4 August 2002

Brough Scott watches a little red-shirted demon sprint away to snatch gold in the women’s road race

She began in mist and finished in sunshine. Nicole Cooke, 19, from Bridgend, put last Saturday’s disappointing 10th in the time trial behind her by winning the women’s road race in the red shirt of Wales. The band played Land of Our Fathers and her smile stretched all the way from the Pennines to the Principality.

Her victory came from outsprinting the seven-strong final group in the closing stages of the last of the eight 6½ -mile laps which reached and climbed around moor and reservoir above Rivington in the Dale country north-west of Bolton. Right on her wheel came Susan Palmer-Komar, of Canada, and Rachel Heal, of England, both women winning their first medals at the more senior ages of 35 and 29.

Thirty-five had faced the starter, only the unlucky Malaysian Hsu Min Chung failed to finish, and the Australian Margaret Hemsley got back on her bike to finish 12th after a horrific looking crash when in the lead with only 1¼ laps to go.

The start line was crossed at 9am, less than 12 hours after Ian Thorpe and Rachel du Toit had held us in awe with their achievements in the Manchester pool. But here was a different sort of magic, linking human effort with the rigours of the road, and with a spectacular anvil of a landscape under its lifting canopy of gloom.

Here was Clara Hughes, who had won Sunday’s time trial around two laps of this track only five months after she took a speed skating bronze at the Winter Olympics. Here was her Canadian compatriot, Lyne Bessette, who won the road race in Kuala Lumpur. Here, too, the feisty Scotswoman Caroline Alexander, whose attack on the mountan bike title had punctured tearfully when leading on Monday.

The support car took us round the course to where the road rises west from Anglezarke to look down into the mist which still enclosed Yarrow Reservoir. At the top of the climb, half a dozen horses and some 50 sheep cropped the last field before the heather and bog fastness of the moor. Up to the west rose the great shoulder of Rivington Pike, below which the first Lord Leverhulme had a hundred gardeners to work the grounds of Rivington Hall only for the Suffragettes to burn it down. Today, women were suffering in a different way.

On the first three laps, the bunch were still together as they battled up the last metres of the rise. It may not have been Mont Ventoux on the Tour de France but the temperature was rising as the sun broke through. The little figures may have looked a bit pink and child-like as they panted by, but this was a harlequinade with agony in it, 2½ hours with more than its fill of hurt.

On lap four, the intercom crackled that Hsu Min Chung had slipped her chain and when the pack came through, she was a lone struggler that even the sympathetic cheers could not help. On lap five, one of the New Zealand girls attacked but the peloton soon reeled her in. More attacks on lap six but it was on the penultimate tour that the dice really began to roll.

First, a four-strong attack led by Komar and Hemsley with England’s Rachel Heal hanging on the back. Then, when Cooke, Alexander and Bissette had rejoined it at our old vantage point at the top of the climb, Margaret Hemsley launched herself ahead in the green shirt of Australia to begin a descent as dazzlingly brave as it was doomed.

Even in a pottering car, the dipping turns seemed perilous enough. On a road bike with a snatched hundred metres of advantage you needed all the luck. Coming into Rivington village, Margaret did not get it. The front wheel slipped on a wet patch, the bike capsized violently to the left, scraping her on the gravel. Watchers gasped but in a move which should be compulsory viewing for every injury-feigning footballer this season, Margaret picked her battered and bleeding body up and got back in the saddle.

Up in front, they were ready to rumble. Soon the long flat run beside the reservoir was over, and it was Caroline Alexander who shot ahead when they reached the hill. She was chased by Bissette and Cooke and for a moment it looked as if the title-holder might leave the pretenders behind. But the seven regrouped and at the finish line below the lawns of Rivington High School we craned our necks and waited for the closing sprint.

The commentator’s voice suddenly raised to a premature crescendo. Cooke had almost gone off the road where Hemsley had crashed. Somehow, she got back to the others as they jockeyed for position. Alexander attacked, first a touch unconvincingly, then, at 400 metres, full- blooded to the line just as Cooke got to her wheel. Cooke hit hard out of the slipstream and here flashing towards us was a little red-shirted demon which raised its hands rapturously off the handlebars as it crossed the line.

As a junior she had won the road race and mountain bike titles. This is her first championship in the senior league and as she readied for the medal ceremony, she borrowed a mobile phone and pulled up the right leg of her red Lycra Cymru shorts to reveal a set of telephone numbers inked on her upper thigh. She dialled, listened, then started chattering away in French.

Well, a go-getting girl has to organise. Today she rides the first two stages of the 2,000km women’s Tour de France. Make a note of this Nicole. She is going a very long way.

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