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An interview with Baden Cooke, June 19, 2007

Baden battles on

Baden Cooke (Unibet.com)
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
(Click for larger image)

Baden Cooke has been in good form in 2007, but nevertheless it's been a tough year thus far. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes spoke to the Australian.

All going to plan, Baden Cooke would be spending this July chasing a second green jersey in the Tour de France, trying to add to the maillot vert he won in 2003. That's the ideal scenario. Instead, he'll be at home in Monaco, lamenting the absence of the Unibet.com team from the race and getting back on the bike after a bad injury.

Despite some good form, 2007 has been an exercise in frustration for Cooke. Things got off to a good start with victories on Stage 3 of the Tour Down Under and Stage 2 in the Etoile de Bessèges. But Unibet's exclusion from many big races put a dampener on the spring, with the team not being allowed to start top races Paris-Nice, Tirreno Adriatico, Paris-Roubaix, Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Giro d'Italia. Of the 13 ProTour events, they have been blocked from participating in six.

Officially, the reason is due to a complicated legal situation arising from legislation in some countries limiting advertising by gaming companies. But with the European Commission backing Unibet and saying that laws such as those found in France are both monopolistic and against EC regulations, many see the real reason as being the power struggle between the UCI and the Grand Tour organisers.

"I hit a few rocks. I hit my head and as soon as I did it, I knew my shoulder was gone."

-Cooke recounts the accident which has sidelined him

Cooke is frustrated by this, and also by the bad crash he had in the recent Volta Ciclista a Catalunya. He had shown good form early in the race, finishing fourth on Stage 2 and then second the following day, but hopes that upward rise would continue and lead to a win were dashed on Stage 6 when he hit the deck. Hard.

"It was about four or five kilometres to go," Cooke told Cyclingnews, speaking by phone from his apartment in Monaco. "Everyone [from the team] was around me, helping me. It was a bit wet and we were doing about 80 kilometres per hour downhill. A couple of guys in front touched a wheel and a lot of guys then hit the brakes: as it was so slippery, they fell off. I tried to avoid it, going hard right, but they sort of dominoed across the road.

Cooke finished fourth at last month's 4 Jours de Dunkerque,
Photo ©: Brian Townsley
(Click for larger image)

"As I got to the edge, I was still turning a bit too hard," he continued. "I tried to straighten it up but I went right off the road and was in midair for about 10 metres. I tried to land it [upright] but the front wheel dug in and I did about five cartwheels. I hit a few rocks. I hit my head and as soon as I did it, I knew my shoulder was gone. I was probably lucky not to break my neck as I was going so fast."

As he says, things could have been worse. But the damage was still considerable. "I busted my collarbone fairly badly," he added. "I broke it out through the end of the shoulder, which is probably the worst place to break it. They had to put two rods through the top of my shoulder and connect that up. It is a bit bent at the moment and a lot of ligaments were torn.

"At the moment I can't really do anything until the rods are taken out," he revealed. "That will be in about five weeks time. Right now, I can't really ride or do much at all. I might be able to get on the home trainer before then, but not much else."

He'd really like to be out training and racing but instead, Cooke is spending a lot of time indoors. Worn out by the accident and the tablets he has been taking, he is passing a lot of time in his apartment. "I am basically parked on the couch right now, I can't really do much," he said. "I can't move my right arm. I am just sitting here. I am really tired, too…I was on a lot of painkillers and have been just so exhausted. I have been sleeping about 12 hours a night."

His hope is that all the shuteye will help to speed his recovery. Even so, it's looking like it's going to be a month and a half before he competes again. "I could probably race in about six weeks but there is nothing much on. I might come back for the Tour de la Région Wallonne [July 28 - August 1st], or something like that."

Providing things go to plan, there is the possibility of doing the Vuelta a España. That's if Unitbet.com get an invitation, of course.

ProTour politics

Nothing, says Cooke, is certain right now. The Unibet.com team have been in limbo for most of the season. Although he is hoping that the fact the riders competed in the Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco and the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya mean that they will be able to ride Spain's biggest race, there is a chance that organisers Unipublic will join its fellow Grand Tour organisers and say no. If that does happen, it will prove those correct who have claimed that the main reason Unibet have been blocked from events this year is because of the organisers' battle with the UCI.

Those feeling that the team have been unjustly treated will point to several inconsistencies to support its argument. The first is the fact that Unibet.com were not allowed to ride Tirreno-Adriatico and the Giro d'Italia, despite a ruling in March by the European Court of Justice that faulted government measures to block gaming companies.

Unibet made efforts early on to cover up its name, as shown here on Cooke's jersey at February's Etoile de Bessèges.
Photo ©: AFP Photo
(Click for larger image)

The second inconsistency is that while ASO has stopped the team from riding its races, Unibet has been able to start other French events without complications. It has done so by using unbranded 'question mark' jerseys or ones bearing the name of its bike sponsor, Canyon.

And the third peculiarity is that Vuelta a España organiser Unipublic stated earlier this year that it was unlikely to allow the team to ride the Tour of Spain, despite a March 5 peace deal with the UCI which appeared to say that the team would be given a wild card to races where there was no legal complication. There is no legislation in Spain blocking advertising by companies such as Unibet.com.

Unipublic is yet to make a more up-to-date pronouncement. In the meantime, the team is keeping its fingers crossed that it will finally be able to ride a Grand Tour.

"I'm hoping we will do the Vuelta," said Cooke. "We are hearing that there is a possibility that could happen. That said, we hear so much stuff these days that it is hard to know what is true and what is just talk.

"Personally, I am really hoping that we do it," he added. "We are a bit less restricted to racing in Spain than in some of the other countries. The team just did Catalunya, which is a ProTour race, so I don't see why it couldn't happen. But we have had a few knock-backs so far, so we will have to see if it works out."

