- Sports Book of the Year
For every Lance Armstrong, there's a Nicole CookeSimon BarnesOctober 2, 2014
So who was the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France? Who was the first Brit to wear the yellow jersey and power away from the field on the fearful slopes of Mont Ventoux? If you answered Bradley Wiggins, you must reproach yourself. Six years before Wiggo did his stuff, Nicole Cooke showed him how. She was the one who showed the world that British riders could take on the world's best in the great stage races and beat the stuffing out of them.
But it seems sometimes that nobody knows, nobody cares, and those that did care did their damnedest to stop her. So she wrote a book after she retired. It's called The Breakaway, it's just made the long-list for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award and it's full of righteous anger.
Cooke is like my grandad. He was never one to put himself forward, but he was never much of a one for backing down either - not when he thought something wasn't fair. He was very keen on fairness, in sport and in everything else. If something was unfair, then so far as he was concerned, it went against nature to accept it. This attitude came with a complete bafflement at the hordes of people who find it expedient to accept unfair things.
Sport is supposed to be fair. That's kind of the point. Sport requires an exaggerated code of fairness before it can work: the classic level playing field, along with unbiased officials and rules that are the same for everyone.
So when you have a strong-minded, ultra-competitive woman who is competing in a sport dominated and controlled at every level by men, a sport riven with drugs and duplicity, and run by governing bodies at national and international level that are racked with incompetence at best and plain malice at worst, then you have fertile ground for unfairness.
Cooke went on to win the gold medal in the road race at the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008, blasting clear in the last 200 metres in the blinding rain, filthy conditions that suited a rider who was prepared to go to the bottom of her soul in search of victory. It was the first British gold in Beijing and I watched the moment on television in the Main Press Centre at the Games, sharing the gratification with other British journos. And for those who knew her there was a sense of deeper pleasure. This, they said, was the sort of athlete that really should be winning Olympic gold medals: the sort of athlete that the Olympic Games - the greatest event in sport - are for.
Cooke had endless trouble with the national body, now called British Cycling, not least because no one in it could claim any credit at all for her stupendous ability as a woman. At one event their team of elite riders ganged up on her. Anyone but Cooke. It was bewildering: surely everyone in the governing body should be dropping on his knees to give thanks for such a talent. But it was talent that justified nobody's salary, and anyway, they were all men.
So here's Cooke at the start: "You are full-time athletes and have been for years. All paid for by the Lottery. You have full-time coaches and mechanics and a whole bunch of the best equipment money can buy. Well, let me tell you … I am a full-time schoolgirl and on Tuesday I have a biology test ... Starter, bring it on!"
The book seethes with frustration. In recent years women's road races have lost backing, partly because of the entrenched sexism of the men in charge and partly because drugs scandals from the male part of the sport put potential sponsors off. The Tour de France itself became a casualty. Cooke is neither gentle nor forgiving to the druggies.
Perhaps it's a rule of life that for every Lance Armstrong there's a Nicole Cooke. Armstrong was not just a systematic taker of drugs, and not just a man who bullied others to do the same thing. He was also a hypocrite of megalomaniacal proportions, a man who made a cult of his "inner strength". He "beat" cancer, he "won" the Tour de France seven times, and those millions that bought into his legend could wear a wristband with the words "Live Strong". It wasn't enough to be a cheat: he had to be a secular saint as well.
There are times when you despair of sport: when you get fed up with millionaires rolling about in the grass in agony, when you get fed up with cheats, when you get fed up with the law-suits, when you get fed up with the sport's priorities - money first, sport second - when you get fed up with the regiment of horrible old men who run most of sport.
But whenever that happens, you can take a deep breath of fresh air and remember that sport is also full of Cookes: people who have talent that glows in the dark and a desire to win so deep that it terrifies the unprepared - all mixed with an honesty that is, if anything, still more fierce.
Not everyone is at ease with success. Especially when that success is achieved by a woman. Cooke's ineluctable, irrefragable talent - especially when combined with a refusal bordering on incomprehension - to play any of the required games, has caused her to become that rare thing in sport, or any other walk of life: success as orphan.
Sport is not about money. Sure, it's a nice bonus for those that can get it, but pure sport - the thing that has us enthralled, the thing that sends you and me back for more - is about the pursuit of excellence. And excellence knows no gender. If you appreciate sport in any kind of depth, you are a feminist. Such a stance is logically inescapable. Cooke spells out the inevitability of such a stance in her book, and still more eloquently, she did so with every turning of the wheels of her bike.
Simon Barnes was Chief Sports Writer at The Times and UK Sports Columnist of the Year in 2001 and 2007. He writes about a wide variety of sports for ESPN.co.uk, as well as ESPNFC.com and ESPNcricinfo. He has written more than 20 books including The Meaning of Sport and three novels. On Twitter he is @simonbarneswild