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91st Tour de France - July 3-25, 2004
An interview with Baden Cooke, July 3, 2004
Ready to Cooke up a storm
With less than 24 hours to go before the prologue of the 91st Tour de France, defending green jersey champion Baden Cooke (FdJeux.com) is ready to cook up a storm. And as the Benalla Bullet concedes, with arguably the greatest number of in-form rivals all vying for a piece of the maillot vert, Baden will have to start cooking with gas right from the word "Go!". Anthony Tan reports.
"There's probably more guys who have hit their best form [just before the Tour]. I mean, they've all been there in the past, but I think this year they're all on better form," said an understandably nervous Cooke from his hotel in Liège, Belgium, yesterday afternoon.
No less than six of the world's best sprinters will descend on Belgian shores at the start of the world's biggest annual sporting event on July 3 in Liège. Cooke's Aussie arch-rivals Robbie McEwen (Lotto-Domo) and Stuart O'Grady (Crédit Agricole) have come good with perfect timing, both Australians winning two stages apiece in the Tour de Suisse and Dauphiné Libéré respectively, while O'Grady's former team-mate, powerful Norweigan Thor Hushovd, is enjoying his best year ever with nine wins so far, most recently capturing dual national championship titles last Sunday after claiming victory in the time trial and road race. And while some consider Erik Zabel (T-Mobile Team) to be past his prime, the six-time winner of the points competition should never be discounted.
But the man Cookie - and most likely, all others - fear most is Italian Alessandro "Ale-Jet" Petacchi, who equalled and then shattered the post-WWII record of seven stage victories in a single Giro d'Italia by winning nine out of twenty stages, and in doing so, took the points competition with seemingly casual aplomb.
"If he's got the same form he had at the Giro, all he has to do is finish, really," says Cooke, almost sounding as if he and the other green jersey contenders would be fighting for second should Petacchi make it to Paris three weeks from now.
With five wins, two seconds and five thirds, the precociously talented 25 year-old's season to date has been solid, if not a little luckless. The majority of Cooke's success came in the period from late January to March, beginning with a stage win at the Tour Down Under (which could have quite easily been three), followed by an excellent victory at the GP d'Ouverture La Marseillaise one week later. Shortly thereafter at the Tour Méditerranéen, the Benalla Bullet was in top form, taking two stage wins and overall victory in the points competition. Then, in late March at the tough UCI 2.2 Three Days of De Panne in Belgium, Cooke again came very close to winning three, but had to settle for just the single, albeit a joyous one, exacting sweet revenge on Gerolsteiner's Danilo Hondo in Stage 2.
The stage win in De Panne gave him one more victory than at the same time last year (and in 2002) - but Cookie hasn't seen the top step of the podium since. However sprinters - and especially the defending points champion in the Tour de France - rarely show a lack of confidence. "Well, I've had five wins, so technically it's better," he says.
"The last few months I haven't had a win, but I've had a lot better form than what is actually shown in my race results. So I'm actually going quite well - I've missed a little bit of luck... but I think I'm saving that up for the Tour."
In his last stage race outing, the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré, the Cookie Monster once again found himself confronted with an in-form Thor Hushovd and a brilliant Stuart O'Grady. With eight wins already under his belt, mighty Thor's ninth certainly wasn't unexpected, but was Cooke a little surprised by O'Grady's form, given Cofidis' rollercoaster season that saw the entire team suspending itself for virtually the whole spring?
"Oh no, it's not really a big surprise; he's just getting back to the form he used to have really," Cooke says in his typical matter-of-fact way. "It wasn't anything new - he's just had a few quiet years, I guess... and now he's coming back to where he always was."
While he describes his condition at the Dauphiné as "on track", once again reiterating his perceived strength despite "nothing particularly go my way", since the finish of the race two and half weeks ago, Cooke's been fine-tuning his top-end speed behind the moto coupled with plenty of rest.
On his Aussie friend and team-mate Bradley McGee - who's the favourite for today's 6.1 kilometre prologue as well as being FdJeux.com's man for the general classification after his superb prologue win and top-10 finish at this year's Giro d'Italia - Cooke isn't bothered when asked whether McGee's renewed status will affect the team's chances in guiding him towards the finish line: "I don't think so. I think we've got a much stronger team for the flat [stages] this year. He'll [McGee] will still be there - the only difference is he won't be getting used up so early in the lead-out."
For now though, Baden will take things one day at a time: "At the start, we'll just attack the stages and try and get a stage win. The green jersey comes afterwards - you basically need to win a stage in the first place to have enough points to be in the running for it... so obviously the first objective is to get a stage."
And what about every sprinter's nightmare - the mountains? More specifically, that time trial to L'Alpe d'Huez?
"Oh, it's definitely going to be difficult; everyone - whether they're going for it or not - will have to go almost 100 percent just to make the time limit, I think... I certainly will," he says half-jokingly. "But I'm not particularly worried [about Alpe d'Huez]; I'll just hit it hard and I'm sure it will be OK."
Straight after the Tour, Cooke's eyes will turn from France to Greece. Announced only yesterday, the feisty sprinter was delighted to learn he is one of five riders Cycling Australia intends to nominate to the Australian Olympic Committee for selection at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games road race, the other four being Robbie McEwen, Stuart O'Grady, Michael Rogers and Matthew White.
"I'll be keeping my head down after the Tour with the sole goal of working towards the Olympics. I think the timing will be perfect, really; bit of recovery, just keep the legs ticking over, I think the form should be really good," says a confident Cooke.
And with FdJeux.com one of the first 11 teams - and one of three French teams - to be granted a licence for in the UCI's Pro Tour in 2005, Cookie's future is looking bright. In a highly controversial race format that appears to be gathering inexorable speed, Marc Madiot's Merry Men have now guaranteed themselves a spot on the Pro Tour that will take effect on January 1, 2005.