Nicole Cooke was 19 when she was summoned to her cycling team’s camper van and told her Tour de France performance wasn’t up to scratch. “It was a pretty open conversation,” she says. “I was told, ‘We expect more results from you’ and a big box of needles and potions was put in front of me. They asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’”
For Cooke, who had promised herself and her parents that she would never take performance- enhancing drugs, the answer was easy. “‘Get stuffed,’ I thought. ‘I’m going to do my best, naturally’.” She went on to ride, drug-free, to victory in the women’s Tour in 2006 and 2007 (six years before Bradley Wiggins won the men’s race) and to win Olympic and Commonwealth gold medals. As cycling’s finest prepare to test themselves on the road in the first big races of the 2015 season, she remains one of the most outspoken critics of cycling’s reluctance to confront its historic doping culture.
It is a culture that still persists today, according to an independent report commissioned by the sport’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), in the wake of the Lance Armstrong scandal, and released last week. It tells how riders trick drug testers by taking frequent micro-doses of banned substances. Most controversially, it quotes one “respected cycling professional” who suggests that 90 per cent of professional riders are still doping today.
That statistic doesn’t surprise Cooke. “I can totally believe that,” she says. “The management and the race organisers are still the same as before. It would need a massive change in staff, in terms of changing the mentality of the teams, before the sport is cleaned up.”
Cooke’s 2014 autobiography, The Breakaway, describes how she walked in on team-mates hooked up to drips and cleared doping paraphernalia from her team’s living quarters.
The rider has lost prize money to drugs cheats and had her wages docked for refusing to dope. “After refusing to take drugs I didn’t get paid my wages for the rest of the season,” she says. “In terms of the messages the management were sending out, it couldn’t have been clearer.”
The UCI, under its new British president Brian Cookson, has slowly begun to address the sport’s drugs problem – but Cooke wants to see the governing body go further. “Doping should be criminalised worldwide, as it is in Italy,” she says. She would also like to see a clampdown on Therapeutic Use Exemptions – effectively sick notes from the UCI that authorise riders to take certain medications. “I’ve seen riders going into tests with folders of exemptions, covering every possible positive drug test,” she says. “I’ve reported it to UK Sport and others. But there’s never been a proper investigation into this.”
There is hope, though. “We’ve gone from ‘Cycling doesn’t have a problem, it’s clean’, to an admission that we do have a problem. Realising there’s a problem is the first step to solving it.”
Having retired in 2013 at the age of 29 and since completed an MBA at Cardiff University, Cooke says, “I’m in the process of looking for my first step in a new career. I want to do something outside the sphere of cycling. I’m quite happy to move on, out of the sport, and not have everything else that comes with it.”
Cycling: Tour of Catalunya begins today (Monday 23rd March) on British Eurosport from 2.30pm