All the talk is of whether the cyclist Mark Cavendish, the BBC’s sports personality of the year, can get Britain’s medal count going on the first day of the London Games with a victory in the Olympic road race. If he were to bring it off, it would be a wonderful moment for the Manxman and, in motivational terms, for the team as a whole. But it would only reproduce the achievement of Nicole Cooke in 2008, when the Welsh woman emerged out of the drizzle under the Great Wall of China to overpower her rivals in the final stretch and take a gritty win that kicked open the gate for a rush of medals.
Three and a half years after Beijing, and six months ahead of London, there is a nice little dilemma brewing up for Dave Brailsford, the head of British Cycling, and his performance manager, Shane Sutton. Will Cooke, the reigning Olympic champion, be given the chance to defend her title on home ground, or will she be asked to stand aside?
At 28, she should be in her prime. But although she followed the Olympic victory by winning the world championship a few weeks later, the last four years have not been consistently kind to her. She has found herself on the outside of British Cycling’s charmed circle, a position underlined by her performance in the World Championships in Copenhagen last autumn, when she was heavily criticised for a lack of team spirit that, it was said, lay behind a failure to match Cavendish’s historic success in the men’s race the following day.
Cooke was one of seven British women riders in Denmark that day. The plan was for the team to work in support of Lizzie Armitstead, then 22 years old, a gifted Yorkshirewoman who had shown outstanding form throughout the season and was judged by the coaches to have the best chance of profiting from a bunch sprint. Among the other riders were Emma Pooley, Sharon Laws and Lucy Martin, then fellow members of Armitstead’s trade team, Garmin‑Cervélo.
The riders did their jobs according to the schedule until towards the end of the last lap, when Armitstead found herself momentarily delayed behind a crash. Cooke, who had been delegated to lead her out for the final sprint, could not see her. Instead of waiting to locate the team leader, she launched her own sprint, finishing just out of the medals in fourth place. Without assistance, Armitstead recovered to cross the line in seventh position, which suggested that with the benefit of the planned assistance she might have achieved her ambition. Tears were shed in the team bus afterwards, and strong language was used back in the team’s hotel later on.
That the dispute was not resolved by those exchanges became clear before Christmas, when Armitstead gave an interview to the monthly magazine Cycle Sport, in which she pulled no punches when asked a couple of blunt questions. How did Nicole ride? “For herself.” How often does Nicole work for other Great Britain team-mates? “I’ve never seen her work for a team-mate.”
It needs to be remembered that unlike Armitstead, who is a product of British Cycling’s Olympic Podium Programme and honed her skills – as did Cavendish – with the superb track team, Cooke became a professional bike racer at a time when Britain had very little going for it, certainly nothing like the beautifully oiled development machine available to today’s talented teenagers. She was offered a chance to join up, but balked when told that she would have to conform to a regime which insisted on participation in the track programme. She wanted to be a road cyclist, and didn’t see the point of spending most of her time in the velodrome. That decision revealed a rift which not even an Olympic gold medal and a world title have managed to close.
Cooke is an independent soul. She turned pro at 19, joining a team in Italy and learning to speak the language in order to be able to function effectively. But she sometimes makes terrible career decisions, and perhaps her rejection of British Cycling’s proposal was the first of them.
In recent years she has flitted from team to team, seldom spending more than a season with any of them, wasting a year on an abortive attempt to start her own outfit and never building profitable relationships with fellow riders.
There is an obvious contrast with Armitstead, Pooley, Laws and Martin, who learned at the end of the year that the Garmin-Cervélo women’s team was being disbanded. At the beginning of January it was announced that all four of them will race this year for a Dutch team, AA Drink-Leontien, an arrangement that will delight British Cycling’s coaches since it keeps them working together all season, strengthening the sort of bonds that could pay off on the Mall in July.
Cyclists like to spend the European winter putting the miles into their legs in warmer climates, and at the moment Cooke is in Australia, where she sprinted to a win in the recent Noosa Grand Prix in Queensland. In Britain in six months’ time, however, she may find herself out in the cold, unable to defend on home territory the title she won so proudly and dramatically – and, she may care to remember, with the help of Pooley and Laws – in a distant land.
richard.williams@ guardian.co.uk twitter.com/@ rwilliams1947