Olympics Rewind: Nicole Cooke recalls Beijing 2008 road race gold

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Olympics Rewind Beijing: Nicole Cooke wins road race gold

Nicole Cooke was just 12 when she told a BBC reporter that she wanted to win the Olympic road race and the Tour de France.

Big dreams indeed, but there’s nothing wrong with a little youthful enthusiasm. And dreams can, and do, come true.

“There was a big cycling world still to discover and a very long path in front of me,” says Briton Cooke, 25 years on.

“It was a natural way to say that I didn’t quite know what was in store, but I was definitely aiming for the top.”

Little did Cooke and that reporter know just what that young Welsh girl, who would race her father and brother the five miles to and from school each day, would go on to achieve.

Olympic gold, tick. Tour de France, two ticks. And a CV bursting with quite a lot more.

Recalling the day she won the Beijing 2008 road race, Cooke’s smile as she’s talking is so obvious it can almost be heard down the phone.

Her gold was the first of 19 won by Great Britain at that Olympics and, 12 years on, she can still remember every minute detail.

“I’m very happy looking back,” she says. “I’m extremely proud of everything I achieved. It is part of me.

“The Olympics is special, not everyone can win it.”

Her gold was the first won at an Olympics by a British female cyclist, the first individual gold won by a Welsh woman, and Great Britain’s 200th since the birth of the modern Games in 1896.

But this story, and those published in the aftermath of Cooke’s success, may never have been written had she gone down one route, and not the other, in the latter months of 2007.

From dark days to gold

Four years before Beijing, Cooke had made her long-awaited Olympic debut in Athens. She finished fifth in the road race – a result she was “extremely disappointed” with, given her World Cup success in 2003 and the fact she had become the youngest rider to win the Giro d’Italia earlier in 2004.

Remarkably, her Giro win had come after eight months of no racing following surgery on a knee injury she had first sustained in a nasty crash the previous year.

Knee injuries would plague Cooke for years – so much so that in the dark days of November 2007, nine months before the Olympics, Cooke strongly considered quitting.

“I didn’t want to go to the Olympics and just be there. I wanted to go to try to win it,” she says.

“I was really struggling to see how I was going to be competitive.

“I was thinking of stopping and packing it all in, but I think, deep down, I still wanted to give it everything and I still wanted to try.”

And try she did. Going into Beijing, she had raced less than she would have done in a normal season, but had won her eighth consecutive British Road Race Championship.

She was excited, though a little nervous. The British team – Cooke, Emma Pooley and Sharon Laws – visited the course in the days before the race, doing a practice finish.

“I just felt really, really good, and very strong,” Cooke recalls. “I then became quite nervous over the last couple of days because I realised that I really could do this. This could be the time.”

Those who watched Cooke’s golden race will remember the rain, the seemingly endless torrential downpour more typically akin to that of the Welsh hills than the Great Wall of China.

It made the riding conditions abysmal, but Cooke negotiated the punishing 126km race – from the centre of Beijing to loops around the Badaling section of the Great Wall – to perfection.

Much of it was spent conserving energy, waiting for the right moment to attack, before she and four others formed a breakaway with about 6km to go.

On the final, steep incline leading to the finish, many, including the television commentators, thought Cooke was out of the running.

But she had other ideas.

“I felt happy that I could go from a long-ish way out, and still have that extra push for the line,” she explains.

“The others were there to take it if I made the slightest mistake, so I had to be very careful, but I was also coming into that finish thinking: ‘I can decide when I go, this is my kind of finish.’ I really liked this kind of power sprint uphill.

“I was closing from behind but there was still quite a little bit to go. There was a right curve with about 400 metres to go. I knew I was coming up the hill faster, the shortest way up was on the inside.

“I didn’t want to be at the back when the sprint started, so I knew I had to get a bit further forward with these riders. But then I realised I was going faster so I felt I could take it all the way.

“In the moment I did all these things instinctively. There wasn’t much to think about once I’d committed.”


Cooke won gold in a time of three hours 32 minutes 24 seconds

With her legs no doubt screaming, Cooke powered her way to a historic victory, Sweden’s Emma Johansson and Italian Tatiana Guderzo taking silver and bronze in her wake.

When you watch the footage of Cooke crossing the line it is quite, as she puts it, “revealing” of the emotions and thoughts going through her head in those moments.

“I clenched my fists for ages, just shouting: ‘Yes,'” she laughs. “There was a little bit of: ‘Wow, this is incredible.’ That’s what I was thinking. I actually did it.

“It was the absolute pinnacle of my sporting career. It was the Olympics, and I had done it and won.”

Many would have been content with that. Cooke probably would have been. Yet 2008 wasn’t over.

Just six weeks later, she won World Championship gold, becoming the first cyclist to win the Olympic and world road races in the same year.

A history-maker. Again.

‘I’m proud of being a trailblazer’


Nicole Cooke’s road race win was Great Britain’s first gold at the Beijing Olympics

Cooke retired in January 2013 having “won every race and more that I dreamed I could win”. Now living in Switzerland, she still enjoys getting out on her bike, but is “well into her second career” working in strategy.

