The way is shut for Cooke
By Jeff Jones and John Trevorrow
The fourth stage of the Giro d'Italia was always going to be a challenge for the sprinters, with a sharp climb at 3 km to go, before a technical descent into Frosinone. But at the top of the climb, there was still one pure sprinter left in the small front group containing the maglia rosa: Baden Cooke. The Francaise des Jeux rider, who hasn't had a win yet this season but has been getting closer with each sprint, seemed to be in a perfect position to challenge Bettini on the flat 700 metre run into the line. With around 250 metres to go, Bettini - with Cooke glued to his wheel - started his sprint in the centre of the road. But then, the maglia rosa just kept drifting to the left, and when Cooke tried to pass in the last 100m, Bettini had closed the door.
Whether Bettini did it deliberately or unintentionally, it didn't affect the result: Cooke crashed into the barriers, Bettini crossed the line first but was subsequently relegated to last position in his group (4th) for irregular sprinting. That meant the stage win was awarded to Luca Mazzanti (Panaria), while Bettini kept the maglia rosa, and Cooke finished up very sore.
Once he heard the jury's decision, Bettini went on the Giro post-race show to watch the replay and exclaimed, "I started my sprint, it was a long sprint and I was riding my line. I moved to the center of the road, then moved left towards the barriers to cover my position. I looked around twice to see if anyone was coming around. I checked again (at 150m) and shifted to my highest gear. That's where my chain slipped...if (Cooke's crash) is my fault, with the rest of the road wide open, I should just leave the Giro now and go home. Grazie e arrivederci."
A very angry Cooke had a different opinion, as he explained to Cyclingnews at the finish: "F***! I f**king got over the hill no worries. None of the sprinters were left, I got on Bettini's wheel, he hit out early, I gave him a length, and I was f***ing absolutely cruising. Dropped it down the gears, ran at him, just about to blow his helmet off as I went past him...and he's just turned left and put me in the barrier. I had it won, I was just about to throw my hands in the air. Instead I did five somersaults down the road!"
After throwing a few rather more colourful adjectives in the direction of his Italian rival, Cooke let his frustration of the last 12 months show. "Since I fixed that allergy problem I had with the gluten, I've been a different man ever since. I'm 15-20 percent better. I'm just cruising over the hills, sprinting fast, and it's all just come together, and now that f***head put me in the barrier."
When we spoke to him again several hours after the stage, Cooke hadn't calmed down. "I'm still really angry because I needed a win really badly," he said. "After all the things that have gone wrong [Cooke also crashed at 50 km to go], the team worked so hard for me, I got over the hill. I wanted it bad. You think you can win, and when it's there, you're working out how the hands are going to go up. It was all there. I'm really upset.
"What really pissed me off was to see Bettini carrying on when they took the stage from him, while here I am, laying on the ground with all my skin off."
We asked whether Cooke was restraining himself when he met Bettini after the stage: "It did go through my mind, but I was just so angry," said Cooke. "I'll save that for another time. I know the form's there, so I can definitely win one."
As his teammates and compatriots rolled across the line, Cooke gave them his version of events. "You're joking!" said Matt Wilson (FDJ). "Unbelievable," added Matt White (Cofidis).
Stuart O'Grady (Cofidis) added, "I don't know how Cookie contained himself. When Bettini came over, he could have just bloody smashed him. That's just bullshit. There are little hooks you can do, but that you can't do. For someone at the top level and as professional as Bettini, that's just not on...I really feel for [Cooke]. That's one that got away."
O'Grady also expressed his displeasure at the dangerous finish today. "This Giro's a bit of a joke," he said. "These finishes are ridiculous. They're put on for show. They're dangerous."
O'Grady finished 12th, four seconds behind Bettini, and told us, "I was happy with my ride. I haven't got the form to really match it in these hard finishes, but I'm pleased with how I'm going. I'm looking at the big picture for the Tour."