Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Nicole Cooke retires from cycling with a bang

I've just been reading British cyclist Nicole Cooke's retirement speech and well, you need to read this.

It's long but a crucial look at what's wrong with modern sport's attitude to doping but also a powerful comment on why feminism really needs to look more carefully at sport. 

Nicole Cooke MBE - double champion at the Olympics and world championships 2008, winner of Tour de France Feminine, Giro d’Italia and 10-time British champion. 

Thank you all for coming here today to be with me and hear what I am going to say. I am here to announce my retirement and in one sense that is a simple thing to say and a simple story, but given that the sport I have given my life to has become more 'fantastic' than any soap opera and it has just given witness to the greatest ever sporting fraud, about which we get new and wider revelations each day, I thought it appropriate to share with you some of my experiences and, importantly some ideas for the future. And, understanding that for the duration of my career the sport has been through the darkest years, I want to both reflect and look ahead. I hope that in some small way, my experiences can help.

I am going to recount one of the aspects of my past career that few know about or understand, but about which I am most proud. I am going to talk about the abuse of drugs in the sport of cycling and my experiences and then I am going to talk about changes in the sport and look ahead at one overlooked but absolutely vital aspect.

I am very happy with my career. I have many, many happy memories over what has been my life's work since I was 12. I am now 29 so that is 17 years of my life that I have enjoyed and now I am bringing to a close. I have won every race and more that I dreamed I could win. As a little girl of 12, after beating all the boys at the Welsh cyclo cross championships, I stood in front of the TV cameras and stated to the BBC reporter — when asked the question -- what would you like do in cycling — I answered "I want to win the Tour de France and win the Olympic Road Race" At 12 I dreamed like every child. I hoped that some of my dreams could come true. You cannot imagine how happy I am to be here with you now, with my dreams fulfilled. I am very happy.

As Jon said – I have quite a collection of tee-shirts. Yellow ones, Pink ones, ones with rainbow bands and ones with coloured rings on. As I bring down the curtain on my career, I want to share with you something that I take the greatest pride in, which now, we could not imagine not being here, something now taken for granted.


At the age of 12 one is unaware of the problems ahead. One expects there to be an infrastructure for both boys and girls to develop and demonstrate their talents; to nurture them. One does not expect that nothing is available if you are a girl or that worse still, girls will be specifically excluded, not allowed to compete. It is somewhat of a handicap trying to demonstrate just how good you are on a bike when you are not allowed to ride.

There were no British Championship events for Girls. My father and I worked very hard with British Cycling, formerly the British Cycling Federation (BCF). We strived to convince them to hold events for girls and to provide the necessary support to help them progress. We had to do a great deal in so many ways. Cycling was, and continues to be, a male dominated sport and "equality" from many points of view still has a very long way to go.

I want to describe just two events that proved to be turning points and changed some things, so much for the better.

One of the turning points was at the British grass track championships. It was the 800m British Championships for Women and Victoria Pendleton took part, indeed her father helped to organize it. There were no Youth (under 16) or Junior (under 18) races and, being only 14 at the time, I was not allowed to compete with the Women. Furthermore, I was expressly forbidden, by the BCF from riding in the senior women's Championship event. I had received a 3 page letter telling me all the reasons why I could not compete! However, there was a non-championship open event called an "omnium" which included an 800m handicap on the same day, which I was allowed to ride.

The first event that day for women was the British 800m Championship which was won by a smashing girl, Helen McGregor. Later on in the day the omnium started with the 800m handicap. As usual, in a handicap, the British Champion was put off on the scratch mark with all other riders to start ahead of the British Champion.

The handicapper knew that the BCF had officially instructed the organisers to stop me riding the women's championships because I was too young, and decided to intervene and allow history to run its course. I was put off on scratch with Helen, while all the other riders, started in front of us.

Showdown time!

Worth far more than any medal was the applause of the crowd of cycling enthusiasts as I crossed the line first. Those are memories that will never be forgotten.

This was typical of many episodes with the BCF in that it must have been embarrassing for the officials.

My father wrote to the official who had ruled I could not ride and asked for Championships to be established for girls. The result was that the following year, The BCF put on a superb set of British track championships. The Federation spoiled us with jerseys, bouquets and medals just like the boys, senior men and senior women. The BCF could not have done a better job in response to that embarrassment.


From 1998 on, there have been Youth track events for girls and later, as they saw them succeed, they put on Junior events as well.. Now all the budding young stars like Jo Rowsall and Laura Trott can see an aspirational pathway for the girls, just as there has been for the boys, that simply did not exist when I started out on my career.

The same goes for Road Racing. When I started, the only 2 or 3 races per year available locally for under 16s, would feature myself as the only girl, my younger brother and about 3 others. I have the most vivid memory of 5 of us competing in a race in a howling gale and rain on Aberavon beachfront up and down between some cones. My brother was 11 and about ½ the size of the 6 foot 16 year old who won. This example highlights the immense efforts of the people who put it on, despite the circumstances and sorry state of cycling in Britain at the time.

There are many good folk in the cycling community who go to immense efforts to do their very best. In that case it was Louise and Phil Jones, absolute stalwarts of the cycling community.

Perhaps one of the best memories of my cycling career came when I was a Youth age competitor. There was no British Championship Youth Road Race for me to ride.

My Dad looked closely at the rules and found a bylaw that enabled Youth age competitors to compete in Junior road events once they had attained the age of 16, even though they were still Youth Category. He then found another rule that said if there was no Junior event of equivalent standing, which was the case here, entrants were automatically eligible to ride the Senior equivalent event. Dad checked it all with the organiser of the Senior British Women's Road Race Championships Jon Miles to see if it was all ok, and it was. And so I rode my first British National Road race Championships having just turned 16, by being a Youth riding up as a Junior and because there was no Junior race I could compete with the Seniors! Winning that Senior title astounded a lot of people and winning this race is one of my favourite memories. Indeed, I still keep in touch with Jon who was very supportive at the time and took the care and time to talk to the small school girl asking for advice about the course.

Again the BCF and the lottery funded coaching structure was embarrassed that I won and beat the funded riders on their expensive equipment and resources, on my cheap bike. They had a British Cycling Team car and back up. I had dad on his bike with a saddlebag of energy bars and drinks to hand out!!


Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Sports women of 2012 in photos

Your favourites and mine from 2012, here's to a sporty and healthy year for all of us.