But back in Britain, her legacy lives on in the cycling world.

Her achievements make for an impressive read. In addition to those Olympic, world and Tour de France titles, she was also the first British rider to win a Grand Tour, the World Cup, and to reach world number one.

“I’m proud of being a trailblazer, setting new firsts in the world of women’s road racing,” she says.

“Also, being a trailblazer for sport in Wales and ending a drought of 36 years since the last Welsh Olympic gold medallist.”

Cooke’s retirement statement was explosive. In it, she took aim at the “male-dominated sport”, as well as drugs cheats who she said had brought about cycling’s “darkest days”.

As she puts it, Cooke did “more than just ride a bike” during her career and was not afraid to stand up for what she felt was right.

And while they may not necessarily realise it, the generations of female athletes who followed Cooke into cycling have a lot to thank her for.

“I changed cycling in Britain for women,” she says. “I was the one who stood up and asked the question: ‘If we can we have an under-16 British Track Championships for the boys, can we have the same track championships for girls?’

“After getting no as a first answer, I continued to ask or, as some at British Cycling say, to demand.

“I’m very proud that there is now a way through those British Championships for those riders to have a showcase to race, and have their own pathway through from being that 12-year-old with a dream to the Olympics.”

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Adam and Simon Yates to split Tour de France and Giro d’Italia races

Adam and Simon Yates
Adam and Simon Yates have both won the young rider classification at the Tour de France since joining Mitchelton-Scott

Adam Yates will compete in this year’s Tour de France and his twin brother Simon will race in the Giro d’Italia, say their Mitchelton-Scott team.

The Tour de France will take place from 29 August to 20 September having been pushed back because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Giro d’Italia, postponed from May, will take place from 3-25 October.

Simon Yates led the Giro d’Italia for 13 days in 2018 before being beaten to victory by fellow Briton Chris Froome.

“The focus for us at the Giro d’Italia will be to support Simon Yates as best as possible, to help him achieve the optimal result we can as a team and ultimately try to win the race,” said Mitchelton-Scott head sports director Matt White.

“For me, the Giro d’Italia is the most physically demanding Grand Tour, so having a strong team around you certainly makes a difference.

“The team we will send will be a deep one and I’m confident Simon will have great support across all facets of racing.”

Adam Yates finished fourth in the Tour de France in 2016.

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Jess Varnish: Former GB cyclist loses employment tribunal appeal against British Cycling

Jess Varnish
Jess Varnish is a former European team sprint champion and world silver medallist

Former Great Britain cyclist Jess Varnish has lost her employment tribunal appeal against British Cycling.

Varnish, 29, has spent years in a legal battle over her claim she should be considered an employee of the governing body or funding agency UK Sport.

The former European team sprint champion lost her initial case in January 2019.

Her appeal has now been dismissed after a two-day remote hearing in May.

The judge, Mr Justice Choudhury, ruled that: “The [original] tribunal was entitled to conclude, based on an evaluative judgment taking account of all relevant factors, that the claimant was not an employee or a worker.

“The tribunal had not erred in its approach to the assessment of employee status and nor had it reached conclusions that no reasonable tribunal, properly directed, could have reached.”

If Varnish – a former European team sprint champion and world silver medallist – had been deemed an employee, it would have paved the way for her to sue both British Cycling and UK Sport for wrongful dismissal and sexual discrimination after she was controversially dropped from Team GB in the build-up to the Rio 2016 Olympics.

British Cycling’s case was that the relationship it had with athletes was similar to students receiving grants from universities, rather than employees.

The initial tribunal dismissed the claim that there was a contract of employment, despite acknowledging that there was a degree of “control” in the relationship between Varnish and British Cycling.

It also rejected the submission by Varnish’s legal team that the services provided by British Cycling amounted to remuneration, finding that they were “benefits”. The tribunal did not consider her a “worker”.

British Cycling said in a statement: “We had tried to reach a resolution with Jess much sooner, so we regret she was advised to pursue the route of an employment tribunal when other avenues were open to her.

“Because of our responsibility to represent the best interests of every rider who hopes to compete at an Olympics or Paralympics, that decision meant we had no option but to oppose her case.

“Since Jess raised her concerns about the Great Britain cycling team in 2016, we have implemented significant changes to the culture and processes of our high-performance programme.

“Four years on, and while we are always seeking to improve, we are happy to say that the well-being of staff and riders in our high-performance programme continues to be our highest priority.”

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Israel Start-Up Nation: Chris Froome a great like Lionel Messi, says boss Sylvan Adams

Sylvan Adams
Sylvan Adams is the co-owner of Israel Start-Up Nation, Chris Froome’s new team

A big sporting name switching to another team is nothing unusual – but Chris Froome’s departure from Team Ineos to Israel Start-Up Nation is one of the more bizarre transfers of recent times.

Froome has gone to a team who, up until a takeover of Katusha last October, were in pro cycling’s second division – ineligible to compete in races such as the Tour de France. Think Lionel Messi leaving Barcelona to play in the English Championship, and you’ll get the idea.

