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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 August 2006, 13:18 GMT 14:18 UK
Cycling's unsung saviour
By Simon Austin

At a time when comedian David Walliams is the bookies' favourite to become Sports Personality of the Year, you'd think Britain would cherish its champions.

Yet the achievements of Welsh cyclist Nicole Cooke, winner of the women's Tour de France and current number one in the world road race rankings, seem to have gone virtually unnoticed.

NICOLE COOKE FACTFILE
Nicole Cooke
Born: 13 April 1983
Lives: Wick (Wales) and Zug (Switzerland)
Titles: Grande Boucle Feminine 2006, Thuringen Rundfahrt 2006, Giro d'Italia 2004, World Cup 2003, Commonwealth Games gold 2002
Heroes: Martina Navratilova, Eddie Merckx
Cooke is the first Briton, male or female, to reach the top 20 of the world rankings, let alone top them.

The lack of attention is a sore point for the 23-year-old.

"It's quite hard to find female athletes from Britain who are number one in their sport," she told BBC Sport.

"So it is a little frustrating not to get more of a mention.

"But I have to leave the coverage of my sport to other people. I'm doing all that I can by competing at the highest level."

The financial rewards available to Cooke are also modest.

"No female cyclist earns as much as even an average male cyclist, so we're definitely not doing it for the fame and fortune," she says.

Cooke receives about 675 for winning a World Cup race but this has to be split between her team-mates.

Most of her income comes from sponsorship and endorsements, which are small beer compared to many other sports.

And you're not alone if you've never seen Cooke compete.

I don't think there's anything going on that I can see on the women's side

Nicole Cooke on doping
Most of her races are shown only on specialist websites, although the World Championships in September will be televised on the BBC and the World Cup races in Sweden and Montreal are being shown by BBC Wales.

Yet Cooke insists she is in the sport not because of a quest for pounds and plaudits, but because of a love of cycling and competing.

It is this passion that compels her to undertake a gruelling training programme.

Cooke is based in Switzerland and on a typical training day will cycle for four and a half hours in the morning, which takes her about 120km, and a further hour and a half in the evening.

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Reaching the top of her sport has been a struggle ever since she started cycling at the age of 11.

Growing up in south Wales, where even the biggest under-16 race attracted only seven or eight riders, she found it difficult to find good competition.

So she travelled to Holland every summer from the age of 12 to learn the racing skills and tactics that have stood her in good stead during her career.

Nicole Cooke
Cooke travelled abroad to compete from the age of 12
And this season has been the most successful of her career to date. As well as winning the women's Tour de France, she also claimed the prestigious Thuringen Rundfahrt in Germany and sits atop the rankings.

She is vehemently anti-drugs, refusing to inject even sugars or amino acids or to share a room with anyone who does so.

"To me, injecting anything isn't right," she says. "Our bodies aren't made to have massive infusions of amino acids or sugars.

"There are riders who would do that. I don't think they're the right ethics for sport.

"Once someone's willing to inject something into themselves, what's to stop them going them further down the line?"

In contrast with the men's side, she believes women's cycling is clean.

"I don't think there's anything going on that I can see on the women's side.

"Because there isn't the money and exposure that the men have, the desire or need to take drugs hasn't entered into the minds of many of the women cyclists."



SEE ALSO
Cooke goes top of world rankings
02 Aug 06 |  Cycling
Cooke sensing World title glory
31 Jul 06 |  Cycling
Cooke seals fine Thuringen title
23 Jul 06 |  Cycling
Cooke claims Grande Boucle title
02 Jul 06 |  Cycling
Give it to Walliams!
21 Jul 06 |  Fun and Games
Watch Walliams' Channel swim
04 Jul 06 |  Sport Relief
Inside the mind of Nicole Cooke
21 Sep 05 |  Get Involved


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