Interview with Baden Cooke
Baden Cooke will forever be remembered as the green jersey winner at the 2003 Tour de France, a feat he achieved at just 24 years of age in only his second Tour. Tipped as the prodigal sprinter to take it up to Erik Zabel and Alessandro Petacchi alongside countryman Robbie McEwen, Cooke soon slipped from the radar of the average July-focused cycling fan.
He remained thereabouts taking consistent wins with Unibet in 2006 and 2007 but the political drama surrounding the team (it was refused entry to the Tour de France amongst other races because France banned foreign gambling advertising and Unibet was a Swedish company) meant he never got to show his wares on the biggest stage.
Cooke then progressed through Barloworld, Vacansoleil, Saxo Bank and finally Orica-GreenEdge where he performed his role as an experienced classics rider and sprint train specialist.
There is little point, however, in telling a story for a rider who tells it best himself. Cooke exudes passion and enthusiasm and his self-proclaimed ‘gift of the gab’ makes conversing with him almost as exciting as watching him in the final kilometres of a race.
You had an unconventional pathway to Europe via the American Mercury Pro Cycling Team whom you rode for in 2000 and 2001. How did that come about?
Well it was sort of bizarre, I was in the Australian National Team — well what’s now the U23 team [also known as the Jayco World Tour Academy] — and I rode with a composite team at a race in South Africa called the Rapport Tour in 2000. It was half professionals and then a bunch of other guys like me. Telekom, Farm Frites, FDJ, all those guys were there and I won a stage and got quite a few offers after that.
I told all these teams that I wanted to turn pro immediately, this was like in February, and they were all looking at me like I was stupid! FDJ said “We’ll take you from the first of January next year,” but I was very impatient. So Farm Frites said “OK we’ll take you from the 1st of June,” and at the time they had [Peter] van Petegem, it was a really good team in the top division.
But for whatever reason Henk Vogels rang me up and said “We’ve got a team in the States; we’re only second division at the moment but we’re going much bigger next year,” which they did, “and we want you to come on.”
So I chose the smaller team in the States over a division one European team and as it turned out Farm Frites folded in the middle of the year. So it was a bit of luck, but then the next year Mercury folded as well.
But you had already taken two stage wins at the Tour de l’Avenir in 2001. Were they what scored you the ride with FDJ for 2002?
Well FDJ were always going to take me — they were going to take me for 2001 anyway but I wouldn’t wait so I went off and had a sort of year and a half deal with Mercury. During those 18 months I was with Mercury I won about 25 races, most of them were in the States but there were still wins in Europe and Australia [including three stages at the 2000 Herald Sun Tour].
So at that point FDJ were tripping over themselves to sign me as fast as possible. Then that worked out well with them and the rest is history.
You got your foot in the door with FDJ and then you smashed it open straight away at the Tour de France in 2002. You were mixing it up in all those sprints and almost getting stage wins in your first Tour, did you have to pinch yourself at that stage?
Yeah I did. I was pretty young to even ride the Tour, but before I even signed with FDJ, I … I had quite a hard head and I said “I’m only signing if I do the Tour next year,” and they said “Oh well you’re a bit too young,” but I said “Well I’m going to do it … and that’s it!”
Then I got a third behind [Oscar] Freire and got second on the Champs Elysees and ended up fourth in the green jersey that year. Then I was pretty sure of myself that I was going to come back to win the green jersey next year even though other people would have been thinking that I was crazy.
When you came back in 2003 after a number of top ten stage finishes in 2002, did you find that you received more respect in the bunch sprints?
I was pretty ruthless in the sprints. I wasn’t naturally a sprinter; I was more a ‘strong guy’ and I made up for that by being fairly fierce and not really taking any sh*t from anyone. And I think a lot of the times there are certain riders you know you don’t mess with and I was one of those.
Sometimes I’d then get a better run to the line whether it was because I was bashing my way through or people were just staying out of my way.
Hearing you talk about being ruthless, it reminded me of the fourth stage of the Giro d’Italia in 2005 when Paolo Bettini ran you into the barriers. If the green jersey was perhaps the happiest moment of your career, was the Bettini incident the unhappiest?
