Cycling: Tenacity drives on a world-beater

Who's who for 2002: Nicole Cooke: Young queen of the road
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The Independent Online

For such a slight girl, Nicole Cooke has been made to shoulder some big claims. Shane Sutton, the national cycling coach in Wales, has described the 18-year-old as potentially the greatest woman cyclist of all time, which is a mighty advertisement from anyone, let alone a tough old Aussie like Sutton.

Cooke's response to such outrageous flattery is telling. "It's nice that people think that about me," she says coyly, delaying the punch line. "But I've been thinking it for quite some time." In the past 14 months, Cooke has won four junior world titles, beginning with the road race in Plouay, France, late in 2000, and stretching through the mountain-bike world championships in Colorado – her one and only mountain-bike race of the season – and double victory, in the time trial and the road race again, in Lisbon in October. Such a prolific junior career is unmatched in cycling and, quite possibly, any other sport.

"Those achievements alone make Nicole a great bike rider," adds Sutton. "On a world scale, that's phenomenal. It's everyone's dream to win one world title, but to win four in just over a year, you can't describe it. On the continent, everyone wants to have their photos taken with her, everyone wants her autograph. It's like David Beckham going shopping in Manchester."

At national level, Cooke was senior road-race champion at the age of 16 and a junior champion on the track. Yet in Britain she is barely known.

You have to journey to Bridgend and then head south for a few miles to the village of Wick to find the prodigy. On the roads in between she has honed her champion's will. Most mornings, with her father, Tony, and younger brother, Craig, in tow, she would cycle from Wick to school at Brynteg on the southern fringes of Bridgend, the school which also produced Rob Howley, the Welsh scrum-half, and the Olympic long- jump gold medallist Lynn Davies. It is a journey of eight miles or so, but increased in length and difficulty by a quick left turn on to the coastal road.

"Going up hills lugging a big school bag was a good form of resistance training," she says. "Mind you, they looked at me a bit strange at the school when I asked for the key to the sports hall to shower and park my bike. They were a bit sceptical at first until they realised I was serious."

So serious that, at the age of 12, she announced on television that she was going to become an Olympic champion. At about the same time, Sutton recalls watching a precise little girl, her face glowing red as a beetroot from the effort, matching pedal strokes with the boys in a junior cyclo-cross event. "She wasn't going to give in, that was what first struck me about her," he says.

Neither Cooke's will to win nor her maverick spirit have ever been in question. Cooke has come through the classic system of school and club, with a large measure of help from her parents, and has received financial support mainly from the Sports Council of Wales. Only this season, with the Commonwealth Games in Man-chester and Athens in 2004 as her major targets, has she joined the British Cycling Federation's world-class performance programme. Mostly, she has relished regular victories over the more favoured riders in the programme, including two national titles won against what she perceived as the combined efforts of the WCPP team. "They put out a press release saying my victory in the national road championships was lucky," she smiles. "I don't think they could come to terms with the fact that a little schoolgirl could beat the riders they'd funded all round the world." A schoolgirl, mark you, who strode off with three A grades at A level, in maths, geography and biology.

Relationships with the BCF were not improved by Cooke's request to be selected for the Sydney Olympics. In terms of performance, there was no argument – Cooke was the national champion – but the UCI had imposed an age limit of 19 on the road race. Any individual appeal to the world governing body had to be channelled through the national federation, and the feeling in the Cooke family was that the BCF did not exactly bust a gut on their own champion's behalf. "It was a shame," says Cooke. "I want to win gold in Athens in 2004 and I could have gained a lot of experience in handling the whole event by going with the team to Sydney. I felt I missed out, but there was nothing I could do." Instead, she stayed up into the early hours, watching the television and picking out the girls she had beaten during the year.

Surprisingly, for such a cosy, close-knit family, Cooke's house bears no sign of her triumphs. Her training bike stands in the hall, but no photos adorn the walls, no trophy cabinet gleams in the corner. "It's not really our mentality," she explains. "That might allow us to become a bit complacent. I keep all my cuttings and I've got a world championship box with loads of things in it, which maybe one day I'll make into a collage, but I've got to look to the future."

Cooke has already ruffled a few prized feathers in the road-racing community, not least Jeannie Longo, the French veteran, 13-times world champion who can claim to be the greatest of all. It was a five-day race in Quebec, a preparation for many of the Olympic riders, and Cooke's first élite road race. A trifle imperiously, Cooke thought, Longo had announced that the day's stage, up two stretching climbs, would sort out the general classification. In other words, this was the Frenchwoman's territory, so keep clear. Cooke had other ideas, clinging on tenaciously throughout a gruelling day until the final sprint came down to just four riders. In her home town, the Commonwealth Games gold medallist, Lynn Bessette, prevailed, but Cooke finished second, ahead of Longo.

"Her tenacity is frightening," says Sutton. "She just loves confrontation. She likes nothing better than to be in a group, looking to see who's working who over. Sometimes, you have to save her from her own competitiveness. In training, she wants to rip it every day, go faster than yesterday. Sometimes you have to use your head a little. But she's smart, she'll work it out. Like Chris Boardman, she's a freak of nature."

The transition from juniors to seniors will be critical to Cooke's ambitions. Plenty of triumphant juniors have failed to make the leap. An offer to sign for the dominant Italian team, Acca Due O – and a tilt at the Tour Féminin, the women's version of the Tour de France – has been put on hold while she fulfils her immediate aims of winning gold for Wales at the Commonwealth Games and Olympic gold for Britain. In Cooke's bright young eyes, these are not aims, merely milestones on the road to the summit.