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An interview with Baden Cooke, October 31, 2003
Back of the bus leads to Cooke's despair
Baden Cooke is back home, still nursing an injury that accompanied him through the year. Gerard Knapp caught up with the best sprinter in this year's Tour de France.
A bungled plane ticket - of all things - may threaten the career of 2003's most successful Australian professional cyclist, Baden Cooke. The winner of the green jersey competition in this year's Tour de France, Cooke has been troubled since April by a recurring problem with a cyst in his groin area.
Last month, he underwent surgery in France in an effort to finally resolve the problem that had plagued him all season. Following the surgery, as he waited for the all-clear from doctors, he booked a first class ticket home with Qantas, Australia's national carrier. But Cooke's not one to overly spoil himself; the aim of sitting in the pointy end of the jumbo was to be able to lie down for most of the trip back to Melbourne, a journey that involves up to 24 hours of actual flying time.
But there was a ticketing bungle between lastminute.com and Qantas, and his Aus$9K plane ticket was downgraded to economy. And then he was told that the flight was full, so he fronted the British Airways counter, and spent another Aus$9K to buy what he hoped was a seat at the pointy end, only to be told that due to over-booking, it would be cattle-class all the way.
"So I had to sit on [the operated area] all the way home. It became really inflamed and a day after getting home, all the stitches broke and I was left with this gaping wound.
"I've seen doctors since and they said if they re-sew it, it could become infected, so it's left hanging open. It looks terrible.
"It's not something I want to muck around with because I've heard that injuries like this can lead to riders ending their careers. It's possible that the scar tissue I'll be left with could be worse for me than if I had left it as it was."
Consequently, Cooke has not ridden a bike in anger since Paris-Tours, apart from a two kilometer stint on his mountain bike to the gym on the morning he spoke to Cyclingnews. And the gym is the only place he is training, as he is unable to do any serious kilometers. Although he has indicated he will race in the Café Racer criterium in Melbourne next week - "I'd like to go and win it" - his injury may yet prevent any racing.
The two centimeter-long wound on the left-hand side of what he calls "no man's land, right" has begun to close - slowly - but Cooke is also not about to threaten his 2004 season. The cyst developed at the contact point of the tailbone - "where I make the connection with the saddle" - and Cooke believes it's possibly due to a combination of a new, harder saddle and heavy pre-season training. At the same time, "a few guys in our team had a similar problem," he said.
The cyst flared up to "the size of a golf ball" after the Tour of Flanders, with the cobbles taking their toll, so the solution for Cooke to keep riding was to use a softer saddle with a section removed around the trouble-spot. He took this approach for the remainder of the season. "[The modified saddles] are a bit bouncy and they wear out quicker, because they're weaker in the middle," he commented.
"But I still missed all the Classics after Flanders, and it looked like I wouldn't be ready in time for the Tour," he said. Cooke did return after a team training camp, only to be involved in a major pile-up in stage one of the Dauphiné Libéré. Cooke was on the wheel of teammate and lead-out man extraordinaire Bradley McGee, only for Laurent Brochard and another rider to try and push him off. A crash resulted and Cooke lost acres of skin in the pile-up. Despite being badly hurt, Cooke returned the next day and still managed third in the finale. "There was no choice. I knew I had to get back in there the next day. Sprinting is about confidence."
He paid the price the following day as his over-stressed body went into shock, but he'd proven to himself he still had the confidence to get back into the fray, despite a crash that would have seen the vast majority of his rivals abandon.
So after a season of great success on the road, while riding in some discomfort and substantial scars from the Dauphine's gravel-rash, Cooke was looking forward to a comfortable flight home. Instead, he got back with his injury that was worse than at any time all season. "And "I'm still $18,000 out of pocket, all for a one-way ticket in economy!"
Plans for 2004
"Next year, it'll be the same as usual. I want to do everything - the Classics, the Tour, and win every race I possibly can. I'm not a rider who has massive peaks in form so I'll try to be in there in every race I enter.
"I'd like to win a world cup race and I don't really care which one. Then I'll be back for the Tour and the green jersey. [Defending that] will be very hard, whether I like it or not."
Cooke's principal rivals for the points jersey next year are once again likely to be countryman Robbie McEwen and Italian sprinter Alessandro Petacchi. During this year's Tour de France, Cooke gave Australian television reporter Mike Tomalaris his uncompromising view after Petacchi abandoned on stage 7, which saw the first major climb of the Tour. "It just shows he's a bit soft, really," Cooke said after the stage. "Apparently yesterday on the last climb he was actually dropped and two of his team-mates pushed him for a kilometre to get back on, and then he won. It's like putting [former world sprint champion] Sean Eadie in the race, pushing him to the finish and then he blows your doors off. Like, of course he's going to win."
However, Cooke has had a chance to talk with Petacchi after the Tour at the races. "He's just a normal bloke, he seems like a good guy," Cooke said of the 'gentleman sprinter'. "If he continues like he did this year then he'll be very hard to beat, but he's got to get himself to the finish," he said.
Even so, Cooke is a little wary of the rider's sudden arrival as a sprinter. "Before the age of 28, it's like he never did a thing, so with riders like that, where they have a really big year, it's possible they could back to where they were before. He may not be able to pull the skin off a custard."
While Cooke's performance in this year's Tour brought him international acclaim, his career has been the steady rise of a sprinter who's evolving into a Classics contender. Last year, he maintained his form and won the long-standing, 13-stage Herald-Sun Tour in Victoria, which involved some serious climbs into country that's high enough to see winter snow.
"For me, cycling's my whole life," he said. "I don't have a girlfriend, cycling's all I think about and I plan on continuing with what I'm doing," he said.
One change Cooke may make next year is to have his long-time coach and mentor, Barry Burns, spend some time with Cooke and his fellow professionals in Nice in the early season. "I really hope he can make it. He's got a lot of things going on in his life at the moment," Cooke said. However, the former coach and masseur was a guiding light in his development. "There's times now as a professional when I've thought 'I'd still be doing more when I was with Barry when I was 17'. I was living up the road from Barry when I was a kid and he kept an eye on me when I was going good.
"It could be a big benefit to have him over there for the early season training," he said.
Another new arrival to the Nice training bunch will be new signing for Fdjeux.com, Mark Renshaw, another rider from the Australian production line of track riders who make the transition to the road. (In fact, almost all the Australian professionals are current and former track riders, with the major exception being Cadel Evans, who's a former MTB world Cup winner.)
Renshaw - who also represented Australia on the track this year - follows the others into professional road racing with a firm grounding in cycling technique and tactics, gained from years in the velodrome.
"He's got huge potential," Cooke said. "In a couple of years he's going to be one of the strongest riders on the flats. He's already shown he's a team rider and I'm sure he'll get his chances."
Cooke is also looking forward to having another fast lead-out man who should quickly gain experience with each race. "So there'll be five us to make a really good training group. We'll be able to motivate each other," he said.
Until he returns to Europe, Cooke is hoping to be fit in time for the Jacob's Creek Tour Down Under but until then, he has to wait for his injury to heal. The car manufacturer Subaru is helping out, by providing the rider with a Impreza WRX to fang around in, even if the all-wheel drive turbo-charged car would break Victorian speed limits in first gear.
Cars are something of a passion in the Cooke household. His father has just completed a 13-year project, converting a 1934 Ford into a hot rod, while Cooke Jr also restored a 1965 Ford XP Falcon two-door, a collector's item in Australia, which he sold before leaving to race in Europe.
Waiting for him back in Nice will be his latest purchase, a 2001 Maserati 3200 GT. "I only got to drive it about three times before I had to leave," he said.