Yeah, it’s pretty f***ed what happened. It wasn’t just the certain stage win that he stole from me, it was the actions afterwards. I ended up getting ragged by the Italian media because he said “Oh it is Cooke’s fault, he fell off,” so the Italian media — because they loved him — blamed me for him losing the stage!
But I took the long way around, he was in the middle of the road and it was actually curving around to the right and I took the long way around him. If anything he should have been cutting in to the right barrier but he cut to the left barrier.
Then he’s in the media saying that I cost him the stage, but the next day when there was no media around he came up to me and said “Oh I’m so sorry, if I can ever help you win a race I will,” and I’m like “Well how about you start by telling the media that you accept responsibility for the crash”. I had people booing me and yelling at me from the side of the road!
There’s a great photo of you walking over the line as he’s trying to apologise and you’re doing your best to ignore him, what did it take to resist throttling him?
I had full intentions of punching him straight in the face and I actually regret not doing it. I feel like a bit of a soft c*ck letting him get away with it. I was worried that if I punched him that I would be suspended for the Tour de France.
That all went through my mind pretty quickly; looking back I regret not popping him in the face.
After the green jersey, that must have made contract negotiations easier for a good period afterwards?
Yeah, well I signed a three-year deal with FDJ. As it turned out I only stayed two years and then the contract was broken and I went to Unibet.
And you got caught out with Unibet…
Yeah that was f**ed — that was a bit of a turning point in my career. I was still going really well and I was winning my five races a year still but the problem with the sponsorship and the team getting left out of the Tour, I spent a few years where even though I was going well and winning races, I wasn’t at the Tour.
That’s obviously a really pivotal moment; do you think if you had been at the Tour in ’06-’07 with good team support you could have won the green jersey again?
Anything’s possible … it’s hard to say you’ll win the green jersey, but I was going really strong and I could have at least been fighting for stage wins. But if you’re at home, you can’t win anything can you?
You’re one of many professional cyclists living in Monaco. What’s the camaraderie like in your local bunch?
It’s bloody fantastic! I’ve been here the longest out of all the riders now. [Brad] McGee and I came here together in 2004 and he’s moved on. But my ‘gang’ has sort of turned over a few times — Matty Wilson is gone, Stuey [O’Grady] is gone, and now there are more younger guys like Matt Goss and Michael Matthews.
Just in my building alone there’s Geraint Thomas, [Tim] Kerrison the trainer from Sky, Simon Gerrans and one other guy, and that’s just in our building.
It’s a great bunch here; there’s sort of little cliques, heaps of other professional sportsmen ride with us as well. All the Formula One and Moto-GP riders are all into riding to keep fit so on the easier days we’ll often be riding with all of those guys.
You might be at the corner with Jenson Button and David Coulthard so it’s pretty cool in that sense. The Sky guys train together and I mostly train with the GreenEdge guys, but there’s also Thor Hushovd and Philippe Gilbert — everyone’s here.
Back to Matthews and Goss, who do you think is really going to step up for Orica-GreenEdge in the sprints over the next few years?
I mean, you tell me! They’ve got Goss who is a proven champion and I’ll always back him. He hasn’t had his greatest season but he hasn’t been far off it. I would never, never doubt him to be at the top of his game again.
Bling: I’ve been helping him out this year. He was pretty green when he came to the team but he is one of the most phenomenally talented athletes I’ve ever seen. There was a lot of stuff he still needed to learn so I took him under my wing this season and just gave him little tips. Not coaching him — he’s got his own coach — but just with a few tips. Mate, he improved straight away.
Then you’ve got Caleb Ewan coming in who is probably the most exciting young guy coming up so the directeurs have got their work cut out for them.
What about the GreenEdge classics team? They’ve lost yourself, [Sebastian] Langeveld and O’Grady, and with only Mathew Hayman coming in, do you think their classics reserves will be a bit lower next year?
Well that’s a certainty. They don’t lack talent, but anyone that’s ridden the classics knows that it’s mostly experience. Hayman has a truckload of experience, he’ll be a great captain and as far as back-up they’ve got the guys that can do it. But you’ve got to know the roads, you’ve just got to know what’s going on.
I know those roads like the back of my hand in Belgium — I could do Tour of Flanders with a blindfold on! They’ve got a few guys with good experience but I think they are maybe a year or two away from really going well at the Classics.
