Cooke serves up gold

Welsh cyclist storms home to win Great Britain's first medal at the Beijing Olympics
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The Independent Online

It was a scream that could have brought down the Great Wall of China. As Nicole Cooke crossed the finish line to win the gold medal in the women's road race, the 25-year-old Welsh rider bellowed in triumph, her roar drowning out the cheers of the spectators who had braved the driving wind and rain to watch the finish at the top of the Juyongguan Pass beneath the Wall's ramparts.

Four years after finishing a disappointing fifth in the Athens Olympics, Cooke rode a tactically brilliant race to beat Sweden's Emma Johansson to the gold by just four hundredths of a second after 120 kilometres and three and a half hours. If the margin of victory was miniscule, the manner of her victory was a triumph of tactical planning and teamwork, with her fellow British riders, Emma Pooley and Sharon Laws, playing crucial roles.

"It's just like a dream come true and I hope everyone else can share in it," Cooke said afterwards. "There have been so many people who have helped me over the years. It's been a very long journey to get here. I hope everyone else feels the same excitement as I do."

Of her finishing-line scream, she added: "There was so much in me, so many emotions, and they all came out at once as I crossed the line. I wasn't composed enough to take my hands off the handlebars and give a proper salute but I guess that's just the person I am."

Now, at last, Cooke will receive the recognition she has long deserved yet so rarely received. Ever since winning four junior world titles in the space of 12 months in disciplines as diverse as time trialling and mountain biking, the 25-year-old from the village of Wick in the Vale of Glamorgan has been taking on and beating the best, despite coming from a country with no tradition of success at the highest levels of women's professional road racing.

Cooke has won World Cups, Commonwealth Games gold, the Giro d'Italia and the women's Tour de France and been ranked No 1 in the world, but her Olympic experience four years ago had left her unfulfilled. This year, for the first time in her professional career, she had raced lightly in order to leave herself in the best possible shape to win the ultimate prize. No wonder she wore a smile as broad as the River Severn throughout the medal ceremony.

The conditions were treacherous, with several riders falling, but with the rain pouring down and the wind buffeting the riders Cooke might have imagined she was riding through the Brecon Beacons that were her training ground for so many years rather than the mountains to the west of Beijing. Johansson said she was so cold during the race that she could not stop shaking and the weather was a complete contrast to the previous day, when Spain's Samuel Sanchez defied sweltering heat and humidity to take gold in the men's road race.

There had been little hint of the deluge to come as the race set off from Yongdingmen Gate in the centre of the city and passed historic landmarks such as the Temple of Heaven, the Great Hall of the People and Tiananmen Square. However, by the time they had reached the foot of the Badaling Pass, where they did two laps of a 23.8km circuit, the skies had opened.

Law and Pooley helped to force the pace, making breakaways difficult, and until the closing stages the only attack of any consequence came 45 kilometres from the finish. Russia's Natalia Boyarskaya established a lead of more than a minute, but with 21 kilometres to go was caught as Pooley and Italy's Tatiana Guderzo sped clear of the bunch.

Pooley's brief thoughts of personal glory quickly ended when the field came together again, but her work at the front had helped keep Cooke's rivals at bay. Guderzo attacked again and established a small lead, but the decisive break came as Cooke, who had been waiting for the moment to pounce, went clear of the pack with three other riders 11 kilometres out. Quickly catching the Italian, they established a 15-second gap that the rest never looked like breaching.

As the front five entered the last 500 metres Cooke, knowing she was the best finisher of the group, settled at the back and prepared for her final assault. For a moment, as she slowed before the final corner and slipped several metres behind the fourth rider, it seemed her chance might have gone, but the Briton was so confident of winning the sprint for the line that she had deliberately played safe.

Cooke quickly made up the ground and with 200 metres to go launched her attack, hitting the front before passing under the Wall for the last time. Johansson and Guderzo, who took the bronze, pushed her all the way to the line, but Cooke was not to be denied.

"The plan was exactly what you saw," Dave Brailsford, British Cycling's performance director, said afterwards. "Emma and Sharon raced hard and kept it together on the flat and Nicole finished it off. The whole team got it spot on."

Cooke, the first Welsh Olympic gold medalist since Richard Meade's equestrian triumph in 1972, added: "Our race plan went back more than 12 months and Sharon, Emma and I all worked as a team. Emma's attacking enabled me to ride defensively.

"It allowed me to save myself, which put me in a good position and put the other teams on the back foot. As a team we rode a fantastic race. I couldn't wait to give Emma and Sharon a big hug because they shared in this gold medal too."

Pooley, who is likely to have a better chance of personal success in Wednesday's time trial, said: "It's a team race and if you work together you're much more likely to get a good result than if you don't. It's really satisfying to help someone win a medal because you know you've helped."

For the third Olympics in succession, following Jason Queally in Sydney and Chris Hoy in Athens, a cyclist has won Britain's first gold medal of the Games. It is also the first gold ever won by a British female cyclist and should be the first of many two-wheel triumphs over the next fortnight. Brailsford and his squad came here with high expectations and Cooke's triumph has given them the perfect start.