Nicole Cooke, the first person, male or female, to win the Olympic and world championship road races in the same year, has retired from professional cycling at the age of 29. The rider from South Wales announced her decision at a press conference in London today, going out with guns blazing.
Cooke reserved perhaps her strongest criticism for Lance Armstrong, according to BBC Sport: "When Lance cries on Oprah later this week and she passes him the tissue, spare a thought for all those genuine people who walked away with no rewards - just shattered dreams. Each one of them is worth a thousand Lances.
"I have ridden through the time of Lance and all of the dreadful tragedy that the abuses surrounding him have brought to my sport. I have faced up to the temptations but have always remained true to the 12-year-old inside me.
"Yes I have suffered as a result, in many ways, but so what? I am not alone, I am one representative of that group, those who do it right. I have ridden through some of the darkest days of the sport in terms of corruption by the cheats and liars.
"I cannot change the era or time that I am born into. I am very proud that I have ridden true to myself and placed my morals beyond a need to win. I have ridden clean throughout my career in a sport so tainted,” she added.
It’s not just the shadow that doping has cast over the sport that might lead some to think that Cooke was born a few years too early, however.
Had Cooke been five years younger, she would have benefited from the outset of her career from the support provided by British Cycling to riders several years her junior.
Instead, Cooke at times found herself in conflict with those running the national team; she tried unsuccessfully to get British Cycling to back her appeal to fight for age limits to be relaxed ahead of the Olympics in Sydney in 2000.
She also had a very public row, conducted via press interviews, with Lizzie Armitstead following the 2011 world championship in Copenhagen.
There, the latter had been the protected British rider but Cooke failed to wait for her after a crash, instead riding her own race and finishing fourth. Armitstead, who Cooke was supposed to lead out in the sprint, came seventh.
The pair buried the hatchet ahead of last year’s Olympic Games in London, where Armitstead, again nominated to spearhead the British challenge, took silver behind Marianne Vos. The Dutchwoman, like Cooke before her, would go on to add the rainbow jersey to her gold medal.
After showing immense promise as a teenager – in 2001 she defended her junior world road race title and the same year added rainbow jerseys in the time trial and in mountain biking – Cooke spent several years as arguably Britain’s highest profile rider of either gender, particularly after David Millar was banned for doping and before Mark Cavendish burst on the scene.
The apex of her career came in 2008 when, a month after securing Great Britain’s first gold medal of the Beijing Olympics in the rain, she added the world championship in Varese, the Italian town just a few kilometres across the border from the Swiss town of Lugano where she had made her home.
She was British national road race championship an astonishing nine times in a row from 2001 to 2009 – she also won it in 1999 – and also won races including the women’s version of the Tour of Flanders and, three times, the Flèche Wallonne, plus the Grande Boucle (the women’s Tour de France) twice and the Giro d'Italia Femminile. She also won the road race at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002.
Despite those victories, Cooke was never settled for long at one team – of the nine outfits she rode for between 2002 and 2012, she only rode for two for longer than one season, several falling victim to the precarious finances of women’s racing, and she revealed today that on more than one occasion she had been forced to sue for unpaid wages.
Cooke insists that the instability on the women’s side of the sport was in large part due to the fallout from scandals in men’s cycling, saying today: "Every scandal on the men's side has caused sponsors to leave on the women's side. With such thin budgets, the losses have a greater relative impact on what survives.”
She admitted that she herself had been forced with the stark choice of whether to dope or remain clean.
"I have had days where temptation to start onto the slippery slope was brought in front of me. In my Tour de France, when I was 19, as the race went on my strength left me.
"I was invited into a team camper and asked what 'medicines' I would like to take to help me and was reminded that the team had certain expectations of me during the race and I was not living up to them.
"I said I would do my best until I had to drop out of the race, but I was not taking anything."
Cooke also attacked self-confessed doper Tyler Hamilton, whose best-selling book The Secret Race, cowritten with Daniel Coyle, won last year's William Hill Sports Book of the Year award.
"Tyler Hamilton will make more money from his book describing how he cheated than I will make in all my years of honest labour," she pointed out.
"Please don't reward people like Hamilton with money. That is the last thing he needs. Donate his literary prize and earnings to charity. There are many places infinitely more deserving than the filthy hands of Hamilton".
While many insist that cycling is a cleaner sport now than it was in the late 1990s and first half of the last decade, Cooke is not convinced.
"I do despair that the sport will ever clean itself up when rewards of stealing are greater than riding clean. If that remains the case, the temptation for those with no morals will always be too great.
"I have been robbed by drugs cheats, but am fortunate, I am here with more in my basket than the 12 year old dreamed of.
"But for many people out there who do ride clean; people with morals, many of these people have had to leave the sport with nothing after a lifetime of hard work - some going through horrific financial turmoil."
Bringing the curtain down on her career, Cooke said: "I am now 29 so that's 17 years of my life I have enjoyed and now I am bringing to a close. I won every race and more than I dreamt I could win.
"You cannot believe how happy I am being able I stand here with my dreams fulfilled."
Read Nicole Cooke's full retirement statement at www.nicolecooke.com
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.