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Page last updated at 18:40 GMT, Tuesday, 24 March 2009

All eyes on Cooke

Nicole Cooke
Cooke is the World and Olympic road race Champion

By Alex Murray

While most people will have heard about Mark Cavendish's win in Milan-San Remo, fewer will be aware of Emma Pooley's success the previous day in the GP Costa Etrusca.

The event in Italy consists of three one-day races, and marks the opening of hostilities for the elite women, whose one-day season is shaped largely by the UCI World Cup Series.

That series begins with the Trofeo Alfredo Binda (29 March), a race which Pooley won last year.

There is, however, only one rider that spectators and riders alike will be looking for on the start list: reigning World and Olympic Champion, and twice winner of the race Nicole Cooke.

Cooke is now entering her prime and has many potentially glorious years ahead of her

It's difficult to overstate just how incredible Cooke's record is.

At the age of 25 she has won just about every major race and title there is; indeed it's quicker to name the ones she is lacking than the ones she has won: World Time Trial Champion.

Much like Eddy Merckx in his prime, Nicole may be one of the most-heavily marked riders in the peloton but she is still capable of simply riding away from the opposition when she wants to.

Just as she did in the Tour of Flanders (5 April) in 2007 when she led the field home with Zulfiya Zabirova and Marianne Vos gasping in her wake. The course may be shorter but many of the climbs are the same ones the men race over, including the Muur at Geraardsbergen, where Cooke made her decisive move.

One race which Cooke has yet to win is the Ronde van Drenthe (13 April), where last year Team High Road put two riders on the podium: Chantal Beltman and Ina-Yoko Teutenberg.

The course turns like the cracks in crazy paving, and features stretches of cobbles.


La Fleche Wallonne Feminine (22 April) takes place on the same course as the men's race, though one lap shorter, and in the last few years has been dominated by Cooke and Vos, with Judith Arndt seemingly ever the bridesmaid.

The duel between Cooke and Vos is a battle that should remain at the heart of elite women's cycling for many years to come.

Arndt was also thwarted at the Berner-Rundfahrt (10 May) where it was double World Champion Susanne Ljungskog who escaped to victory ahead of a hard-chasing pack.

As the stage-racing season gets underway, the one-day calendar becomes a little more sparse, with only the Montreal World Cup (30 May) and the Swedish Open in Vargarda (2 August) to fill the summer months before the GP Plouay (22 August). Neither Montreal or Vargarda are long established, indeed the latter has only been in the calendar for a couple of years.

Plouay is, however, a race with a distinguished history. Noemi Cantele will be the rider for Cooke to beat. Cantele is twice a winner and it was defeat to Cantele in 2007 that removed some of Cooke's cushion in the World Cup Series, although it was injury that was to deny her the title.

The final race of the season is the Rund um die Nurnberger Altstadt (13 September), where in 2007 Vos pulled off an unlikely World Cup Series win as Cooke suffered with an injured knee that brought her season to a premature end.

A less determined rider would have accepted the defeat from the comfort of the treatment table but Cooke, as is her way, was determined to defend her 80-point lead on the road.

Noemi Cantele
Noemi Cantele will be the rider for Nicole to beat

This season, the competition among the elite women will undoubtedly be closer than in previous years, as the sport emerges from the shadow of its male counterpart.

While there is some distance until the World Cup Series is on an equal billing with the male Pro-Tour competition in terms of coverage, it certainly makes for a much more coherent strand to the one-day season.

Women's teams have smaller rosters, usually less than a dozen riders, which is great for fans as it means that the big races tend to feature all of the top riders on the start list.

While many will ride for their trade teams, it is still common for national squads to be entered both for the benefit of established names and emerging talent in need of a ride.

For the opening race of the season, almost a third of the teams entered are national squads, including those from parts of the cycling heartland such as France and the Netherlands.

Team High Road has become Team Columbia and, like the Cervelo Test Team, it benefits from the profile of the men's team both in terms of funding and equipment.

Both feature a number of top riders and will be the source of some of the toughest competition to Cooke's own Vision 1 Racing team which mixes established talent with a clear goal of developing young British riders such as Dani King and Katie Curtis.

Through the achievements of Cooke and Pooley on the road, and Victoria Pendleton, Rebecca Romero and Shanaze Reade on the track, women's cycling is approaching a point where it can no longer be credibly considered the poor relation.

There is no doubt that Cooke's achievements have been underplayed in comparison to male riders who have won considerably less, but garnered acres more media coverage.

Hopefully this will be corrected as Cooke now enters her prime.

see also
Cavendish claims Milan-San Remo
22 Mar 09 |  Cycling
Cooke named Sportswoman of Year
12 Feb 09 |  Sport Homepage
Cooke battles to world road title
27 Sep 08 |  Cycling
Cooke grabs first GB gold medal
10 Aug 08 |  Cycling
Cooke sure of new team's future
17 Dec 08 |  Cycling

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