Cooke leads a strong Vision 1 Racing team at the event
World and Olympic road race champion Nicole Cooke's 2009 season gets serious over the next nine days as she takes part in the Tour de l'Aude in France.
Cooke, part of a strong Vision 1 team, is not yet in peak form as she focuses on defending her world title in Switzerland in September.
But Vision 1 team manager Stefan Wyman said: "It is a big, prestigious race.
"For the team, and for Nicole, we are looking for the season to really kick in here."
The 10-stage race, featuring a roll-call of the biggest names in women's cycling, finishes in Limoux on 24 May
The Tour is built around France's "Cathar Country", the area in the south west which merges into the Pyrenees, providing the riders with some of the toughest courses in the calendar.
Also riding for Vision 1 are Australia's Vicky Whitelaw, winner of stage six in 2008, and experienced British riders Gabby Day and Helen Wyman.
A Great Britain squad featuring 2012 Olympic hopes Joanne Rowsell, Anna Blyth and Katie Colclough is taking part.
The decision by British Cycling management to include the young riders for an arduous tour speaks volumes about how highly rated they are
Emma Pooley, who suffered a dip in form in the mountains and missed the time cut on stage seven last year, will expect better this time, riding for the Cervelo Test Team.
However, she may be asked to put her own aspirations aside to help team-mate Kristin Armstrong, the American who beat her in last year's Olympic time trial and who is targeting this race after World Cup victory in the Tour of Berne.
World Cup leader Marianne Vos (DSB Bank) will prove a tough opponent while defending champion, Susanne Ljungskog (Team Flexpoint), will be looking to make it a hat-trick of wins in the race.
The other team to feature a strong British flavour is the Belgian Lotto-Belisol outfit which features Lizzie Armitstead and Emma Silversides.
Armistead finished ahead of Cooke in the recent Tour of Berne but her maturity as a rider, both physically and mentally, will benefit and be tested in equal measure over the nine stages.
Meanwhile German Ina Yoko Teutenberg is aiming to gain the single victory that would make her the holder of the all-time record for stage wins, with 16.
"My form's as good as it usually is at this time of year, so I'll definitely be going for stage wins," she said.
"The Tour de L'Aude's a special race. It's got a very tricky, hilly, windy route, and on top of that it's the first long stage race of the season.
"A lot of it is held on narrow country lanes, which makes it a nervous race for the overall leader. They have to be very attentive because the attacks can go at any moment."