Thanks to Sue Mott for this interview. Daily Telegraph, today.
Ask the next person you meet (excluding the Welsh in bicycle clips) if they have heard of Nicole Cooke, the answer will probably be a scratched head. Mmm, it sounds vaguely familiar, doesn't it? But few would put a face to the name. Celebrity chefs, shorts-dropping footballers, models in unwearable clothes and expressions, we know them more intimately than strictly necessary. But the world's No 1 woman cyclist, to the mass British audience, represents the great unknown.
She is one of the front-runners – on merit – for the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year award (albeit if anyone can be bothered to schlep up to Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre). But will the public vote for a woman who works offshore with foreign nationals and wears a helmet? We like to see our sports stars, get to know them and, if possible, feel sorry for them. Joe Calzaghe, the super-middleweight champion of the world for nine years, hit a rich vein of truth when he said the public were dreadfully inclined to vote for losers.
Cooke never was, nor will be, a loser. At the outset of her career, winning senior events at the age of 16, on-lookers concluded she must possess a pushy father. Tony Cooke was indeed enthusiastic, but then he had to be. "I remember mornings at home when a gale was blowing and the wind was lashing down, lying in bed at 6.30am, inwardly praying that I wouldn't have to get up. But, sure enough, the door would be flung back and Nicole burst in: 'Come on, Dad…' She was 11." His daughter, now 23 and on top of the world, ruefully acknowledges the claim. "Dad and my brother, Craig, never seemed to have the same urgency as me. It was always me that wanted to get out of the house. I think I suffered from Pushy Daughter syndrome, not the other way round." There is still the touch of the Tigress Woods about her.
Made by her father, at least inspired by him, she simply took to the pedals at a formative age and stayed there. The result is a formidably talented, ferociously competitive, gong-loaded individual sportswoman who possesses not the fainted shadow of starry-self regard and who celebrated her arrival at the grand summit of women's road racing, the moment she became world No 1, by opening a bottle of sparkling wine with a team-mate. "But I only had one glass," she said.
It will not make any difference that she is off-duty now, October being the month of freedom after the competitive season. During her first day of holiday she cycled round the lake in Zurich. For pure pleasure. She is obsessed. "I know," she said happily.
This week, she moved to Lugano, wrestling all her worldly goods including her bicycles into a four-by-four. "I like living in Switzerland. I like the climate, the mountains, the lakes. The Swiss people are nice too. They follow the rules. They wait at red lights." Which is probably important to a cyclist.
Communication is no problem. She used to ride for an Italian team, and so learnt the language from a book. Now she rides for a Swiss-German team, Univega-Raleigh-Lifeforce, and has been learning German since May. It must be working. "Sometimes I find myself swearing in German." Not Welsh. "No, it's the language of God. There are no swear words in Welsh." (She is, by the way, the 2003 Welsh Sports Personality of the Year. She was also runner-up in 2002 when the prize was won by Mark Hughes, the former Wales football coach. "And he wasn't even a sportsman at the time. He was a manager," noted Cooke without rancour.)
You can see instantly that she is a doer whose consistency is born of loving her profession. She is even a little bemused by her advancement to the very pinnacle of her sport. "It still hasn't sunk it. It's a bit strange to think about it. But I'm very proud. It doesn't happen to everyone." It probably means nothing to the non-cycling world that she won the World Cup series this year. Nor that she won the women's Tour de France having led from start to finish. Nor that she was victorious in the Thuringen-Rundfahrt (Sue Barker will probably not pronounce that one), the Fleche Wallonne, the Castilla y Leon and the biggest TT race of her career, the Magali Pache Lausanne. It is with infinite cheek, given that our national sport – football – is overrun with Europeans, that most of us wouldn't know our Magali Pache from the M11.
But women's cycling has a professional cast list not much smaller than women's tennis, about 200 full-time racers and a few hundred more in the hinterland. Yet while Maria Sharapova has a net between her and her opponent, Cooke has about a centimetre in a peloton of up to 150 racers, taking downhills at 60mph, risking serious life-long injury, and necessarily involving regular crashes – three of which in the last 12 months have split her helmets and mangled her bikes. "I looked at my helmets, in pieces and thought that could have been my skull."