There’s more to this than meets the eye, though. This is a story of a country keen to make a big impact in the sport and a cycling-mad billionaire “very excited” at the prospect of Froome – four times the Tour de France winner – surpassing Eddy Merckx to become the greatest rider of all-time.

That billionaire is Israeli-Canadian businessman Sylvan Adams, Israel Start-Up Nation’s co-owner. “Everybody pays attention to the winner – and what we have started will hopefully be amplified by Chris’ presence,” Adams says.

“And he’s a very nice fella – I’d like to have a beer with him.”

Why did Froome leave Ineos?

Ineos, known as Team Sky until last year, have been a dominant force in cycling over the past decade. They have the biggest budget and the top names, and have won seven of the past eight Tours de France.

Froome, whose abilities as an endurance athlete won him the race in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017, had seemed perfectly suited to the team.

There’s little doubt that the environment at Ineos had been harmonious and geared towards his substantial success for many years. But in the months leading up to Thursday’s announcement that the team would not renew his contract, relations were a little more fractured.

Behind the scenes, there were feelings that Froome’s camp lacked the grace expected in negotiations, given the support the team had shown him during his rehabilitation following his crash a year ago during a practice ride at the Criterium de Dauphine. He sustained multiple injuries, including a broken leg.

Froome was also believed to have been frustrated with the team for not reprimanding last year’s Tour winner Egan Bernal over comments made in April. The Colombian told reporters that, if he was in a winning position at this year’s Tour, he would not move over to let Froome lead the team. Insiders felt the quote was fair enough, given the high status of both riders.

Had things been handled differently in recent weeks, Froome could well have seen out his career at Ineos.

Sylvan Adams
Adams is world masters champion himself after falling on love with cycling later in life

Israel Start-Up what?

Still, it’s happened now. Froome’s deal with Israel Start-Up Nation is likely to make him world cycling’s top earner, personal sponsorship deals permitting, at around 5m euros a year.

That multi-year deal was made possible by the team’s billionaire owners – property developer Adams and investment banker Ron Baron. They are spending to establish Israel Start-Up Nation as a main player on the World Tour. They also want to upset cycling’s established order. Just as Sir Dave Brailsford did a decade ago with Sky.

They became approved as a World Tour team by the UCI, cycling’s governing body, last October after Israel Cycling Academy completed a takeover of Katusha. The new team took on Katusha’s World Tour licence following the deal. Now they have big plans with Froome on board.

“Chris is a gentleman,” says Adams from his home in Tel Aviv. “Polite to a fault. Very softly spoken. But none of that should be mistaken for a lack of heart and a burning desire to win.

“He’s on the scale of a Michael Jordan or a Lionel Messi. His desire to win is powerful and overwhelming. He is one of the greatest talents in the sport.”

Adams’ excitement comes from a deep passion for cycling, having only discovered his own talent for the sport when he took it up in his forties.

The 61-year-old went on win a world masters title in 2015 and 2017, having won six titles in Canada before his move to Israel in 2015.

Much has been achieved since. A velodrome has been constructed in Tel Aviv, and Israel hosted the first three stages of the 2018 Giro d’Italia. Now Adams has the second most decorated cyclist in Tour history to power him to glory.

Froome has won 4 Tour de france (7 stages), 2 vueltas espana (6 stages) and 1 giro d'italia (2 stages)

What’s in it for Froome?

In April, Froome said his focus for the remainder of his career was on trying to win more Tours de France than any other rider.

Back in April, Froome announced his focus for the remainder of his career is to try to win more Tours than any other rider. Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Miguel Indurain and Bernard Hinault have all won five. Froome needs two more victories to pass them.

This is the big reason for him to sign with Israel Start-Up Nation: He will be the sole focus of the team’s primary aim – to win the Tour de France. Ineos only guarantee to give their full backing to whichever rider is in better form going into the decisive part of a Grand Tour race.

At Ineos, Froome was having to share the status of team leader with Bernal and 2018 Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas. His unease had been growing across this year.

“Chris wants to be the greatest Tour de France rider of all time,” says Adams. “And he also has a secondary goal, by the way, which is to win 11 Grand Tours.

“If he wins two more Tours he would be up to nine – just two away the great Eddy Merckx’s 11 Grand Tour wins. And I believe Merckx is considered to be the greatest cyclist of all time. So this could make a good case for Chris to be the greatest.”

Froome is signing up with someone who knows his stuff. Adams is a real cycling fan – following all the three-week races and the spring classics. He even attends training camps and rides with the squad.

Octopus curry and lots of rice – what does Chris Froome eat?

What is the team’s ambition?

To boost the team that will carry the weight of Froome’s expectations, Israel Start-Up Nation will make additions. They already boast some quality riders, though – Ireland’s combative Dan Martin and British former hour record holder Alex Dowsett, who became part of the team following the Katusha takeover.

Adams is the “self-appointed ambassador of Israel” and is determined to change the way the country is viewed and put them on the cycling map.

“I stole a page from British cycling,” he said. “Britain went from being a non entity in cycling to being the greatest nation on Earth, and I’m hoping that tiny Israel can imitate the UK’s success and we can have some champions.”

He’s stolen more than a page. He’s stolen the best rider.

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Chris Froome: Tour de France champion on his race diet

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