Lizzie Armitstead has staked a strong claim to spearhead Great Britain’s challenge in the women’s road race at this summer’s Olympic Games after taking her second big win on the Continent in three week’s in yesterday’s first ever women’s Gent-Wevelgem. Her victory comes after current Olympic champion, Nicole Cooke, insisted that the hatchet had been buried between the pair in the wake of a reported feud following last September’s world road race championship in Copenhagen.
In that race, Armitstead, who had been designated Great Britain’s team leader, was held up behind a crash, eventually finishing seventh and afterwards accused Cooke, who had ridden away to finish fourth, of “riding for herself and never working for a teammate.”
Quoted on Wales Online last week, the 28-year-old Cooke, who followed up that gold medal at Beijing with victory in the road world championships in Varese the same year, maintained: "In Copenhagen I was riding to plan.
"Then came the time that Lizzie isn't doing her role as team leader and isn't where she needs to be.
"We can say, ‘Ok, chuck away the race and no-one gets a result,’ or we can make the best of a bad situation. In that last kilometre I did try and get that result.
"Would I do it again? One of the big things is that on the big occasion I am a proven performer and with no team support in that race for myself and to finish fourth, within spitting distance of a medal."
Cooke, who comes from Wales, insisted that she believed Great Britain could have won the race had the team got behind her, and revealed that while she and Armitstead had spoken to each other at a national training camp last month, she felt the burden had been on the 23-year-old to make amends since it had been she who had gone public with the rift.
"Lizzie is the one who sparked it off so if she wanted to address anything the onus was on her to call me," Cooke claimed.
"Lizzie is young and ambitious and she came out with those things. I have forgiven her and we have moved on," she added.
Cooke insisted that if Armitstead were designated Great Britain’s protected rider in London in July, she would ride in support of her.
"If Lizzie is the leader it will meant she will have shown she performed well on the big occasions," she stated.
"At the moment we are at a stage when the legs are going to do the talking.
"I want the very best result. If Lizzie has shown that she deserves to be the leader then obviously I am going to ride for her."
Cooke, however, admitted that she harbours ambitions of successfully defending her the title she won in Beijing.
"Everything is based around the Olympics," she said. "If the aim was to earn half a million I would have enrolled in a tennis academy aged seven.
"There are a lot of average tennis players out there earning that much. But double Olympic gold medal winner, that's the dream."
Last June in Northumberland, the Yorkshire-born Armitstead beat Cooke into second place in the national road race championship (pictured above), a title that the Welsh woman has won ten times previously.
As happened 12 months earlier when Emma Pooley had triumphed in Pendle, Cooke lamented the fact that she was outnumbered by riders from the Garmin-Cervelo team (in 2010, Cervelo TestTeam), which Pooley and Armitstead had been riding for at the time.
That team was dissolved at the end of last season, but yesterday’s Gent-Wevelgem demonstrated its legacy, with the podium following the 113.7km race made up entirely of former members of that squad after Iris Slappendel of Rabobank finished second and Jessie Daams, now with Armitstead’s AA Drink-Leontien.nl team third.
After her victory, which came after a solo attack from 40 kilometres out - you can watch brief highlights here - Armitstead said:"It was a nice tactic. We have Kirsten Wild as a sprinter in the group so I go up on the climb and see what happens and then we always have Kirsten in the sprint."
Earlier this month, Armitstead had won her first race of the season, also in Belgium, when she took victory in the Omloop van het Hageland-Tielt-Winge.
Missing from that race, as well as yesterday’s, were two of the favourites for the gold medal in London this summer, reigning world champion Giorgia Bronzini of Italy, who also won that title in 2010, and former winner of the rainbow jersey and runner-up in each of the last five years, Marianne Vos of the Netherlands.
Both those riders took part yesterday in the Trofeo Alfredo Binda world cup race in Italy, which Vos won by 34 seconds from another former world champion, Italy’s Tatiana Guderzo. Bronzini finished in 12th place. Pooley was the first British woman home, coming 8th, while Cooke was 14th.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.