Nicole Cooke has already proven that she is one of the world's top female cyclists. But after a disappointing end to an otherwise good season, the 24 year-old from Wales is back in training for 2008. She's aiming at gold at next year's Olympics while heading a new British Cycling-backed professional team.
That goes together with her ideas for developing women's cycling, although she clearly doesn't think much of the men's side of the sport right now.
Read it all in BikeRadar's exclusive two-part interview with one of Britain's top athletes.
"I think they'll be something massive."
Nicole Cooke is nervous and excited as she talks about her big goal: next year's Olympic Games in Beijing. After finishing fifth in the road race in Athens in 2004, Cooke knows that an Olympic gold is within her grasp.
We're discussing this over a drink in the bar of One Aldwych, a swish hotel just off The Strand in London. Nicole is here with one of her personal sponsors, nutrition company EAS. It's been a long day of interviews already, but Nicole is quite relaxed as she devotes an hour of her time to us.
Nicole comes from a cycling family, and says she started when she was four. "My dad would ride to work every day. He got one of his tandems he had left over from his racing days set up so we could go riding on that. I had kiddie cranks on the back. He got another one so my brother could have a tandem so we would go on tandem holidays. It was a real family activity. It was fun, it was a hobby at that stage."
She entered her first race when she was 11, after getting a flavour for it by following the Tour de France. "When the opportunity came to do my first race I was really excited about it and gave it everything," she says. "It was something that I really enjoyed and could see a future in it.
"When I was 12 the following summer, I went to Holland and did a youth stage race there, and that was racing against the boys in age category races. And that was when it dawned upon me that there was more to cycling than I'd seen in Great Britain - which wasn't much. We were 12 and we had jerseys, flowers, a commentator with a big microphone making lots of noise, motorbike outriders, closed circuits. It was a real eye opener."
Cooke progressed from there, winning her first (of eight so far) British elite women's road championship when she was just 16. She went on to win the junior world road race championship in 2000, following that with three junior world titles in 2001: road race, time trial and mountain bike cross country. Despite winning the latter, she was always determined to be a road racer.
"I put everything into the mountain bike races but it just wasn't the same type of tactical element that I really liked about the road racing. I still do a bit of mountain biking for fun and I'll keep it that way."
Unlike some junior world champions, who never seem to make it in the elite ranks, Cooke just kept getting better. Since turning pro in 2002, she has won most of the major races in women's cycling: the world cup twice, Grande Boucle Féminine (women's Tour de France), Giro d'Italia Femminile (women's Tour of Italy), Commonwealth Games road race and the British road championships eight times. The only things that have eluded her have been the road world championships and the Olympics. She wants to have a serious tilt at both of those next year.
"Next year the Olympics is the key event so my training is built up to it," she says. "I won't go for the world cup series, just do the world cups that fit in with my training."
A mixed season
Cooke nearly added a third world cup title to her palmares this year, but failed at the death when her closest rival, Dutch prodigy Marianne Vos, took double points for winning the final round in Nürnberg. That was enough for Vos to move ahead of Cooke in the overall standings. "I've got a lot of respect for her," says Cooke of Vos. "She's a very strong cyclist. She's shown she has got the all round ability as a road racer which makes her a very similar match to me."
Cooke did race the last round, but was severely hampered by a knee injury that she had been nursing for over a month. That needed surgery, which Cooke underwent successfully in mid-September. Such are the fortunes of athletes.
"I think the things I achieved this season were fantastic," Cooke says. "Two world cups, the Grande Boucle, so some really big wins in the season. But without a doubt it didn't end as I wanted it to. I lost the world cup in the last round and couldn't ride the world championships so it was a very disappointing end of the season."
She started experiencing pain in her knee in August. "It wasn't a major problem at the start and we thought we could deal with it," she says. "At the Plouay world cup at the end of August I got second and it was going great. But then in the space of two weeks it just stopped working. It was inflammation of the fat pad in the patella tendon. It was getting caught on every pedal stroke.
"I'd taken time off before then, so I was really being as conservative as I could be. Then after Plouay it was getting difficult and deteriorating. Even after taking a day off and trying to ride I wasn't getting very far down the road and it was hurting. We were trying what we could but there wasn't really a solution apart from stopping and having the operation."
Fortunately, the operation went well and Cooke says she doesn't feel any pain now. That's a good thing, because she's currently in her building phase for next season, using her base in Switzerland to do endurance work. "Right now at this stage of the winter and because of being off, I'm keeping within my limits. Two days a week I'll have off, usually Monday and Friday, no cycling on those days. Then I ride for three and a half to four hours on the other days.
"I'll ride on mixed terrain in the hills and get some variety in that way. By the time I get to December those rides will be longer. In January I'll go to Australia for a racing block, and probably do some club races there to get the racing rhythm back. It's all building up towards being good for March so it's really progressing itself that way. What I'm doing now will carry me through the season."
It's a long season, too, with Cooke aiming at racing at a high level from March through September. But that's not daunting for her:
"Keeping motivated is not really a problem because I love cycling anyway so going out and riding is lots of fun," she says of the mental side of it. "There's always something coming up that's a new challenge or a new race. At the start of the year I'll have the world cup races, then in May/June some stage races so there's progression in the racing to keep the interest and motivation there. And the Olympics are just around the corner...
Faster against the clock
Cooke is not just working on pure fitness. She's trying to improve "across the whole range of elements of cycling."
One of these is time trialling, where technique and position play a vital role in how fast you go. Cooke has been steadily getting better at this discipline over the past three seasons, and is looking forward to putting her Andy Walser-built TT machine to the test in 2008. Besides being an important part of stage racing, it gives her a second chance at Olympic gold.
"When I first started in the senior ranks I knew I couldn't be competitive with the big time trialists straight away because of my age - I was 19-20," Cooke explains. "There wasn't the benefit of putting effort into all of the time trial preparation."
After finishing fifth at the world championships last year, Cooke realised that she was making progress. That paid dividends this year: "I think my time trial when I beat [double world time trial champion] Karin Thürig this season at the Grande Boucle, that was a very pleasing win for me."
As she gets older, Cooke should improve against the clock. She not only has next year's Olympics to aim for, she also has the 2012 Games in London. She won't even be 30 by then.
In part II of our interview next week, Nicole Cooke talks about women's cycling and doping, and she doesn't pull her punches.