British Cycling coach Huw Williams has known two-time World Road Race Champion Nicole Cooke, arguably the most successful athlete Britain has ever produced, since the early days of her career.
Here, he reviews her explosive autobiography The Breakaway.
Mid 90s, somewhere on the side of a mountain in a Welsh valley and we’re pre-riding the course for a mountain bike race that is to take place later in the day. Our team manager on the Peugeot 406 squad is Mick Ives and he’s asking us to look after a nervous-looking youth rider on the recce as she’s new to the team. We do an easy lap of the course but there’s a long, steep, rock strewn, technical descent towards the end that is highly demanding of both skill and the robustness of bike and equipment. I’m riding one of the most advanced front suspension forks available, fitted to an extremely agile and, unusual for the time, titanium frame and I can still feel the teeth being rattled out of my head as we hurtle to the bottom: it’s that rough.
We all get down alive and our new youth rider is right there at the front of the bunch. I notice that she’s riding something that more resembles an iron gate than the expensive, suspended, state-of-the-art MTBs that the rest of us are on. We get back to the team cars and I express a certain amount of amazement to Mick and Rachel Pickett, at the time one of the leading young riders in the UK, at the new girl’s prowess. “She’s bloody mad downhill, her,” confirms Pickett. “Totally fearless.”
This was my first encounter with Nicole Cooke. More than 10 years later I would watch, through eyes clouded with tears of joy, live TV pictures from halfway around the world as this same rider won the Olympic road race in the shadow of the great wall of China. Her biography The Breakaway, published recently by Simon & Schuster, is an account of the things that happened between those two points in time (and beyond), which saw Cooke rise from humble beginnings to become Commonwealth, World and Olympic champion road racer. I recount the anecdote because it so typifies much of what characterized her career – the ability to not only compete, but also win on a playing field that was so often not level. Along the way, countless other national and world titles in other cycling disciplines are all part of the story, but reading the book you quickly realise that her true passion was for road racing, ignited as a child when watching classic Tours de France coverage, and particularly Robert Millar in the high mountain passes, gathered around a TV with father Tony, mum Debbie and brother Craig.
The book is a paradox. For anyone involved in cycle sport through the 90s and into the 2000s it’s a difficult read. Many friends, former colleagues and officials within the sport at the time are implicated in an organisational system that comes across as at best inadequate to support the needs of riders with such talent in succeeding, and at worst actively prevented them from doing so if they weren’t part of that system. Yet, at the same time, The Breakaway is hugely motivating and inspiring in its message that even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, it’s possible to get to the top if you have the work ethic, courage, drive and determination to do so.
Cooke’s stance on gender inequality within the sport, along with her experiences and opinions of drugs cheats, have been widely publicized in various interviews as well as the heartfelt retirement statement she made shortly after London 2012, and she rails against all these things here. She outlines how the trickle-down effect of the Armstrong, Landis, Hamilton, Millar era of drug cheats robbed women’s cycling of sponsors to such a degree that a women’s Tour de France no longer exists, and a memorable passage early in the book serves as a poignant diatribe against the rulers of a beautiful sport who allowed it to go bad: “If ever anyone excuses Lance, Tyler, Ullrich, Riis, Millar, Hincapie, Barry or any of the other dopers by saying they only did what they had to do to level the playing field, then they need look no further than Fany Lecourtois [Cooke’s then team mate at Deia-Pragma-Colnago]… She had ridden as a professional for 10 years, plus all the years before preparing for that career. She lived the life of a professional athlete every day, watching what she ate and how she rested, sacrificing so much. She gave her all for her team-mates and helped me achieve wins. Her team managers didn’t pay her and she turned the other cheek. Our sport came up with meaningless, out-of-season penalties for that tiny minority who actually tested positive. She, like me, would never resort to taking drugs. She stood rock solid, her personal integrity intact. Nature had blessed me with physical characteristics which allowed me to take on all comers. Fany didn’t have that level of natural ability and simply strived as hard as she could, but was now realizing that the system, which should have been designed to protect those of us that would never take drugs, did not; and those at the top of the sport, who should have acted, failed to do so.”
But this book is so much more than a volley against cycling’s wrongs and wrongdoers. The descriptions of riding in races that she dreamed of as a child and later would see her become the first British rider to win the World Cup series are beautifully captured, as exciting as any I’ve read in any cycling autobiography, and motivating enough to make any young, aspiring rider want to experience similar thrills. The accounts of team and individual tactics, decisions made on the fly at 60kph when surrounded by a tightly packed peloton of riders bearing down on a finish line are edge-of-the-seat thrilling and a fascinating document of the technical and tactical demands needed to succeed in racing at world level. Racers of all ages, genders and abilities would do well to read how even as an amateur, her attention to detail and meticulous preparation ensured that on the day she was always able to perform at her best, even when she physically wasn’t at it.
Like its author, the book is uncompromising and presents its arguments in clear, straightforward, uncomplicated prose. Rather than publish too hurriedly following London 2012 (and no doubt benefit in sales terms from the publicity surrounding her retirement statement), this book has been a further two years in the making, testament to her desire to get it right. The initial publishers request for a word count of 120,000 was surpassed by a third as the first draft was submitted at 180,000 words but the final, edited version is sharp and urgent.
Contained in its pages are a blueprint setting out how many of the sport’s problems might be rectified for although, as Cooke is quick to point out, much has improved in its professionalism since the Brailsford era, there is still much that hasn’t. Take for example the issue of what she refers to as “the arms race,” something that is very much in the minds of many youth racers’ parents today. Here she recalls racing at the age of 12. “This (The 5-day, Helmand Youth Tour of Holland) was a world of cycling completely different from how the sport had developed in the UK… the bikes had to be low tech. No carbon fibre, no fancy frames, no deep section. Wheels had to be conventional flat aluminium rims with a minimum of 32 round spokes. Back home you might turn up and race against some boy with a £3000 replica 1992 Lotus, the bike Chris Boardman rode at the Olympics, but the environment was entirely different in Helmand. Parents who sought to use their wealth to buy advantages for their offspring were trumped, and being those types of parents, they went and found another sport where money could buy success. Cycling in the UK was encouraging the ‘arms race’… with many leaving, not having funds to access superweapons. In Helmand the exact opposite was true.”
The Breakaway concludes with the statement that “In years to come, no one will remember my path and certainly no one will think about what was there before.” I disagree. For anyone involved in the sport this essential book will always exist as a stark reminder of what was there before, and a compelling account of her path and the hardships she had to endure and overcome to succeed. Over the years she, father Tony and a small number of others around the family have applied an immense amount of pressure to British Cycling, UK Anti-Doping, UK Sport and various other sporting bodies’ officials in an attempt to improve practices in supporting those riders aiming to emulate her. Whether they realize it or not, those riders will widely benefit from her trail-blazing achievements and Cooke well deserves her desired “share in the conquests of those that follow.”