By Benjamin Fitzmaurice

Cooke in green with Lance Armstrong at the 2003 Tour de France

Cooke in green with Lance Armstrong at the 2003 Tour de France

Photo: File

Baden Cooke found himself between a Rock and a hard place last fall when a deal he thought he had struck with Rock Racing turned out to be no deal at all.

The Australian sprinter says the American squad initially offered him a two-year contract and an opportunity to race in one-day classics and grand tours in Europe.

But that contract somehow got lost in the shuffle, and Cooke says the deal that team owner Michael Ball eventually offered was considerably less lucrative — a six-month agreement for a much more modest domestic race schedule.

Rock Racing responded in a statement from Michael Ball released Tuesday morning: “Baden Cooke did what he felt was in the best interest of his career and I wish him all the best. There was no malice there.”

The statement also reacted to reports that the team is struggling:

“Rumors of Rock Racing’s untimely demise have been greatly exaggerated. The team is proceeding with a full racing schedule of domestic racing in 2009 and is actively pursuing any and all opportunities related to racing outside the United States. I am committed to my team and my riders are committed to making Rock Racing one of the most exciting teams in the pro peloton. Our key riders will all be returning and will be ready to compete against the world’s best. We thank our fans for their continued support of Rock Racing.”

Cooke, a Tour de France stage winner who raced for Barloworld last year, had a lot to say about the team.

“By mid-November I signed the contract with Rock and sent the contract back for them to sign,” he said. “I asked them to send a copy back once they had signed, but I started getting reasons why they were not sending it back. I was told numerous reasons, which included that it was with the lawyers, the wording was not right and that it had to be changed. Then I was told the wording was right and that it had to go back to the lawyers.”

By December, Cooke was getting worried. If the Rock contract were not a done deal, he would have trouble finding a ride, with most teams’ rosters already full.

“I thought the team was cashed up. That was the impression I was given.”

— Baden Cooke

Cooke’s story is similar to that told by another rider who was briefly attached to Rock — Ivan Dominguez, who was listed in a team roster in November but said he never signed a contract with the team. Dominguez later chose to join the Fuji-Servetto team.

Cooke said a Rock official had assured him “that everything was fine and the contract monies were guaranteed.” But he hadn’t had any direct dealings with team owner Ball. So he demanded to speak with Ball to ensure that his position was secure.

That apparently wasn’t the case.

“Ball told me that there was no contract with me and the team would be nothing without him,” Cooke said. “He said that he was going to bankroll the team for six months and that if a new sponsor did not come forward the team would fold.”

According to Cooke, Ball said that he would guarantee half of one year’s salary and would pay that amount over 12 months. And while Cooke says he had been told that Rock would be racing the Giro d’Italia, Het Volk and Ghent-Wevelgem, as well as other European classics and stage races, by December the team’s program had been whittled down to a couple of low-level races in Spain and Portugal.

“I thought the team was cashed up,” Cooke said. “That was the impression I was given. I subsequently found out that there was no clear program and there was no bank guarantee for my salary. This will mean it will be harder for me to chase them.”

Speaking with VeloNews at Australian’s Jayco Cycling Classic last week, Cooke said he is considering suing Rock Racing. He has yet to retain an attorney, but his manager, Paul De Geyter of Celio Sports & Image, has been in touch with Cedric Vasseur, head of Cyclistes Professionnels Associés and member of the ProTour Council. Cooke is hoping the group will either represent him or pay for legal assistance.

In the meantime, Cooke has signed a one-year deal with Vacansoleil Pro Cycling, a new Dutch team. Cooke said he proposed that Rock Racing pay him the difference between what he will earn with Vacansoleil and the amount he had expected to earn from Rock for one year, but was rebuffed.

“I made the offer. Rock management said that I was an idiot and that my decision to go with another team will blow up in my face as (Rock Racing) will get the sponsor required.”

Cooke added that he had spoken to other Rock riders who said they were offered similar deals.

“The situation seemed that if you were on a low salary then you had to take a pay cut of a few thousand dollars. If you were on a high salary then you had to take a 50 percent pay cut.”

Regardless of how his dispute with Rock works out, it seems that Cooke has found a good home on short notice with Vacansoleil.

“They really got their act together,” he said. “Their team was full and they didn’t even have the spare bikes for me. The team management went to each of the sponsors and came up with some funds to allow me to race in Europe.”

Cooke will ride Het Volk, Rud del Sol, Milan-San Remo and other classics, and hopes the team gets a start at the Giro d’Italia.

“Rock Racing really had no plan,” he said. “It seemed that they did not know what was going to be happening in the next week!”