Racing Career

Nicole Cooke is a British professional racing cyclist who made history in 2008 becoming the first rider to win both the Olympic and World Championship Road Race in the same year. Nicole became known as a fierce competitor and great all rounder, triumphing in the one day Classics as well as Grand Tours.

Growing up in Wick, south Wales, Nicole started racing at 11 and was soon competing in all disciplines, from mountain biking to track, hill climbs to cyclo-cross, to take advantage of all racing opportunities as races were few and far between. With dreams to one day ride the Tour de France, Nicole was already training with determination, fitting in as many hills as possible to any training ride, including the daily cycle to school, and seeking to learn the tactic elements of road racing by racing in Holland once a year to compete in youth category stage races. At 16, Nicole was able to compete in the 1999 Elite British Road Race Championships due to the situation of there being no Junior (U18), or Youth (U16) British Road Race Championships for women at the time. The race became a dual between Yvonne McGregor, a former World Hour Record holder, and Nicole, with the pair locked in a breakaway together for over 60km. While Yvonne tried to draw on her endurance to wear Nicole down, Nicole was able to respond to each attack and eventually sprinted to victory and her first British Road Race title.

Curiously, shortly after that British Road Race Championship a new rule was created by the UCI stating that competitors in the Olympic Road Race needed to be 19 years of age, which happened to rule Nicole out of competing in the Sydney Olympics. A lawyer took up Nicole’s case to work with British Cycling who would be the organisation to challenge the rule on Nicole’s behalf. Nicole continued her progress, winning a British Elite Road Race Series event in early 2000, again beating Yvonne McGregor into second place after another breakaway dual, and the other members of the British Olympic squad who were also racing. Unfortunately British Cycling did not see the need to address this rule immediately, and offered to “bring it up informally with the UCI in October 2000”, after the Sydney Olympics.

In 2000 Nicole made her international debut. Still a Junior (U18), Nicole raced at the Grand Prix de Quebec stage race and lined up against the reigning Olympic Road Race Champion from the Atlanta Olympics, Jeannie Longo (FRA). On the toughest mountain stage Nicole was in the leading group of five riders and finished in second place, beating Jeannie on her preferred terrain, and scored another two podium finishes to finish in fifth place overall. At the Junior World Championships, Nicole won an unprecedented four Junior World Championship titles in two years across road (twice), time trial and mountain biking.

Looking forward to turning professional, Nicole chose to focus on road racing where her passion for the tactical element of racing combined with the challenge of the demanding physical requirements of speed and endurance would put her to the ultimate test. As the only cycling events broadcasted on TV in Britain was a daily highlights programme of the men’s Tour de France, and perhaps the Olympic Games, Nicole learnt as much as possible about the women’s road racing scene through the internet and speaking to a handful of British women who had raced abroad, as well as learning Italian. In 2002 Nicole moved to Italy aged 18 and embarked on her first full racing season. Nicole’s attacking style and tactical skills served her well, and she won two of her first four races, and later that year Nicole won Gold for Wales in the Commonwealth Games Road Race held in Manchester, Great Britain.

In 2003, Nicole earned the title “Queen of the Classics” becoming the youngest winner of the World Cup Series including winning four World Cup races in a row, The Amstel Gold Race, Fleche Wallone, GP Montreal and GP Plouay. Nicole finished the season by winning Bronze at the World Championship Road Race in Hamilton, Canada.

Grand Tour Winner

In 2004, Nicole raced her first Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia. It was the only race her Acca Due O team had not won, and for an Italian team this race held a special place in their hearts. The team came to the ready to race, Diana Ziliute (LTU) got the team off to the perfect start by winning the Prologue, and the team finished a close second to race favourite Italian Fabiana Luperini’s team in the Team Time Trial. As expected, the decisive stage was the mountain top finish to the Madonna del Ghisallo, and it was going to be a thriller – a head to head dual between four time Giro d’Italia winner and three time Tour de France champion Fabiana, and Nicole, just a few seconds splitting the two riders in the General Classification. Fabiana started attacking already on the lower slopes of the mountain, looking to wear Nicole down, Nicole responded each time, not giving anything away. Nicole had driven up the climb twice the night before, after the previous day’s stage, making notes and studying the changes in gradient, she was confident she knew the climb and some options of where to make her own move, but didn’t know exactly how it would play out and how Fabiana would respond to an attack. With 1.5km to go Nicole launched her attack as the gradient steepened, breaking away with a small lead on the chasers, eventually Fabiana wilted and Nicole rode to a solo stage victory and into the Maglia Rosa. At 21, Nicole became the youngest winner of the Giro d’Italia, and it was also the fastest edition of the race on record! After the race finish in Milan, the Acca Due O team was welcomed back to their home base in Treviso with a huge celebration that night as sponsors, town mayors, friends and family of the team, and even the local Alpini corps, put on a great party to celebrate their Giro success.

A few weeks later Nicole represented Great Britain at the Olympic Games in Athens finishing 5th to Sara Carrigan of Australia. It was a huge disappointment at the time, but a valuable learning experience, particularly to see the impressive performance of the Australian team who were the only nation with two riders in the final breakaway. Sara and Oenone Wood were able to play out their numerical advantage to perfection, placing Sara up the road with Oenone backing her up in the chasing group that Nicole was part of, to give Australia the best chance of victory.

