Cooke's junior choice takes her to number one

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The Independent Online

Nicole Cooke's first thought on winning Olympic gold yesterday was to phone her parents at their home in the Vale of Glamorgan village of Wick. "I started cycling because of our family," she explained. "My mum and dad were always encouraging my brother and I to do sport and they've been very supportive throughout my career."

Cooke was born to race bikes. As a child, she spent family holidays riding tandems around Devon, Norfolk or the Isle of Wight. In term-time she rode eight miles every day to school alongside her brother and father.

Encouraged by her father, who has been her inspiration throughout her career, Cooke entered her first competitive race when she was 11. Her first taste of competition was as a cyclo-cross rider and she was soon beating boys on her way to winning the Welsh championship.

She went on to win 32 British schools titles and at 16 took the British Elite Road Race Championship, becoming the youngest-ever British senior champion. She has since won the title on seven more occasions.

Four junior world titles followed, in road racing, time trialling and mountain biking. Cooke said yesterday that her wide-ranging experience had played a vital role in her Olympic triumph. "One of the benefits of riding all the disciplines when I was younger was that you rode across every sort of terrain through the year," she said.

Cycling's rules meant 17-year-old Cooke was not allowed to compete at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, but she was already beating top international riders on the road. Her first big triumph came two years later when she won the Commonwealth Games road race in Manchester.

In the same year Cooke signed her first professional contract and moved to Italy to be with her team. She has been based on the Continent ever since and currently rides out of Lugano in Switzerland.

Cooke won the second race of her professional career, beating the then world champion with a classy display of climbing and sprinting, and won six more times in 2002. She won the World Cup for the first time the following year. She repeated her success three years later and has claimed most of the sport's major prizes in subsequent seasons. She has never taken the world championship road race title, but has won a silver and two bronzes.

The biggest gap on her CV was the Olympics. She had been one of the favourites to win in Athens four years ago, but without a strong team to support her could finish only fifth. However, the emergence of Emma Pooley and Sharon Laws ensured Cooke would have a better team behind her this year and she geared her whole season to the Olympics.

"In the past I've tried the other route – racing all season – and I'd got to the major championships without a full tank," Cooke said. "It was a high-risk strategy and this was the first time I had tried it, but I stuck to it and believed in it."

Milestones: From Swansea to Beijing

Age: 25 (date of birth: 13 April, 1983)

Place of birth: Swansea

Career achievements:

Silver medallist, road race, World Championships 2005.

Bronze medallist, road race, World Championships 2003 and 2006.

Previous Olympic result:

Fifth, women's road race, 2004 in Athens.

Cooke won gold at the Commonwealth Games in 2002. She is also a former winner of the World Cup series.