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As a former world and Olympic champion, double World Cup winner and victor in races such as the Giro d’Italia Femminile, La Flèche Wallonne, the women’s Tour of Flanders and the Amstel Gold Race, Nicole Cooke is one of the best female riders of all time.
She walked away from the sport in early 2013 and since then has had minimal involvement, bar some intelligent interviews which expressed her views on anti-doping, women’s cycling and minimum pay. She also released an fine autobiography this year, entitled The Breakaway.
This month Cooke travelled to the Taiwan KOM Challenge and while her competitive days are behind her, she was one of the standouts at the event. As might be expected from her palmares and reputation, she earned plenty of attention during her time there, but also impressed with her humility and openness. CyclingTips Dave Everett spent time with her and sat down with her for an interesting video interview; part I of that appears below, as does his own estimation of her character.
Cooke has just completed MBA at Cardiff University and is looking forward to channelling her energy into the second phase of her life. She spoke of her ongoing ambition, and also explained how the qualities which made her the world’s best rider while racing should also stand to her in her new area of focus.
“I am 31, I have come to the end of my first career,” she says in the video. “There is still a lot in me that wants to do new things, so I want to go into business. I am still very new to the business world, having been immersed in cycling, being in that bubble as an athlete for so long.
“What I learned very quickly when I was studying is that my competitive spirit is still with me. No matter if I am in a race or not in a race I am still very competitive. Even at University I was still striving to do my best to get the best grades I could. I am glad about that because it will mean that I will still have that passion of wanting to do things the best I can and wanting to have that satisfaction.”
Many top sportspeople have made the transition to successful business careers, although this tends to happen less often in cycling due to a variety of reasons. These include the intensity of the sport, the time needed to dedicate to it and a somewhat all-consuming nature of it; each of these makes it difficult to combine it with high level study.
Cooke left the sport at a relatively young age, though, and knuckled down to her new life. She has worked hard and has used the same perfectionism she displayed on the bike in the academic sphere.
In addition to that, she told CyclingTips that many of the same attributes she showed on the bike will stand to her in business.
“From the cycling, hopefully the biggest thing that will transfer across will be that kind of problem-solving in cycling. All the logistics, putting together a racing season, a training plan around it. It was almost like solving a massive problem at the start of every season, [in terms of] how I was going to plan things,” she said.
“Thinking two steps ahead, whether if it was in a race, ‘okay, if I attack now, what are my team-mates going to do and what can I do later on to counter them’ or even, within the training programme, ‘if I do this training now, what is going to happen in a couple of days’ time or even in a couple of weeks’ time? Is it worth sacrificing ths race, to train through it, to go into it without a taper to then hopefully bounce back even higher, in better form, three or four weeks later?’
There were all these strategic things which I was always going through the whole time, evaluating my performance and the strategy for going forward.”
Nicole Cooke – “game for a laugh, light-hearted and incredibly switched on”
CyclingTips Dave Everett explains why Nicole Cooke confounded his expectations and left a strong impression on him.
Meeting and hanging out with Olympic and World champions isn’t something that I get to do on a regular occasion, in fact I can say that I’ve only done it once.
While in Taiwan for the Taiwan KOM Challenge I had the privilege to spend several days with Nicole Cooke. She’d been invited over to compete in the savage hill climb event.
In the height of her career, Nicole had a reputation of a being a tad difficult. I’ll admit, this is the Nicole I’d expected to turn up. It’s nice, though, when you’re proven so wrong. The Nicole that I met over the six days I spent with her was one that was game for a laugh, light-hearted and incredibly switched on in many aspects of life and business.
She’d recently received a Masters in Business from Cardiff University and had just had her first book published. Even with all this going on, she came across incredibly humble.
As a group of journalists and pro cyclists that the organisers of the Taiwan KOM had assembled for the event we got on incredibly well and all hung out in the days leading up to the event. Nicole was part of this little group, and was generous with her time.
One highlight that I know several of us will recount is the time that she happily spent when people learnt that she was an Olympic and world champion. Bike shop staff and coffee shop assistants geeking out and asking for signatures never seemed to be a chore for her.
You could also see that the pleasure us journalists got from seeing others get excited at meeting a true legend of the sport actually pleased Nicole. It never came across as it was about her, she seemed to look a little sheepish at the prospect of signing an autograph but also pleased we were happy to see this.
It may seem a stupid thing to say but she came across incredibly grounded. At no point even when I, along with others made jokes at her expense, did she pull out the “I’m a world and Olympic champ” card to put us in our place. She took banter and ribbing as if she was an old friend, even joining in in silly games to help us pass the time on a long taxi ride in to Taipei city.
We even managed to get a “Wales” gang sign like the West side hand signal you see gangsters sporting flashing up on photos and being singled on rides.
When digging a bit deeper and getting a little more serious on matters she came across astute and knew exactly what she understood on matters. She clearly is an exceptionally-intelligent woman. She’s came across as though she’d quite easily put the skills that she has learnt from cycling in to any other walk of life that she would choose to do.
I’m rambling, but the overriding feeling that I came away with the few days I spent cycling, drinking coffee and chatting with Nicole is that of massive respect for her. I felt that she’s a woman that could make a huge change in cycling if that was what she wanted to do.
I’m happy to say that I was so wrong in terms of preconceptions. I’d listened to what the media put out about her in the days when she raced, and judged her before I met her. I’d like to thank her for her time in making this video interview and thanks too for proving me wrong.
Part II of this video interview, in which Nicole Cooke speaks about the state of women’s cycling, can be found here.