Cooke is a forthright young woman, mature beyond her years. She is neither cowed nor exalted by her sporting life, but when she needs to make a point, she does. One of those points was drug-related. Paula Radcliffe-like, she made her stand. "My first season in 2002 was a very eye-opening experience. There was one Belarussian girl and one Ukranian girl, team-mates, sharing a room with me. One evening having come up from dinner they got a syringe out. I thought: 'Oh my god, what's going on here.' No medical staff around. Just one untrained 27-year old trying to administer something to another rider. I decided I was never going to ride with that team again. Afterwards, I let it be known: 'Don't do things like that in my room again. I don't like needles. I don't like it.' I made it very clear. But it's what happens, you know.
"The team manager would say: 'Oh, Nicole, you're not riding very well today. What do you need? Amino acids? Anti-oxidants?' But why would I want to experiment during a big stage race? There's no logic to it. If riders are at the stage where they do need supplements or boosting, then firstly they're not in a fit state to race and secondly, what are they thinking of, administering this stuff without medical staff around? For their own safety, not for mine. Unfortunately, for the Ukranians and Belarussians it was the normal thing for them. And if they're happy to take things from the white shaded area – legal – then it won't be long before they're happy to take things from the grey-shaded area.
"I really thing taking anything is a sign of weakness that your own body, your own mind, isn't strong enough." As for the men's drug-riddled tour, she regrets the slurs it imposes on the women by association. The descent of the 2006 men's Tour de France into shame and farce disgusted her. "I was shocked. And unfortunately the women's tour, which is not as well-funded as the men's, is tainted and suffers Her personal suffering, however, is more focused.
"What is torture to you?"
"Riding badly," she said immediately.
"Oh yes," she said, "and being injured." While most of us would regard torture as taking a hairpin bend on two thin wheels at ludicrous miles per hour with hell-bent rivals swishing alongside and large chunks of France falling away to left and right, Cooke is tortured by sitting down. She must do it sometimes. Respite is only professional. But what is her default position? "Pedalling," she said.
She was disappointed to claim only bronze in the World Road Race Championships this year in Salzburg, but initiates would understand that it was, in fact, a fine effort, given the complete absence of an elite British team to support her. Team tactics in road races are often as crucial as puff and pedalling like mad. While temporarily infuriated, Cooke was eventually able to review her third place behind Marianne Vos of Holland and Trixi Worrack of Germany as "not the end of the world".
She is not always so measured. "I wouldn't kick a cat but I remember one time when I crashed and the team car came to pick me up and it wasn't very nice. I couldn't get up from the road by myself because I was in so much pain. I'm just lying on the floor. Gently I was persuaded to get up and as soon as I was on my feet I was carrying on and swearing. I could have launched the whole bike off the mountain in frustration. It really gets to me sometimes."
She explains all this rather hesitantly. As though remembering that her father, head of science at a large senior school, is proud to hold her up as a role model. "Not being hugely famous, it's easier for her than Wayne Rooney to keep her balance," said Tony Cooke. "But she's got a difficult path in front of her because no British cyclist has ever been down this path before." Indeed, British world No 1s are not exactly littering the country in major(ish) global sports. But do not for one minute accuse her of making sacrifices for her present prominent perch. "Sacrifices!" she positively spluttered. "Everything I get from cycling is a positive gain, not a sacrifice. Even when I retire" – this is a far-flung land in her mind, somewhere around the age of 35 – "I shall always ride."
In the meantime the move to Lugano admittedly does not sound like much of a sacrifice. Own home, lake, beauty, fresh air, Swiss efficiency, Italian language, Italian men. Perhaps she might meet and marry one.
"I wouldn't know what destiny has in store for me," she said with ultra-caution. But having an analytical brain, perhaps inherited from her scientific father, she computed the thought. "Swiss-Italian perhaps." She hasn't had time to go gathering a significant other and in her early 20s, a dedicated sportswoman, it would be slightly insane to do so.
"I wouldn't really say time was the problem. More the fact that I have never been based in one place. Being constantly on the move, seeing people a few months here, a few months there, can cause quite big problems logistically. Most of the time, the distance between us and moving around is the reason relationships haven't worked out.
"It's a bit frustrating. But it's not like I'm lonely." Some women would call that a sacrifice. But probably not the type who enjoys a bike ride pointing vertically downwards. Cooke is a personality, all right.