Nicole Cooke: Way out in front

An unknown 23-year-old from Wales is the greatest sportsperson of the year, argues David Prosser
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Who's getting your vote in this year's BBC Sports Personality of the Year award? Will it be Monty Panesar, tormentor of Pakistan's batting stars? Maybe Zara Phillips, the newly crowned three-day eventing world champion? Or perhaps you'll go for the comedy vote, backing David Walliams following his world-class cross-Channel swim?

The one person who by rights should walk the ballot, however, is almost certain not to figure. This is the woman who two weeks ago was crowned world champion of her sport, the culmination to an amazing season. Nicole Cooke's other achievements in 2006 include winning the women's version of the Tour de France and cementing her lead at the top of the world cycling rankings.

Cooke's amazing year is all the more impressive given the serious crash she suffered last December, breaking her collarbone and damaging her knee. Despite the setback, which undermined her winter training programme, Cooke, who is from a small town in south Wales, was in good enough form by February to win a bronze medal in the Commonwealth Games.

Having made it to the top aged just 23, Cooke has plenty of time to add other titles to her roll of honour. That's if her body can keep going: cycling is a punishing sport and Cooke has been at it since the age of 11. On a typical training day, she'll spend six hours in the saddle, covering 100 miles or more.

It's a tough life, particularly when the reputation of your sport is somewhat tarnished. Cooke and her rivals have to deal with an almost constant drug-testing programme, as well as the suspicion generated by the scandals that have hit their male equivalents.

So why is Cooke not more widely recognised as one of Britain's most outstanding sporting stars? One reason is undoubtedly Britain's lack of interest in cycling as a sport - or the sports media's perception of the lack of interest.

Even avid readers of national newspapers' sports sections could be forgiven for not knowing that this year's Tour of Britain came to a conclusion the weekend before last. The event, featuring teams from most of the men's professional tour, was barely covered.

Nor did the cameras make much of an impact. Although the six-stage event lasted the best part of a week, the best BBC2 could manage was a few highlights and a short live broadcast on the final Sunday.

Such was the indifference to the Tour of Britain, there has been controversy over whether the roads it travelled were properly closed to motorists during the event, potentially jeopardising riders' safety.

However, the lack of credit Cooke has been given for her winning year is not simply a question of the profile of cycling as a sport. After all, David Millar, Britain's leading male cyclist, gets far more publicity, even he has just completed a two-year drugs ban after a career that has been modest compared to Cooke's.

It's certainly true that women's cycling is much less high-profile than the male sport, even in countries such as France and Belgium, where the leading men are as widely supported as football stars. While riders such as Lance Armstrong and even the underperforming Jan Ullrich are multimillionaires, Cooke gets less than £700 for winning a World Cup race - and she has to share it with her teammates.

Cooke's problem then is to be a woman in a sport that is still dominated by men, in a country where her sport is not properly followed by sports reporters. Maybe that reflects a lack of public interest, or maybe not, given the thousands of spectators who turned out to watch the culmination of the Tour of Britain in London.

However, Cooke's lack of profile shouldn't be a bar to her winning the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year award, an award that is supposed to be given to the country's outstanding sporting performer over the previous 12 months.

Good on Monty for taking a few wickets this summer. Congratulations to David Walliams for his amazing charity swim. And well done Zara Phillips, too, though you can't help wondering whether the unusual amount of coverage for a British equestrian victory reflected her royalty.

But none of these contenders have come close to the achievements of Cooke, the only worthy winner of the BBC's flagship sporting award.

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