We?ve been waiting a long time for this. So has Nicole Cooke.
This was Britain?s first gold in Beijing, and Cooke?s first senior title at world level.
But while Cooke was the rider who stood in the teeming rain in Juyongguan and had the gold medal hung around her neck, standing on the other side of the road from the podium, watching the ceremony, was a huddle of British Cycling team staff. This was not just Cooke?s win. It was also another win for British Cycling.
The origins of Cooke?s gold go back to May 2007, when six individuals got together with the aim of winning in Beijing. This tight collective called itself Team Cooke, and consisted of Nicole herself, BC Performance Director Dave Brailsford, BC coaches Shane Sutton and Julian Winn, BC psychologist Steve Peters, and Nicole?s father Tony.
In fact the real origins go back further, right back through Cooke?s career. Year after year, she planned her season around trying to win everything possible. This approach has won her plenty ? three Fleche Wallonnes, two Grande Boucles, but the world championships, and Olympics, have always eluded her. And these are the races she really wanted.
With BC?s support, Cooke held back through the spring and early summer, missing all her usual targets. It was a risky strategy, and even Brailsford, who describes himself as the ?eternal optimist? admitted to feeling nervous.
?We put all our eggs in one basket,? he said.
?She prepared for this race properly. She didn?t race every week, and her race programme was geared towards this. She did her homework, she did the hard miles when it mattered.?
?It shows that specific preparation pays off.?
BC?s preparation for Cooke?s race was typically detailed. No stone was left unturned, even down to the decision for Cooke to wear a skinsuit on the day, and ride the lightest tyres. Shane Sutton and Dave Brailsford would be in the car and on the radio to Cooke, while Julian Winn watched the race on television, and relayed information back to the team car.
The only thing outside the control of Team Cooke was the race itself, but in the end it couldn?t have gone any more perfectly, save for Sharon Laws? two crashes, which affected her ability to support Cooke.
The other nations rode meekly in the flat run-out from Beijing to the finishing circuit, which suited Cooke. And even the first lap of the Great Wall circuit was raced unaggressively, save for an attack by Russian Natalia Boyarskaya, who gained an inconsequential minute, closed down on the long descent back to the start line.
But it was Team GB who lit the blue touchpaper, with an attack by Emma Pooley at the start of the final lap. It was textbook tactics, and it worked. Cooke?s rivals were softened up by the chase to Pooley, while Cooke herself comfortably sat two or three riders from the front, and bided her time.
Then, when the decisive attack went at the top of the climb, Cooke was there. She is about the best uphill sprinter in the world anyway, but approaching the finish in a group of five, she must have thought all her prayers were being answered at once.
The only moment of doubt came when she seemed to lose a few bike lengths as the leading group turned the final corner into the finishing climb. Team manager Julian Winn said that this was deliberate.
?We told her to lay off before the bend and stay on the inside in case anyone came off, and then to take a run at them,? he said.
Cooke herself agreed that it had been deliberate, although she was prepared to take the risk, feeling that she was stronger than her rivals for the finishing sprint up the hill.
?I wasn?t the most confident going round the corners in the wet, so I thought it was better to play it safe. I knew that I could catch them back up ? even if they went for it at the bottom, they?d be strung out and there?d be no way they could keep it up for the whole distance,? she said.
The gold is Britain?s first on the road at the Olympics, but BC are planning that it won?t be the last. While Brailsford has received criticism for concentrating on winning track medals, the success may be starting to trickle down into the road squad.
?The one thing I wanted more than anything else in this Games was a medal outside of the track,? he said.
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