Licence frustrations

Unibet paid a lot of money to get a ProTour licence for 2007. However, just before that licence was granted - many months after it applied, and went about increasing its budget and buying new riders - ASO said that it would not automatically consider the team for its races. The UCI argued against this, saying that the ProTour licence would allow the squad ride all the events on that calendar. Things then came to a head when the French race organiser refused to let the Unibet.com participate in Paris-Nice. And while a last-minute crisis meeting between the UCI, the Grand Tour organisers and the IPCT teams' association hammered out a peace deal, Unibet was still left on the sidelines.

Unsurprisingly, the team was less than impressed. A huge budget increase appeared to have been for nothing, and legal action was threatened against the organisers and the UCI.

Since then, things appear to have mellowed somewhat with the latter. Cooke said several weeks ago that he thought the governing body was trying to rectify the situation. "The information we have got is that they [the UCI] are behind us and they are trying to fix the problem," he said. "But you just don't know. At that big meeting earlier in the year it appeared there that they left us high and dry, a bit. That was the feeling we got. Now I think they are behind us and they are pushing us to get in."

Cooke takes victory in the now infamous ? jersey.
Photo ©: AFP Photo
(Click for larger image)

Cooke won his stage in the Etoile de Bessèges while wearing Unibet's famous question mark jersey, which replaced the main sponsor brand with that symbol. The team has raced on French soil several times since using a Canyon.com branded jersey. It did so in the Four Days of Dunkirk, where Cooke finished second and fifth on stages and ended the race fourth overall. There were no repercussions for the team then, so he wonders why ASO continue to cite these grounds for blocking it.

"At the start of the year, it seemed that every time the riders put on the [question-mark] jersey, the guys were extra-motivated," he said. "Now we have got the Canyon jerseys which are completely different altogether. All the cars have changed, the clothing is different, there is nothing that shows Unibet whatsoever. So theoretically it is a completely different team and it should be okay [in all French races], but I think it is just a case that ASO is persisting in flicking us. It appears that has got nothing to do with online betting, it would appear to me that they are just flicking us in order to try and break the ProTour.

"To me, it [the ProTour] seems like a good idea," he added. "To me it makes cycling a lot more understandable for the general public and a lot more marketable for the big sponsors. So in principle it works well. But with the two sides fighting over who is the boss, it is ridiculous."

Any professional can understand how frustrating it is to be sidelined from racing. Yet, thus far, there has been very little evidence of solidarity in the peloton. It's obvious that things would be very different if all the pro teams refused to ride unless Unibet was granted access to ProTour races. However, that hasn't happened.

"I think that certain riders may feel sorry for us but at the end of the day, it appears that everyone is looking out for themselves," Cooke said. He also feels that the IPCT is also not doing all it should.

"There are people with different agendas too," he added. "There are certain teams that don't want more riders in and certain people who have got personal issues with other people. So all that sort of thing comes into it."

Season and goals

Despite the disruptions, despite the uncertainties, Cooke has shown good form thus far in 2007. He took those aforementioned wins in the Tour Down Under and the Etoile de Bessèges, then was seventh in the Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta Ciclista Del Sol and sixth in Omloop Het Volk in Belgium. He briefly led the Vuelta Ciclista a Murcia and was second, fourth and eighth on stages there.

In the build-up to the ProTour Classics, Cooke was eighth in the E3 Priijs Vlaanderen and fourth on Stage 2 in Three Days of de Panne. He crashed in the Tour of Flanders but was eighth in both Gent-Wevelgem and the Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen and, as mentioned above, the Four Days of Dunkirk also went well. So too the early part of the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, where he was second and fourth on stages before his big crash.

The Australian took victory on home soil
Photo ©: Mark Gunter
(Click for larger image)

Last year, Cooke said that he was aiming to chase big results in the one day Classics. That remained his goal heading into 2007.

"At the beginning of the season, my early objectives were San Remo, Flanders and Roubaix," he said. "In San Remo I had a bad back, in Flanders I crashed and we didn't get to start Roubaix. My general condition has been very good, I was in the front in all the big one day races I did except in Flanders, when I fell off.

"Since then I have been going really well," he continued. "I was flying. I have only had a couple of wins but my form has been quite strong, I have been fairly consistent. Any time that things went right for me, I was right at the front."

It has been frustrating for him that he hasn't been able to make the most of his form. The team has already missed out on a chunk of ProTour racing, including the Giro d'Italia. This has decreased the chances of success, both in terms of race days lost and also due to the fact that it's very difficult to fight on the same terms as the other teams who are doing such top-level racing week in, week out.

As things stand, the riders, the team workers, the management and the sponsors are all uncertain as to what races Unibet can do. That makes it extremely difficult to organise things, least of all the structured training and racing programmes which bring the best out of riders.

Earlier this year, a Belgian court found in favour of the team, saying that they should be awarded €5 million for every day they are not allowed to race. It remains to be seen if this can be enforced or not, but the announcement of the Tour de France wildcards would seem to have ruled out its participation this year.

Fortunately, Cooke believes there are no plans to wind up the team. "We have been told that at a bare minimum, they will do next year on the same money as this year," he said. "I have heard that some of the riders are already being asked to re-sign contracts."

He, like the rest of Unibet, appears to have drawn motivation from the situation with the Grand Tour organisers. "We are keeping our heads down and plugging away," he noted. "We are pinning the numbers on each day, getting out there and coming out swinging as best as we can. We can't really think about it too much or you will get down about it. But as I said, all the boys seem quite motivated and everyone is trying their best. That is all you can do."

*For regular Cooke news, go to http://www.badencooke.com.au/

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