An Interview With Nicole CookPosted on: 31 October 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves
Beijing’s Olympic cycling gold medallist Nicole Cook talks to 50connect.
For one dream to come true in a lifetime is more than special; for two dreams to come true in the space of six weeks is barely believable and utterly spellbinding.
Yet that’s what happened to Great Britain cyclist Nicole Cook, who returned from the Beijing Olympics in August as Britain’s first gold medallist and went on to become World Champion less than two months later.
It was a remarkable achievement for Nicole who is already looking forward to defending her Olympic crown when London 2012 arrives in under four years.
“Finishing the race at the Olympics was truly amazing and bringing a gold medal back made all my dreams come true.”
“When you work so hard for something you can sometimes lose focus, but I didn’t. I knew what I wanted, I knew what I could achieve and to see the gold medal round your neck is a magical feeling.”
“A lot’s happened in the past six months. I’m still trying to get my head around it all but I’ve already circled London as an event I’m going to be going all out to win and my preparation starts here.”
Winning gold was always Nicole’s aim but after several failed attempts in the World Championship before, she went to Beijing knowing it was her time to deliver at the top.
“A year before I won in Beijing I was in China taking photos of the course, videoing the track and just getting a bit of a feel for where I’d be racing.”
Nicole knew where she would need to be positioned throughout.
“In the months after and especially in the week leading up to the race I knew where everything was in the course. I knew where I’d have to get into a good position going around a bend and when the next steep climb was."
“I’d gone into World Championship races as the favourite and never delivered. I knew Beijing was the pinnacle of importance and so I tried to stay as calm as possible and take my chances.”
“I had an 18 month training plan all leading to that race; I was exhausted on the line at the end and an emotional wreck and still it's hard to put into words those feelings - I’m just so grateful I’m Olympic champion.”
Since winning at the World Championships, Nicole has slowly warmed down to take a break from the sport she loves before returning early next year to begin her preparation for defending her two crowns.
So how did the girl from Swansea end up in Beijing as the best women’s road racer at the Olympics?
“My first holiday with my family was a cycling holiday when I was six to Devon and I absolutely loved it.”
“From then on I was always on my bike, riding here there and everywhere and our family continued the cycling holidays to the Isle of Wight and Norfolk too.”
Nicole’s love for cycling led to her joining the Cardiff Ajax Cycling Club at 11 and soon after she was racing in her first junior road race.
This was a Cyclo-Cross event, the winter version of Mountain Biking, and within a few months Nicole won her first race - the Welsh Cyclo-Cross Championships - beating all the boys.
Her love of cycling never diminished, riding to and from school everyday without fail and her first senior breakthrough came in 1999.
After spending a month based in Holland in the summer after finishing her GCSEs, Nicole sent shockwaves through the British cycling establishment by winning the gruelling three hour 120km British Elite Road Race Championship, at the age of 16 making her the youngest ever British Senior Champion, male or female.
“I think I surprised myself that day. It was very hard work but although I loved cycling I had a competitive edge that I just couldn’t and still can’t shake - it pushed me on and made me determined to go and win.”
“It’s hard to explain where the drive comes from but it's there and remains very strong. At 16 I was focused and driven and I think the results reflected my passion for cycling.”
The following season, 2000 was the year of the Sydney Olympics but under the rules of the International Federation, Nicole was too young to compete at the Games. In August of that year, Nicole competed in the GP du Quebec in Canada, which many riders were using as final preparation for the Olympics. Here, while still a first year junior, 17-year-old Nicole achieved two podium places, notably second place on the toughest mountain stage that took the riders over two climbs higher than Mount Snowdon.
“To say I was gutted would be a bit of an understatement. I was young, probably a bit naïve but I wanted to be at the Olympics. I thought the Olympics was open to all and everyone so to have someone say you can’t compete because you’re too young was soul-destroying.”
“I picked myself up and it made me a better cyclist and I was even more determined in the saddle. I couldn’t say what would have happened if I had gone to Sydney but in hindsight I think it has probably made me stronger as a person and as a cyclist.”
Nicole had also excelled as a student. Apart from cycling eight miles to school every day with her brother and dad, she passed her first GCSE in maths when she was just 12.
In 2000 Nicole received recognition for her achievements including the International New Comer Award presented by the Sports Writers Association at their annual dinner in London. This was also followed up by the BBC Wales Junior Sports Person of the Year award.
At the beginning of 2002, Nicole signed for the professional cycling team DEIA-Pragma-Colnago and moved to Italy where she would be based for the year. This allowed Nicole to be based at the heart of women’s cycling and race at the highest level.
In only her second professional race, she scored a fantastic win beating the senior World Champion by leaving her rivals on the climbs, and then out-sprinting a small breakaway group at the finish. Her first season continued in the same fashion, including as it did the Commonwealth Title.
“The move to Italy wasn’t really a tough or strange decision to make in cycling terms. Of course I missed my family, my friends and my Welsh luxuries but cycling was my job and moving to the best team in cycling makes perfect business sense.”
In 2003 Nicole really came of age. She won the season long World Cup competition, winning three of the eight rounds and placing high in the others. She narrowly missed out on the World Championship title in a close race in Hamilton, Canada, being beaten in the final sprint and taking the Bronze medal.
But it has been her meteoric accomplishments of 2008 that have seen her hit the headlines on the front and back pages of newspapers across the UK, becoming the first Team GB athlete to pick up a gold medal in Beijing, before picking up her World Championship title just 60 days later.
She has already written and released her own book, outlining the way in which people can begin cycling, join a club and enjoy competition or just the thrill of cycling for health benefits.
“I’ve been stunned by the response back in the UK since we returned. It’s been completely overwhelming and hopefully I’ve done a bit to put road cycling on the map.”
“You don’t have to cycle for competitive reasons; it has huge health advantages and can be very enjoyable. There’s nothing better than cycling down a beautiful country road or alongside a river."
"The numbers of women cycling has increased in the past six months and so as a sport and as an activity to enjoy, cycling really is a great way forward - I'd beg people to give it a try, whatever age they are."
By Mark O'Haire
Nicole Cook’s book Cycle For Life is available from all good bookshops for £14.99 or available online at Amazon for £9.99.
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