15 August 2004

This morning Nicole Cooke is a wonder still largely undersung. This afternoon she will start favorite in what will be the most spectacular and widest-witnessed women’s cycle race ever staged. Gold medal victory after nine laps around Athens’s historic streets, hills and temples in searing 30 degree heat will change her and her sport forever. It is a massive burden for those young shoulders but every instinct suggests that she is ready for it.

On Wednesday evening the now Italian-based Welsh rider was reconnoitering the 13km course which snakes through the heart of ancient Athens, finishing with a sweep around the lightly cobbled pathway at the foot of the Acropolis. On Thursday afternoon she was a blue-shorted figure pumping her bike around the breathtaking coast road, 20km south of Glyfada, which will form this week’s time-trial course on Wednesday. On the bike and off it, Cooke has a presence about her.

“You have to try and get everything into place,” she had explained beforehand, a lean, calm figure waiting in the sunshine for the last of her support team to arrive. “You have to test the bike, to familiarise yourself with the road, to think through the tactics. There is a chance of a medal in the time trial [a 24km return trip from Vouliagmeni to Varkisa] but my best event will be the road race. I suppose I will be favorite, but it is the winning that counts.”

At 21, she has done a lot of it already. World junior champion in the road race, time trial and mountain bike in 2001, road race gold medallist in the Commonwealth Games in 2002, World Cup winner in 2003 and, this July, a scarcely believable victory in the Tour of Italy in only her second competition following a nine-month lay-off with a nagging knee injury.

“There were times last winter when I would sit at Bath University wondering whether I would ever race seriously again,” she admitted. On the sides of her left knee you could see the traces of the keyhole surgery which finally cleared up the problem initially caused by a collision with a parked motorbike in the Tour of Montreal. The other knee has a wider scar across it. “No, that’s just a silly surface scrape I did last month,” she says.

The tone, as so much about her, is crisp, organised and unsentimental. Two years ago there was still a touch of the young Welsh girl as she wore her gold medal on the sun and showers afternoon beneath Rivington Pike. Now, taller and very self-assured after two seasons with the Safi team in Italy, she is every inch the young woman. “Road racing is full of the unexpected,” says Olympic team manager John Herety, “but Nicole tries to reduce the variables more than any cyclist, male or female, that I know.”

To that end, Herety and team mechanic Ernie Feargrieve have journeyed down from the Olympic Village in north Athens to where Nicole is staying privately to keep her focus clear. Later that day, the team masseur will work Nicole over while Feargrieve takes the bike back to make the final adjustments she will specify after testing on the road. “She is very demanding,” says Herety of the rider whom the world may be toasting tonight, “but when you sit down and think of her demands they are all there for a damn good reason.”

Road racer Stuart Dangerfield is on hand as a training partner and a screech of brakes, a whoop of greeting and a large Italian bear hug indicates the arrival of the final support member, the self-styled “President” of the multi-title winning Safi team, Maurizio Fabretto. “Nicole, she incredible,” Fabretto says in magnificently fractured English, “Britain no know how big she is. In San Francisco, she do press conference with Lance Armstrong, 20 minutes Nicole, five minutes Armstrong.”

After 20 easy-paced kilometres alongside Dangerfield, she sets off down the coast road directly behind Fabretto’s wagon. “She is very thorough,” says Herety, in the following car. “Today she will be thinking what she will be doing on Wednesday but her mind will also be logging up what she learnt in Athens last night. The course is very tough, a lot of climbs and some very technical descents. Nicole is very aggressive in a race, she loves to attack. She will have team-mates, Sarah Symington and Rachel Heal, working for her; Sarah to fetch and carry and Rachel to help with pace-setting, and I know they have talked a lot.”

The Russian girl Zoulfia Zabirova and, in particular, the Swede Susanne Ljungskog will be strong but Cooke can attack and beat them. Ahead of us the padded lycra shorts pump rhythmically on the pedals and you see just what drives a champion. At just 9st and 5ft 7in, Cooke is quite spare in the torso, but you can see power but surprisingly little heavy muscle definition in the thighs and legs which have made pedalling their expression since childhood holidays with her father, Tony, who is now her coach.

Gold medallist Chris Boardman has called her “phenomenon”, but one suspects it is as much to do with mind as muscle. “You can’t just make up tactics on the day,” she says afterwards. “Rachel and I have talked and talked of what we might do. I think the course is difficult enough to get the main bunch down in size by natural selection. Just when we put the pressure on will depend on who is in the group. But this is the big one. All my life I have dreamed of Olympic gold.”

No great riches yet, the Tour of Italy prize was a mere 600 Euros, but little short of a sense of destiny suggests that fame could be hers tonight. An afternoon with Cooke was inspiring enough for me to hire a scooter to scout the course like a London cabbie doing the knowledge. It was a sensational experience, up wide avenues, through narrow streets, climbing up through tiny squares to sweep around the Lycabettus Hill.

Above all, it has a great run home, down the great highway of Vasillis Sofias Avenue, swinging left at the Parliament building and then spinning across the brick-patterned walkway beneath the Parthenon. In sight of the final kilometre there is a new statue. It is of one figure carrying another on its back. The carrier looks on with confidence, the carried looks back and down in doubt. Take it as a symbol for what Nicole Cooke can do for us and the Olympics tonight.

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