Cooke's tour de force: Britain's leading woman road-racer is a rider firmly in the saddle

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The Independent Online

Nicole Cooke has had three years to think about the last women's Olympic road race, where she finished fifth behind the unexpected Australian, Sara Carrigan. You suspect she has spent a lot of time rerunning the final stages in her mind.

With the heat rising off the Athens streets, she was in the breakaway group of seven riders contesting gold. "The only country with more than one rider in the final break was Australia – and, sure enough, they got a win," she recalls as she sits somewhat uncomfortably in a central London hotel bar.

"The other rider, Oenone Wood, was the stronger of the two results-wise, and the other riders stayed with her. She was left in our group of six and didn't have to work because her team-mate was up the road. So she just stays there and waits for us to get the other Australian back and then she's fresh and off she goes on her attack and then we have to go down the road again. But Carrigan took a chance and attacked early and was able to win. It's almost like pooling your strengths and saying, 'OK, we don't know who will win but one of us will'."

While British track cyclists have established themselves as world leaders in the last seven years, pedalling on from their annus mirabilis of 2000, when Jason Queally got the Sydney Olympics rolling with an unexpected gold in the kilo event, Cooke the outstanding natural road-racing talent of her generation, has pursued a lonely path. Having won not one, but four world junior titles, the young woman from Wick, in the Vale of Glamorgan, established herself on the European road-racing circuit, adapting to a new way of life and maintaining a progression which saw her claim the Commonwealth title on the roads of Manchester in 2002 and add the overall World Cup series titles in 2003 and 2006, when she finished the year as the world's No 1 ranked rider.

Good news is trembling on the horizon. In the space of the last week, Cooke has met Dave Brailsford, the performance director for British Cycling, at his Manchester base and the long-laid plans to establish a British women's team on the road circuit are on the brink of fruition.

"Dave and I have been working towards the idea of getting a women's pro team out there and next year it's going to happen," she says, her big eyes widening. "It's been a long time coming and there hasn't been the same kind of structure in place for me that there has for a major track rider, but now it looks like we are going along that way. Because most of the races are in Europe, because you need six riders in a team, it has taken much longer to develop in Britain.

"We are not going to crack open a bottle of champagne because we haven't won a race yet. The job isn't going to be done until the Olympics and World Championships next season.It means we'll be learning how to race together more effectively. It will also mean at the end of the World Championships or Olympics I'll have riders alongside me who understand what to do in that situation."

That may just mean the difference between a near miss and a podium visit for this super-focused 24-year-old, who has already done everything within her power to increase her chances – including learning Italian and German, the language spoken by her current team-mates in the Raleigh Lifeforce Creation team. Cycling is a very different environment from a lot of sports because you have to interact with your competitors," she says. "I don't want to be in a break with a Russian and an Italian and not understand what they are saying. It's almost like 'know your enemy'. When people start talking and I'm with a German and someone else I want to know what they're saying so they can't pull a trick on me. I want to give myself the best chance."

That philosophy extends to a thoughtful and cautious attitude towards nutrition, where she is supplied with supplements by EAS, a company that markets itself on the reliable, contamination-free nature of its products.

Cooke has no intention of an accidental spill into the area bedevilling, even destroying, men's road racing. She feels strongly that the women's scene is not similarly afflicted – partly because, unlike the men's sport, it does not have 100 years of sometimes dubious history behind it, and partly because there is simply not the money in it. When she was first offered a ride with a European pro team the wage was £7,000. And while male winners of major tours can be looking at more than £500,000, their female counterparts will collect closer to £1,000.

"Women's cycling has not got the pressures and demands that men's cycling has," Cooke says. "It's smaller, it's definitely less wealthy, so you'll find a different type of character profile. There are women cyclists who do dope and who test positive but they have been caught and I think, of the riders over the last few years who have raised question marks in my mind, they have all actually been caught."

Good, you think. But wait. Not quite so good. "Of those riders who have tested positive," Cooke continues, "one of them got a three-month ban in the winter and was racing again next February. And then another rider who was a Canadian began racing for the American federation and continued competing and racing and lived happily ever after. There are still so many differences between countries. If you are a British competitor it's miss three tests and you're out. In Germany, for example, you could have 14 missed tests and still compete at Olympics and World Championships.

"While I'm still competing and winning clean it's not such an issue," she says. "If I was putting everything in and not even making top 10, I'd think, what is wrong here? If I ever had to make that decision, I wouldn't continue because I want to have the winning feeling because I am the best."

Sadly, that sensation was denied her this year as, having established a massive lead in the World Cup series – and won a second successive women's Tour de France title – she suffered a knee injury before the final, double-points scoring race in Nuremberg and had to settle for runner-up behind her big rival, the Netherlands' Marianne Vos. As she puts it, ruefully: "Not quite a Lewis Hamilton. But..."

With her knee almost completely mended now, you get the feeling that Cooke's intentions for next year glow no less intensely than those of the young man from Stevenage.