Despite the success of La Course by le Tour last weekend, former women’s Tour de France champion Nicole Cooke says that there are still fewer opportunities in women’s cycling than when she turned professional. Last Sunday saw some of the world’s best female cyclists duke it out on the Champs Élysées, with Marianne Vos taking the victory. However, when Cooke turned professional the women had a two-week event.
“It’s been a very sad story for the women’s Tour. When I came into cycling, there was a lot to look forward to, a lot to aspire to,” Cooke told BBC Radio 4 during a trip to the Commonwealth Games. “When I turned professional in 2002, the women’s Tour de France was still two weeks long, but held separately from the men’s event. It was held in August. It’s quite sad to see.”
Women’s cycling has not been able to keep up with the growth and development that the men’s side of the sport has enjoyed over the years. While the men have suffered as a result of the economic downturn, the women’s peloton has been hit particularly hard. Long-standing races and teams have simply disappeared. The other problem facing the women’s peloton is the apparent unwillingness from certain powers within cycling to invest in the sport, stating the lack of interest as the reason.
“Those are all excuses,” said Cooke. “I think it then puts the focus on the people governing the sport, who haven’t looked after the interests of female cycling while they’ve continued to follow men’s cycling and promote that.
“At the moment, the people who actually have the levers of power, who can actually make changes, are the UCI the world governing body. From tomorrow, they can put in a whole set of changes that can help women’s cycling credibility and actually make it a viable venture.”
Doping and the past
Aside from the problems that women’s cycling faces in relation to funding and opportunities, Cooke also broached the topic of doping within the female peloton. The stories of riders such as Lance Armstrong and David Millar are well trodden ground at this stage. However, like their racing exploits, doping within the women’s peloton has largely failed to make a dent in the public consciousness.
Cooke has been a strong anti-doping advocate and says that she’s been on receiving end of other rider’s doping in the past. “I’ve had friends in teams that have been pressured into doping. I was pressurised into doping,” explained Cooke. “I have finished in races, second to people, when I know they’ve been doping. Some have tested positive, others haven’t. But at the end of the day I was just doing the best I could.”
During her 10-year career, Cooke became the first rider to win Olympic and Wold Championships gold in the same year. She also won the women’s Tour de France two years running and has victories in the women’s Giro d’Italia, Fleche Wallonne, Amstel Gold and Tour of Flanders. She retired at the end of 2012 and has released an autobiography.