2005 saw more World Cup victories and another World Championship medal, a Silver in Madrid, Spain. In early 2006 as Nicole was preparing to defend her Commonwealth Games Road Race title in Melbourne, Australia, the Welsh Cycling Union had the idea to put their focus on the men’s event, sending a full team of 6 for the men’s Road Race, and just Nicole as the sole Welsh rider for the women’s Road Race. It made for a fairly one-sided race, Team Australia dominated the race winning Gold and Silver, and Nicole’s Bronze medal was “as good as gold” for her in the circumstances. Unfortunately the resources dedicated to the Welsh men’s team resulted in no riders finishing the race, and some awkward questions for the Welsh management from the Australian press.

Back in Europe and supported by her new Swiss based Univega Team, Nicole won three World Cup rounds and the World Cup Series overall. That summer, Nicole became the first Briton to win the Tour de France, riding in Yellow, alone, over the summit of Mont Ventoux, and going on to win the stage and clinch her first Tour de France victory. At the 2006 World Championships in Salzburg, Austria, Nicole won Bronze and finished the season as World Number 1, also leading her Univega Team to Number 1 in the World Team rankings.

2007 started well, with victory in the Geelong World Cup and Tour of Flanders World Cup and a successful defence of the Tour de France, this time with a tactical ride to defend her Yellow Jersey against multiple attacks on the final stage that included the Col du Tourmalet and Col d’Aspin. Nicole also lead the World Rankings by the largest distance to second place during 2007. Unfortunately, Nicole’s season was cut short by a knee injury and after leading the World Cup series from the first round, Nicole lost the series lead at the very last round.

Olympic Champion

Nicole started 2008 as one of the favourites for the Olympic Road Race on paper, but had a difficult start to the season with the knee injury continuing for most of the winter. Nicole gradually built up towards the Olympics, honing her preparation on training courses at home that recreated the same challenges she would face in Beijing. On the start line in central Beijing, heavy rain had already caused some parts of the course to flood, and at 136km this was going to the longest of any women’s competition at the Beijing Olympic Games.

“I knew I had to be very careful to save as much energy as possible for the finale, so I was very selective about which attacks to cover or not. The course included two long ascents which would suit the climbers, but the finish was a short 800m hill that suited my punchy style. As we neared the summit of the final climb the attacks were becoming continuous with one rider then another launching all-out attacks that were whittling down the bunch to just the strongest. Over the summit Austrian rider Christiane Soeder attacked, and although I was already on the limit I knew I had to be in that group that was forming.

“I sprinted so hard across the gap to the leading group to try not to give anyone in the peloton a free ride across to the break. I bridged the gap which made five of us in the break with only a handful of seconds lead on the peloton. I encouraged the others to work together, doing a huge turn on the front to get the speed up as high as possible for the descent, and then we all worked together to share the pace.

“With 1 km to go at the bottom of the descent there was a series of turns through a toll booth and I eased off, there had been a big crash here the lap earlier and I didn’t want to take any chances. My breakaway companions went full speed round the corners so I had to launch into a chase, and as I was closing, with about 600m to go, I had to decide how I would play the finish. I was currently moving faster than they were, and the road was about to turn to the right… I jumped past the group to take the inside line on the right had side of the road, I was taking the shortest route round the corner, carrying my speed, but now I was in front with 250m to go, much earlier than I would like especially given the uphill finish. There was no choice, I had to give it everything and focused on that finish line and riding as hard as I possibly could to keep my advantage. Emma Johansson (SWE) and Tatiana Guderzo (ITA) started to close and I had to make another kick with 100 meters to go. Those last metres were excruciating, it was only after I passed the line and double checked that I was definitely first, that I knew it was true. I had done it! I had become Olympic Champion!”

Nicole’s Olympic gold medal was the first by a Welsh athlete in 36 years, and the first Olympic gold medal won by a Welsh woman, it was also Great Britain’s 200th Gold Medal in the history of the Olympic Games. The Sports Writers Association recognised this gold medal ride as the “Outstanding Performance of the Year, 2008”, and ESPN named Nicole their “2008 Female Athlete of the Year”. In the 2009 New Year’s Honours Nicole was awarded the Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to sport.

World Champion

Six weeks later Nicole completed a unique double, winning the World Road Race Championships in Varese, Italy, to become the first rider in history to win the Olympic and World Championship road race in the same year.

In 2009 resplendant in the famous Rainbow Jersey as world champion, Nicole achieved victories in Spain and Italy, and added the Giro di Trentino to her palmares. Nicole treated her home fans to a great display of racing to win the British Road Race Championship in Abergavenny, Wales, this was her 10th British Elite Road Race title.

At the 2010 World Championships Nicole was in a two-rider breakaway coming into the finish, Nicole launched her sprint for the line but was caught in the last 50 meters by the chasing group of three riders, resulting in fourth place for Nicole. A year later, it was fourth place again at the 2011 World Championships, this time in a bunch sprint. At the London 2012 Olympic Games Lizzie Armitstead won a Silver medal for Great Britain in the Road Race, with Nicole finishing in the main group.

After a glittering career, in which Nicole won every major title in Road Racing and set many records during her time at the top of the sport, Nicole signed off in the same way she raced, giving it her all with an honest and powerful retirement statement that you can read here.

For full details of Nicole’s results, read her palmares here.