The climb into the mountains jersey at the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado has been an up and down journey for Jamis-Hagens Berman's Matt Cooke. But not all of the obstacles on the way to his jersey-winning ride were on the bike.
Cooke rode for Team Exergy in 2011 and 2012 and earned a career-highlight win during the Queen stage of the Tour de Beauce last year. Things were looking good for the 34-year-old rider from Boulder, but when Exergy abruptly pulled the plug on its men's team in the off-season, Cooke was one of a dozen or so riders who were left out in the cold.
"I raced for basically six months without a professional contract," Cooke said. "And I was racing to earn myself a job. So that was really tough, but I'll tell you what, it makes it sweeter."
After riding the first part of the season with the Champion System-Stans No Tube domestic elite amateur team, Cooke signed with Jamis in July after catching the eye of team director Sebastian Alexandre.
"I saw him riding during the first part of the year," Alexandre said. "And he was super-strong and he didn't have a team. I knew I was missing one or two guys for these kind of races, so I had a few names and I chose him because I knew he was going to be good on the climbs."
Cooke was hired to ride in support of team leader Janier Acevedo, but simply doing his job on the first stage in Colorado landed him in the mountains jersey at one of America's biggest races.
"We wanted as a team to have representation in the breakaway, and it really didn't matter who it was," Cooke said. "Initially in the first few kilometers, a group of maybe 10 guys went up the road, and I sort of thought that might be it. That came back, and then myself, Ian Burnett (Jelly Belly) and Craig Lewis (Champion System) got into the breakaway. And for me, I cannot sprint, it's just not something I can do no matter how hard I try. So I have to go for the KOM jersey, and that's what I did."
Cooke took maximum points on all four of the day's KOM spots and now leads Lewis by eight points in that competition. But he's also realistic in the knowledge that his team is here to support the GC hopes of Acevedo, who has finished third overall in both California and Utah so far this season.
"[Jamis] might spare a couple of guys," Cooke said of his team's effort to help him keep the jersey. "But honestly, Janier really is a threat. He could take the whole thing … Jamis-Hagens Berman said come on and help Janier, and so that's what I'm here to do."
But Alexandre said Cooke fought hard for the jersey, and the team would like to see him keep it for a while.
"He has the jersey, so of course we will try to help him," Alexandre said. "But it’s going to be a hard race. Tomorrow is going to be a hard climb, and he is going to be very tired. We will go day by day, but he got the jersey so there is a reason to race for it."