Nicole Cooke hopes her Vision 1 team will develop British riders
While Nicole Cooke's fourth place in the Tour of Flanders in early April may not have been the result that British cycling fans were hoping for, the race represented another step forward in the emergence of British women as a force at the top level.
Lining up alongside Cooke for her Vision 1 Racing team were Gabby Day and Dani King, while Cath Hare was in the Fenixs colours. There was also a Great Britain team featuring several riders who could help spread the burden of success that Cooke has largely carried on her own since turning professional in 2002.
Jessica Allen was the best placed of the GB team riders, coming home with the main bunch in 39th, a good result for a rider still shy of her 20th birthday, albeit one who has already ridden in a World Championship road race. The next GB rider to cross the line was 19-year-old Katie Colclough who, like Allen, rode alongside Cooke in the colours of the Halfords-Bikehut team last season.
Both are part of the transformation of British women in the top flight from objects of curiosity and anomaly to some of the most competitive in the sport.
Cooke has been a one-woman vanguard, and is uniquely placed to comment on the change as she builds her season around defending her title at World Championships in September:
"When I was turning pro in 2002 there was no other rider in a pro-team," said Cooke. "Now we can actually say, yes, there are other riders in the top 20 of the world ranking. Back in my day I was the only one in the top 150.
"In the time that I've been racing the British Championships, it's gone from 30 or maybe 35 in 1999 to now close on around 80-odd, so it's really taken off at the higher level."
Continuing this development was one of the key goals in the formation of Cooke's Vision 1 Racing team, which includes King and Katie Curtis on its roster.
"Hopefully with Vision 1 now being a bridge for young girls from juniors to come up into elite and progress, I really hope that in a couple of years' time Britain will be one of the strongest nations in road cycling," said the 25-year-old from Wick.
That process is aided by the structures being put in place by British Cycling in its development programmes that identify and nurture talent through the national set up. While it may seem odd that nominally amateur national squads should be competing against professional teams, Cooke feels they still have value.
"At the moment there isn't enough depth to have two levels going on in women's racing so the national teams are still needed."
Olympic time trial silver medallist Emma Pooley finished eighth in the World Championships
Emma Pooley is the other British woman who is making a big impact on the continent. Now riding for the Cervelo Test Team, she won at the season-opening GP Etrusca, and is looking to shine at the Fleche Wallonne on 22 April, a race perfectly suited to her climbing skills.
Like Cooke, she has largely made her own way on the continent, and believes that it is a step that the younger riders will have to take sooner or later if they are to become successful.
"She [Cooke] did it independently," said Pooley. "I think at some point you have to stand up for yourself and do it yourself and find a team. Having your hand held by British Cycling
you have to make yourself a bit tougher than that.
"Nicole finished school, went out to Italy, learnt Italian, won the Giro. She's a good example to me in that I didn't think 'Oh I've got to go back to British Cycling'.
"British Cycling have been incredibly supportive, especially with the Olympic products, but behind it I had a Swiss team based where I lived who took me to races and gave me more opportunities."
And it seems that the message is beginning to get through, with a number of young British riders, including Lizzie Armistead and Emma Trott, riding this season in Europe for professional teams in Belgium and Holland.
With the growth in the number of women participating in the sport on a domestic level, British riders could soon be the ones leading the way on the continent. If nothing else, at least Cooke will no longer be the lone Brit at the front of races.