By John Wilcockson
After taking her second rainbow jersey of the week, and her fourth world title in 12 months, Nicole Cooke said something quite insightful about the key to her amazing success. The defending junior women’s road race champion was asked if she had an idol.
After thinking for a few seconds, she replied, “Not really…. I set my own targets rather than following the lead of others.”
And that’s exactly what the 18-year-old Brit did in the six-lap, 72.6km race on Friday morning. After the 64 starters rode as a pack for two easy laps, they reached the start of the main climb on lap 3. Feeling warmed up on a damp, misty morning (that contributed to a pileup on the first lap), Cooke dashed away from the pack up the 8-percent grade, and only five riders could stay with her.
Cooke’s acceleration shattered the peloton, and there was an immediate gap of 30 seconds between the break and a first chase group. The disarray heightened when on a roundabout over the top of the climb, a half-dozen riders fell, including the best of three American starters, Lauren Franges from Pennsylvania.
“Because it was slick, the Australian girl [Katie Brown] went out first, and the girl in front of me had no place to go, and she slid out, and then I ran right into her” Franges later explained, after having superficial wounds on leg and elbow cleaned off in the U.S. team pit. “It was a shame because I was feeling pretty good…. And when I crashed, I fell apart from there.”
From the chaos, 11 chasers emerged, a group that was still 30 seconds back when they reached the end of lap 4. In front, one of the two Lithuanians in the break had been dropped on the main climb, leaving only four with “leader” Cooke — her constant Polish rival Maja Wloszczowska (second to Cooke at the mountain-bike world’s in September), Natalia Boiarskaia of Russia (second to Cooke in Tuesday’s time trial), Pleuni Möhlmann (daughter of an ex-Dutch pro racer) and the stronger Lithuanian, Modesta Vzesniauskaite.
It seemed that this break defined the race, but then, in the 2km before the first hill on lap 5, the now 10 chasers bridged the half-minute gap. What were Cooke’s thoughts at that moment? “I figured they’d had to work just as hard as we had, to come back … so I treated it like a fresh start,” she said with maturity.
And so, with 20km still to race, Cooke put in another of her characteristic surges on the main climb. This time only three could go with her — the same riders as before, less the Lithuanian. At the bell, the leading four had 35 seconds on the chasers, and rather than risk them again catching, Wloszczowska made a brief acceleration. This was enough for Boiarskaia to lose contact, leaving just three in the break.
At the top of the hill, where fans toting British flags had narrowed the road to a single lane, it looked like the race might end in a sprint; but just as the road turned left before a short downhill, Cooke put in a blistering attack. Wloszczowska immediately fell back, while Möhlmann did her best to chase back to the British phenom.
The gap between them stayed under 10 seconds for a while, but there was no catching Cooke. The defending champion was low on her bike, head rocking, back flat and legs churning the junior women’s maximum gear of.
On crossing the line — arms up, a smile on her face — it was clear how far Cook had come in a year. In Plouay last year, she charged home, also alone, and let out an ecstatic, cathartic roar of confirmation. It was a victory that opened the flood gates….
1. Nicole Cooke (GB), 72.6km in 2:01:25 (35.876 kph); 2. Pleuni Möhlmann (Nl), at 0:17l 3. Maja Wloszczowska (Pl), at 0:29; 4. Natalia Boiarskaia (Rus), at 1:18; 5. Giorgia Bronzini (I), at 1:46; 6. Charlotte Becker (G); 7. Diana Elementaite (Lit); 8. Vera Koedooder (Nl); 9. Modesta Vzesniauskaite (Lit); 10. Andrea Knecht (Swi), all s.t.
Also: 23. Lauren Franges (USA), at 6:09; 42. Magen Long (USA), at 15:14; 45. Geneviève Leblanc (Can), at 16:35; 54. Monica Huerta (Mex), at 21:34.