Profiles 1st June 2015

Nicole Cooke: a cycling champion with integrity

Nicole Cooke is arguably Great Britain’s most successful female cyclist. The Sports Integrity Initiative caught up with her at the inaugural Sport Resolutions ‘Integrity and Athlete Welfare: Staying Ahead of the Game’, conference, which took place in London on 14 May, where she was one of the key speakers.


How do you start to describe Nicole Cooke? Anybody who saw her victory to take gold in the 2008 Beijing Olympics road race, cycling fan or not, will remember it being an incredible moment. Not only did it represent Great Britain’s 200th Olympic gold, but it also meant that Cooke became the first ever cyclist – male or female – to become the road race World Champion and Olympic Champion in the same year. However, it is no exaggeration to say that anyone who knows how Cooke overcame the various obstacles thrown in her path by the British Cycling Federation (BCF – now British Cycling), the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) and others would be moved to tears by that Beijing gold.

The following is just a small taster.  At the age of 14, Cooke was forbidden by the BCF from riding at the Women’s Open 800-metre Grass Track Championship, which Cooke had asked to do as there were no U16 or U18 British championships for girls on Road or Track at that time. Aged 15, the BCF attempted to stop Cooke from riding at a British Mountain Bike series rounds at Margam Park. Aged 16, she had her victory over senior women on the lottery-funded BCF World Class Performance Programme (WCPP) to become Senior British Road Race Champion described as a “fluke” by the BCF. A 1999 UCI rule preventing riders under 19-years old from competing in the Olympics forced Cooke to watch the Sydney 2000 Olympics on TV. A concerted plan from the BCF prevented Cooke from winning the British Road Race Championships in 2000, in order that the WCPP saved face…

There is more in Cooke’s retirement statement and more still in her book, The Breakaway, published last summer. Cooke’s record speaks for itself, despite the setbacks. She was the National Road Race Champion in 1999 and from 2001-2009. She took gold at the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games as well as at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2008 Varese UCI World Championships road race. She won the Giro d’Italia in 2004, Thüringen Rundfahrt in 2006 and the Grande Boucle Internationale (women’s Tour de France) in 2006 (by over six minutes) and 2007, as well as a number of single day classic races such as La Flèche Wallonne, the Tour of Flanders and the Amstel Gold race.

She achieved all of this through sheer hard work, without the funding given to cyclists on the WCPP, and as a clean athlete at a time when cycling was anything but clean. Cooke encountered team mates doping whilst riding in the Giro di Toscana and was asked what medicines she would like to take to help her in her first Tour de France when she was 19. Her team put pressure put on her to take them when she was struggling in the Tour and, after her refusal, stopped paying her wages for the rest of the season.


Cooke told the Sports Integrity Initiative that she first heard about doping from hearing about Tommy Simpson, one of Britain’s most successful cyclists, who collapsed and died during the 1967 Tour de France after taking amphetamines and alcohol. “He was this sort of folk hero who had been romanticised, but the fact of the matter was that he had been killed by an overdose of amphetamines”, Cooke said. “From the very first time that I discovered cycling, doping was always there in the background”.

Cooke said that when she encountered team mates taking drugs in her hotel room in 2002, she collated the evidence and took it to UK Sport’s Drug Free Sport Unit, which was a forerunner to UK Anti-Doping, which was created in 2009. “The team mates who were injecting themselves, to rebuff all of that they claimed they were using amino acids and sugars”, said Cooke. “Without being able to man handle my team-mates, drips attached, to the local police station, all I could provide was evidence of what I had seen.”

However, Cooke was disappointed by UK Sport’s response. “In relation to athletes arriving at anti-doping tests with a lever-arch file full of Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) and prescriptions for drugs on the Prohibited List, they told me very seriously that there are a lot of very sick athletes! I said; sick athletes that win races? It was very disappointing and very disheartening. I went through a process of wondering what can I do now?”

Cooke went to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) a couple of years later with a similar claim. “Maria Luisa Calle Williams had tested positive at the 2004 Athens Olympics and was appealing the result, but while the appeal was going on, she was racing – and winning the pan-American championships!  I only realised that because my team manager was thinking of hiring her for our team. All of these gaps and loopholes, where the athletes were just running rings around the authorities, led me to engage WADA in 2005/6. I asked them what was going on where a rider who had just tested positive was still able to race and win while the appeal continued.”

“Unfortunately, it isn’t going to be as easy as just testing somebody at the end of a race and that test’s going to be positive, because the tests are always slightly behind the dopers”, argues Cooke. “There are emerging new drugs such as Aicar, which is readily available to be purchased on the internet. Apparently, you can shed kilograms and still maintain your power. In cycling terms, your power to weight ratio is very important, so this appears to be a wonder drug. There are no tests for that at present. So a non-positive doesn’t necessarily mean clean sport.”

