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An interview with Baden Cooke, February 9, 2008
Finding the power
The start of Australian Baden Cooke's season will be about finding his power. After a bad luck with his team in 2007, the 29-year-old hopes that he can get over his leg numbness and back to his winning ways. Gregor Brown of Cyclingnews spoke with Cooke while he was at the Barloworld's pre-season camp in Marina di Bibbona, Italy.
Baden Cooke started his career back in 2000 with Mercury, and has learned from both the good and bad experiences along the way. Though the team structure of Mercury was seen overall as a failure, it gave the then 21-year-old his start in cycling and opened the door to some eventual wins, including a stage win and the overall points competition in the 2003 Tour de France.
"Is it?" Cooke questioned when 2008 was noted has his ninth professional season. "It has been an adventure, I am living my dream. When I was 11 years old and started racing bikes this was my dream, and I feel very blessed. It is a very hard sport, and over the last years I have had some very hard times."
The hard times started with Mercury and continued last year with Unibet.com's ProTour-status struggles. "Mercury was still great for me, I had become pro – my dream. Even though the team went pear-shaped, I was on cloud nine and happy to be there. Even if the older guys were not happy because they wanted to be paid. I had good memories of being on that team, and there was great morale.
"In Unibet, I was not swimming in the river of denial, but I was just doing my thing," he continued on last year's season. "There were things I could not change, so I just concentrated on winning races, even if it was not racing in the Tour. Some of the races I wanted to target I did not get to do, and then I had the crash in [Volta a] Catalunya when I was really [in form].
"That was the only time I got down a bit; all the s**t was going on with Unibet, and I was sitting at home with rods in my back." Cooke voice returned to a positive tone, "However, started racing again in Tour Région Wallonne at the end of July. I was ready to come back, and I love racing. Cycling has always been about winning, and secondary is the contracts and money – the contract will follow afterwards." (Also read Baden battles on.)
Moving on from Mercury, Cooke raced with France-based Française des Jeux for four years, where he had some of his biggest wins. It was during this time, and the subsequent two years with Unibet.com where he picked up the road know-how that he possesses today.
"I was with Marc Madiot for four years; he was instrumental in me winning the green jersey," he noted of his 2003 win in the points competition of the Tour de France while racing for Française des Jeux. Cooke won stage two that year and was able to win the final points battle against compatriot Robbie McEwen in Paris by a mere two points.
"He did not put the pressure on me, I did that myself. He guided me to many wins," he recalled fondly of Madiot.
After a couple of lean years in 2004 and 2005, Cooke left the French outfit to join MrBookmaker-Sports Tech under its new 2006 name – Unibet.com. It was there he hooked up with Belgian Team Manager Hilaire van der Schueren, who had oversaw riders such as Frank Vandenbroucke, Jo Planckaert and Mario De Clercq.
"Hilaire van der Schueren helped me learn a lot about the roads in Belgium," he confessed. "The first decent race I won was Waregem [Dwars door Vlaanderen - ed.] in 2002, in front of [Johan] Museeuw and [Peter] Van Petegem – my heroes, and then I beat them all. That was the first time I ridden on pavé ever, and I won it."
He further explained, "On the bigger races I lacked the local knowledge. Hilaire took me around and taught me a lot of the climbs, and I now know the roads of Tour of Flanders quite well. This year – directly after Milano-Sanremo – I will go up there like I have in the past years to stay and train on the roads."
Just like his new team-mate, Enrico Gasparotto, Cooke also dreams of one day conquering the Flemish Monument. "It is an incredible race; it has a bit of everything. It is a race for a lot of different types of riders, the guys who are more suited of the hillier classics and then the bigger sprinters."
The atmosphere surrounding the race is what also attracts the rider who grew up on the other side of the world. "People just love cycling there; the whole of Belgium just comes alive [during that time]. All of the newspapers have pages filled with cycling."
If all goes well, Cooke will be battling for glory in his most prized races this spring. And why not? He started off hot, taking Barloworld's first win of the season by winning the opening stage of the Jayco Bay Classic on January 2. But he's had a few little problems with power.
"It kept losing power. I was coming into Milan, on the freeway. I know what to do when it happens; you have to turn it off and turn it back on again," he spoke with some concern. The issue was his dark green Maserati, but the automotive ailment is similar to the leg problems he has had for the last two seasons.
Cooke explained what could hold him back, "The last couple of years I had problems with my left leg going numb when I go full gas for a long stretch of time. ... The problem only happens in time trials or six-kilometre-long drags uphill, in the finish. ... I have never been able to pinpoint the problem.
"Over this winter, I have been working on my position with John Kennedy in Melbourne; he does not use computers but has the excellent ability to position. It really seems like the problem is gone... it appears that way. He [Kennedy] changed my position, and a week later I went to the criterium championships and just rode away from them all. I know they are just criteriums, but we are racing some very strong guys, like [Robbie] McEwen, [Graham] Brown and [Mark] Renshaw."
The same man who has battled against warriors like Museeuw and Van Petegem was questioning his strength, tallying his past conquests and what has come in his way recently. Maybe he has lost his edge or – hopefully – it as a matter of positioning that Mr. Kennedy has now worked out.
"Earlier in my career it was 'winning at will,' and, lately, I have not felt like I was bullet-proof like before. However, I feel confident the problem is now fixed, and all these races I want to win – Sanremo, Flanders and Roubaix – actually become more realistic.
"If you can see the light at the end of the tunnel then you know that anything is possible again."
Cooke will open up his European campaign with GP Etruschi on February 9, and, after a series of races, will be compete in Tirreno-Adriatico as a lead-up to the Milano-Sanremo, March 22.
"The Sanremo and is a long ways away," he continued. "I will go there to help [Robert] Hunter; one of us could have a bad day. Like at the Tour de France in July: if we are straight up and honest, then we can be twice as strong. I know that I don't feel good every day, and I am happy to pull a lead-out, and I think he is happy to do the same. With a good relationship like that we can win more races." (For more on Hunter, read Hunter gains with Barloworld's added depth.)
At the side of Corti
Madiot, Van der Schueren and, now, Claudio Corti. The Italian Team Manager that guided the likes of Gianni Bugno, Mario Cipollini and Gilberto Simoni, and, more recently, Hunter and Mauricio Soler to stage victories in the Tour de France, will be driving behind Cooke as he aims at his 2008 objectives.
"Luckily I found Barloworld, and I am happy about coming here," he said of the Professional Continental team that thanks to the wins last year in the Tour should have an automatic entry.
"Budget-wise Unibet was two or three times larger, but it all depends on how you use it, and you are far better off being in a well-oiled unit. I don't look at this team as a small team as all.
"Last year, I was in a ProTour team and we did not go to the Tour, and this year I am in a Pro Continental team that will probably go!"
The move to Barloworld involved shedding his right-hand man, Matt Wilson, who usually accompanies Cooke. "He initially got the contracts though Robbie [Hunter]. I spoke with Corti for a while, but then he ended up not having a spot for Matt. Any other year I would have gone somewhere else, but the market is tight and he chose to go on without Wilson, who is with Team Type 1.
"Because I have not had my best year ever, we were able to come to an arrangement." By next year – results permitting – he hopes to have Matt back, with a new contract for himself.