An email conversation with Nicole Cooke: 'A lot of the time it has been a voyage in the dark'

Blazing a trail for women's pro cycling; Making shortlist for personality prize; Camping out on the way to world titles
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The Independent Online

You had already won four World Championships before 2006, so when you were nominated as a finalist for the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year award, was it the right year? To be honest, I don't think I could have done things much better this year. In 2006 I've been world No 1 for six months, won the women's Tour de France, the World Cup series for a second time in three years, three World Cup races and a big stage race in Germany. Plus I got bronze medals in the World Championships and the Commonwealth Games. In previous seasons I had some purple patches, like when I won the Women's Tour of Italy in 2004 or had a really good spring in 2005. But I've never had a year as consistently successful as 2006.

The previous time you went to the Sports Personality show the BBC used footage of a French cyclist while discussing your achievements, while last week you were given less time than most others on the short list. Do you get fed up with this lack of recognition? There have been times like when I thought I'd be better off doing a Martina Hingis and having a year out, particularly in 2004 and 2005 when I had bad knee injuries. But really, we are all in it for the love of the sport. So we stick with it. I've never thought about retirement yet.

What's the state of women's cycling? There are around 300 professional women cyclists in the world, but only about 45 to 50 actually break even. And only 10 or 15 of us do better than break even. In 2002 and 2003, if I hadn't had my grant from British Cycling's World Class Performance Plan, I would have lost out money-wise, because the team I was in [Deia-Pragma] stopped paying us after three months. It was that, or don't race. The top end of racing's OK, although even in the Tour de France it can be pretty rough for some riders. One day from this year sticks in my mind - after one of the smallest teams finished the morning's stage - I think it was the Chinese squad - their riders didn't make it to the next part of the race on time. The cars they were travelling in for the transfer were so old they couldn't drive fast enough to get there before we were supposed to start.

In the Tour de France this year, you rode 800km in seven days, and up 25km climbs like Mont Ventoux, where you won. Did you still have to stay in school dormitories between stages, as in the bad old days? You get to be prepared for anything when it comes to accommodation. This year there was one memorable World Cup race [120km long] where the organisation decided 14 teams taking part had to spend the previous night sleeping in a campsite.

How dedicated do you have to be to stay at the top? Put it like this: I have to ride my bike for anything up to 35 hours a week just as training, let alone racing, and do around 23,000km of riding a year. Living abroad, even if I do like it where I'm based now, in Switzerland, is an obligation because it's where all the racing and teams are. So dedication to cycling goes without saying, and as a consequence the hardest single thing to take as a professional is unfounded criticism. Some people don't appreciate the degree of dedication cycling takes, and then they criticise you. It makes me really angry.

Has it been a steep learning curve? In the sense that there wasn't anybody in British cycling whose example I could follow, then yes. A lot of the time it has been a voyage in the dark, making mistakes and doing things wrong because there hasn't been any older woman cyclist from the UK I could ring up and ask for advice. Plus there wasn't the infrastructure in the UK when I started. For example, back in 1997 there was no young rider national championships for women. Even now the men get treated differently by the British federation: they go on language courses before they go abroad, and have a nice house in Tuscany where they are looked after. Women have to do a lot more even to get that far.

Do you think in women's cycling it is much harder to succeed compared to men's? Of course.

Do you get frustrated, when women's cycling gets tarred with the same brush as men's cycling when it comes to the doping scandals that have hit the sport? No, not at all. The problem is that cycling's image has taken a real hammering because so many top male riders have been caught doing drugs. So the whole sport is tarnished. But women's cycling is such a low-budget sport the drugs problem just doesn't happen on the same scale. I think the rules should be tougher; there should be life-bans for first-time doping offenders. Sport is not like water or freedom, something everybody automatically should have a right to have. You want to play sport, you should play by the rules. You break them, you should be punished. The good news is that the scandals have not affected me directly. Women's cycling gets so little coverage anyway that we don't get much of a bad press, either.

Will you be coming back to see the [male] Tour de France when it comes to London next July? No, I'll be riding the women's Tour of Italy, I suppose. After all, the Tour's been to England before, hasn't it?

Becoming a male professional cyclist in the UK is unusual. Being a female professional cyclist is virtually unheard of. Did you get the support you needed from your family? Definitely. They are very sports-orientated, so I could count on them understanding it and saying, "Go for it", when I decided to turn pro. But getting inspiration and motivation to keep on racing when there were no reference points has been tough at times on a personal level. I've had to find it all out for myself, create a legacy.

You haven't felt any more pressure by being the first UK cyclist, male or female, to go so far? How could I? Being a woman cyclist and getting where I've got to is like building a rocket and going to the moon. If you're the first person to do it, there can't be any pressure, because there's no one to compare with. That's why I was so pleased to be nominated for the BBC Sports Personality Award, [the first cyclist since Tommy Simpson in the 1960s]. It means my achievements are finally being recognised.