Wrong people

Cooke is convinced that having the right people leading the fight against doping is crucial, and at the moment, too much of the ‘old guard’ remain in place. “The right people are not leading the fight against doping”, she told delegates at the Sport Resolutions conference. “When Emma O’Reilly came out with her autobiography about Lance Armstrong’s doping, she specifically mentioned an episode when there was the chance for Brian Cookson [UCI President, but then British Cycling President] to investigate, but he did nothing. I just don’t think that the culture in anti-doping organisations is the right culture at the moment. Also, many of yesterday’s known dopers are today’s team managers.”

Cooke said that this culture needs to change before cycling can put doping into the past. “I think that there has been too much of people looking and not seeing what is really going on”, she told the Sports Integrity Initiative. “There is often significant evidence under the noses of the authorities, yet they’re not actually going and investigating it in a rigorous way. Perhaps this is also a reflection of people who have been in sport a very long time. Perhaps they have conflicts of interest, where they don’t want to take down national heroes. There is a question about whether they want to put themselves through the unpleasantness of all of these battles.”

“Compare doping to motorbike doping”, continued Cooke, referring to planned UCI sanctions reported in April for riders caught with motors in their bikes. “It is just the same – winning races by cheating and yet Brian Cookson is coming up with some real bans there – a one million Swiss francs fine for a team, 200,000 Swiss francs for the rider plus an immediate ban for the rider. Why can’t the consequences for doping be the same?”

Questions also need to be asked as to why key people are leaving the anti-doping system. “It’s a scandal that Michael Ashenden, who created the biological passport, resigned from the biological passport programme at the UCI”, said Cooke. “What is going on there? There is a situation where somebody who has actually created the knowledge and has the desire for change has actually walked away from the whole programme. He should be running the programme.”

CIRC report & sanctions

Cooke said that the message came through from the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) report, published in March this year, that instead of being licensed to dope up to the maximum permitted haematocrit levels in the blood as it was in the early 2000s, doping is now about ‘doping within the limits’. “The CIRC report highlighted micro-dosing” she said. “Although the biological programme is trying to keep checks on all the relationship between all of these different parameters, as well as hormones and other substances in the blood and in the urine, through micro-dosing it is still possible to beat the system. The France Télévisions report showed that you can dope and use prohibited substances, that those substances have a performance-enhancing effect, but you still won’t get caught by the biological passport. Tackling micro-dosing is now the challenge, otherwise the same old message will get passed on, ‘you can dope, but be smart and don’t get yourself caught’.”

Cooke told delegates at the Sport Resolutions conference that she would support a longer ban for doping cheats, arguing that it still “pays to dope”. Former athletes such as Lance Armstrong, Tyler Hamilton and Geneviève Jeanson are profiting from books and films concerning their stories, she argues. Tyler Hamilton was a guest of Sport New Zealand and Drug Free Sport New Zealand at a recent conference for example, although he was not paid to speak.

In her retirement statement, Cooke explained how a Canadian cyclist, Lyne Bessette, had been robbed of victories by Jeanson, who admitted using erythropoietin (EPO) throughout her career. Bessette explained that Jeanson had won whilst she came second and that while she was earning C$80,000 for a couple of years at the peak of her career, Jeanson was making C$400,000 per year. Bessette argued that by making a film, Jeanson is being allowed to steal from cyclists with integrity for a second time. ‘I can’t help thinking that the cheats win on the way up and the way down’, wrote Cooke.

Cooke believes that retrospective testing on frozen blood and urine samples would assist, however argues that the current statute of limitations (the period for which you can be sanctioned for past doping offences) is still too short, despite it being extended from eight to 10 years by WADA when it introduced the 2015 World Anti-Doping Code. “It should be much longer, because in 2012, when the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) finally got to the bottom of the Lance Armstrong scandal, it referred to the Tour de France Armstrong won 13 years earlier”.

Cooke argues that whatever the testing regime, determined cheats will move on and find a new way to gain an advantage and beat the system. She is a supporter of longer bans, arguing that they are needed as a deterrent. “Lifetime bans are worth considering as part of the solution – perhaps lifetime bans with the option of reducing them if athletes are prepared to reveal the suppliers and the whole network around them”, she said. “But I also think that it should be made clear when people get into their athletic and sporting careers that for those mistakes, the bans are high, but they are necessary in order to maintain the integrity of sport. I have known of no athletes who have wrongly been accused of being positive.”


Cooke is understandably proud about her record in cycling, and equally proud about the way in which she achieved it. Professional cycling has often been compared to an arms race, both in terms of equipment, funding and doping. Cooke had none of the ‘arms’ that others have deemed crucial to success in cycling, yet she won anyway, through sheer hard work and determination. She has moved on from cycling to the next challenge in her life – studying for an MBA at Cardiff University. With her articulation and work ethic, it should be a breeze.

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