getting on shaky ground, as the Giro was reducing, what was their marketing plan for cycling? I've been saying this for donkey's years. But there are so many great examples [of successful women's sport]: let's use the example of women's tennis, sports that are leading the way – triathlon, equal distance, equal prize money – there are things that work absolutely brilliantly. And I can see history repeating itself within women's cycling, taking backward steps. If you think of mountain biking in Britain when it was under British Mountain Biking (BMB) organisation there was equal prize money in every area – youth girls and boys the same, juniors the same, elite the same, that was part of its founding constitution and then UK Sport funding increased, they wanted to bring all the UK governing bodies into one organisation, British Cycling, and the next thing you know, BC have put in their regulations and taken a backward step, and now there isn't equal prize money in mountain biking – and that's a backward step that has taken place during my career. I'd really like to see the governing bodies driving this change [of greater sexual equality in cycling].

CN: Do you think there's a realistic hope of this happening? Considering that at least in Olympic track cycling there is now greater equality...

NC: Well, I remember back in 2004 there was a women's commission set up for the road, and I wanted to be a part of it. 2005 and I'm like, right, okay, Chris Hoy's got this petition for the kilo that had been taken out of the Olympics. And I'm asked what I thought. Well, he's still got three other events he can do - we should be campaigning for equality. This is 2005, this is the twenty-first century. But I put a proposal together for this women's road commission, and wrote to the UCI who didn't want to know anything about, and they actually closed down the women's commission. So I was thinking 'Where is the leadership at the UCI to actually sort this out. This is the twenty-first century.' But there wasn't any leadership.

CN: Had track cycling had the number of events then that it has now might you have considered going down that route?

NC: No, for me it was always the road, it's the complete sport for me, it's the tactics, the disciplines, the sprinting, the breaks, the teamwork. On the track there's only one element of it – it's the sprint, the finish of the race. It was always the road, the bunches, and the theatres you get to race in – the Dolomites, the Alps, the muurs in Belgium, the cobbles...

CN: How do you feel that riders like David Millar who atone for their past. [In her book NC makes it clear that she doesn't feel the like of Millar have suffered for what she sees as their crimes] Is there anything they can do?

NC: What we've seen is a lot of drug cheats doing the barest minimum to return to the sport, to be accepted. I haven't seen one drug cheat [tell all] – apart from Floyd Landis, and that was only because he'd lost everything and didn't get a spot with Lance. He'd kept the secret for all of those years, he still held the omerta. And it was only at the very, very end he thought, 'Stuff it, I'm going to bring the house down and then I'll be the good guy and cash in.' Landis has only looked out for his best interests. And that is what I see in all of the drug cheats – they're only ever doing the barest minimum to be accepted, it's only ever doing what's in their best interests. For me, I think it's a case of the authorities needing to grab hold of these issues. I don't really think there's an understanding of the number of victims of doping – and actually they need to make radical changes so that [a positive dope test] is a career stopper if you're caught. It's not a career stopper at the moment – so what have you got to lose? And you're welcomed back in a couple of years...

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