Australian Baden Cooke has played down his chance of fulfilling one of his childhood dreams when he saddles up for Milan-San Remo on Saturday.
The first race of the World Cup season – a 294km ride from Italy’s fashion capital to the Mediterranean coast resort – would in normal circumstances be well within the Victoria rider’s grasp; he has emerged as one of the most feared sprinters in the peloton since making his European debut two years ago.
However, a virus that has laid low more than one member of the peloton last week has compromised 25-year-old Cooke’s chances of victory in what will be the last Milan-San Remo race as we know it. As a result, the Fdjeux.com rider, who last year won the Tour de France’s green jersey for the points classification, could find himself riding for the benefit of teammate Berhard Eisel, a sturdily built Austrian who came in 12th last year when Cooke finished two places behind next to Aussie teammate Matthew Wilson.
“I’m still a bit sick but I will definitely be going to the race,” Cooke told AFP Wednesday from his home in Nice after cutting a planned six-hour training ride in half. “There’s been a nasty virus going around which Robbie (McEwen) and Matthew have also picked up and it just knocks you out. So it’s hard to feel confident about my chances.” U.S. Postal’s Lance Armstrong, too, has been under the weather; he’s skipping the World Cup kickoff thanks to a touch of bronchitis.
Cooke’s apparent lack of form will be music to the ears of any number of contenders for a race dubbed La Primavera (The Spring) by the Italian tifosi. World Cup champion Paolo Bettini is the reigning champion and favorite, the 29-year-old Quick Step rider heading a list of five top-placed Italians last year.
However, a handful of experienced and less-experienced riders could aim for victory this time around. Germany’s Erik Zabel (T-Mobile), has had a promising early season and could revive his love affair with a race he has won four times. He came sixth last year.
“Zabel should be one of the more experienced riders to look out for,” said Cooke, who has tussled with the German in more than one high-octane sprint to the finish line. “He’s dangerous – but that’s not to say some of the younger guys won’t find themselves up there.”
To win the Milan-San Remo often means being able to endure six and a half hard hours in the saddle before launching an attack in the final kilometers before the finish line. That is not always within reach of many younger racers because they tend to prefer intense workouts to five- or six-hour rides. But Bettini’s win last year, following his attack on the Poggio climb 6km from the finish, showed that younger riders of his type can and will win the race.
“A lot of riders will have taken heart from Bettini’s win last year,” said Cooke. “He showed that attacking riders can win the Milan-San Remo. So it doesn’t mean that less experienced guys can’t hope to win. In general older guys are stronger, but I think guys like (Fassa Bortolo’s Filippo) Pozzato and Bernhard (Eisel) have just as good a chance.”
Another key to winning Milan-San Remo is being near the front of the peloton at the two climbs near the end of the race, the Cipressa around 24km from the finish and the Poggio.
“The main thing is getting a good run-in for the Cipressa and the Poggio,” said Cooke. “If you’re not around when it goes then it would be hard.”
As for his own chances, Cooke – who decided not to opt for antibiotics after hearing how badly fellow Australian Robbie McEwen (Lotto) fared – would be hesitant to put money on himself.
“I’m still motivated, but if it’s not going too well I’ll stick to riding for Bernhard (Eisel),” he said. –Copyright 2003/AFP