You excelled in your first two Tours de France — and you’ve mostly answered this already — but I’d still like your thoughts. For people who are a bit more removed from cycling they see those early results and then not much afterwards. What was the biggest factor stopping you from continuing on with those early performances?
Well, I did focus more on the Classics. When I went to Unibet I did want to win a Classic, but they’re not that easy to win [laughs]! I was around about the mark in a lot of them; fourth at Paris-Tours, top ten at Gent-Wevelgem three or four times, sixth at Het Volk. I was there or thereabouts. But to win them is just so bloody hard.
But I was always picking up wins — in 2004 I won around nine races but because I had a bad Tour people were already saying I’d gone off the boil … but I won nine f***ing races! Some people don’t win nine races in their whole career [laughs]. Even after that I was picking up four or six wins a year but I think being so successful so young, the bar was set too high.
I think we’re seeing a little bit of the same thing with Gossie right now; he was so good when he was so young, he’s still going really well but people are saying he’s lost his edge. It’s just so far from the truth — he’s so good and it’s no accident he got there. He’s been trying different training methods and things like that.
Anyone who doubts a guy of his calibre is stupid. He’ll be back kicking arse really soon.
So what got you interested in being a rider agent?
Well I thought about being a directeur but I wasn’t overly keen on just sitting in a car all day, so being an agent appealed as something a bit more interesting. I feel like I’ve got a bit of the ‘gift of the gab’ and I know all the teams.
I’ve been in half the teams and most of the directeurs I’ve had direct relationships with and the other half of the directeurs I raced against. So it just made more sense to me to use those contacts and my personality as an agent.
And I’d assume that once you get the business up and running it would be easier to maintain a steady income?
Definitely, but that being said I’m probably looking down the barrel of two years where I’ll be making a big investment that will hopefully pay off in years to come. I want to base it in Monaco where lots of the big riders live, but most of those riders are still under contract.
So even if a rider comes to me now they have to fulfil their payments to their current manager so I don’t get paid until I secure them their first contract.
And do you have any riders lined up?
Basically, I’ve landed on my feet. I’ve met up with two people in Monaco, one is a contract expert and the other is a fully fledged sports agent. I will run the cycling department and the sports agent will run the soccer and basketball departments and we may even open it up for someone else to manage another sport such as tennis. It’s going to be a big firm.
I then need to complete the UCI exam — until then I can legally only call myself a ‘cyclist representative’ — and just make sure things are done in the right order so I don’t put anybody’s nose out of joint.
If this option was available to me when I came to Monaco ten years ago it just would have made my life an absolute breeze. I’ll be the guy out there talking to bike riders and teams and doing what I do best, and our legal department will be on the ball with the advantages of basing yourself in different locations, what’s legal, what’s not, where you should pay your taxes and so on, they know everything.
The first five years of my career all I did was make mistakes with my residency or my tax and we can now just avoid all of that.
We are now seeing a lot of doping stories surfacing that date back to around the time you arrived in Europe. Were you aware of what was going on with other teams around you when you arrived?
I mean everyone knew, you didn’t have to be a bike rider to know what was going on. I was very lucky because the majority of my time I spent in French teams where there was no systematic doping, that made it a lot easier to get through unscathed.
If you’d been part of a Festina or a ONCE, it would have been a lot harder to stay away from it. So I feel blessed that I was never really confronted with it … but I was well aware of it.
Do you think with Brian Cookson taking over the UCI that the sport in general is moving in the right direction?
The sport is already clean … well before he came along. The sport has been clean for a few years now. Probably the last … I don’t know, the last few Tours de France have been won clean and the majority of riders are clean. It’s just a complete shift in how people think.
Once upon a time if someone tested positive the other riders would say ‘Oh bad luck mate.’ Whereas now when someone goes positive they’re getting ragged out on twitter with people saying they hate their guts and they want to kill them [laughs].
So it’s been a culture shift and it had to happen. But it’s been amazing; I honestly did not think it would ever happen.
With any sport or any avenue, any part of life, there is cheating. Someone is cheating on their tax, someone is cheating on their wife, someone is cheating on something, and there is always going to be five to ten percent that do it. But the majority are clean, and that’s it.
The feature image is another shot of Cooke and McEwen’s tussle on the final stage of the 2003 Tour de France. Click here to see a list of Cooke’s results throughout his career.