London 2012: Armitstead & Cooke battle for GB superiority

British Olympic Dreams

  • Watch on BBC One: Sat 19 May, 12:50 BST (on BBC Two in Scotland)

In the latest part of our weekly #olympicthursday  series on leading British hopes, BBC Olympic sports reporter Ollie Williams speaks to road cycling rivals Nicole Cooke and Lizzie Armitstead.

When Britain's Olympic cyclists take to London's roads this summer, the majority will be racing to win someone else gold.

If the plan works, that person alone gets a gold medal. Their team-mates? They get the satisfaction of knowing they helped.

At Beijing 2008, Nicole Cooke won the women's road race for Britain. In 2012, she is determined to defend her title. But come 29 July, when the selectors have made their decision and wheels poke nervously over the Mall's start line, she may not be the chosen one.

A new era?

Nicole Cooke (left) and Lizzie Armitstead

Between 2001 and 2009, Nicole Cooke (left) won an unprecedented nine consecutive British national road race titles. However, in 2010 Emma Pooley took the honours with Lizzie Armitstead second. In 2011, Armitstead won the title ahead of Cooke. This year's race is on 24 June.

"I think I'm the fastest of the British girls," declares Lizzie Armitstead. The 23-year-old is six years younger than Cooke and locked in head-to-head battle with the Olympic champion to be the focus of Team GB, the gold-medallist-in-waiting.

BBC Sport tracked Armitstead down at a training camp in the Netherlands, and then followed Cooke to her adopted home of Lugano in Switzerland.

"It can be daunting going up against Nicole," continues Armitstead. "Don't get me wrong, I would never question that Nicole is a fantastic athlete and she's had some awesome results. She was Olympic champion and that gives her some credentials above me, but four years ago is a very long time in professional sport."

Their rivalry veered towards the unpleasant at last year's World Championships in Copenhagen. Cooke and Armitstead were in the same GB women's team, with Armitstead the leader.

The team looked well-placed to contend for the title until a crash late in the race separated Armitstead from Cooke up ahead. They have differing recollections of subsequent events, which saw Cooke set off for the line only to finish fourth, with Armitstead coming home seventh.

At the time, Cooke said: "We were all riding for Lizzie. She'd been doing so well and I was up there waiting for her to come up to me, but I never saw her.

"So in the end I had to just do my sprint. When we went around the last corner I thought, 'Well, I'm in a race-winning position, Lizzie's either on my wheel or she's not.'"

Six months later, sitting on a lakeside wall in Lugano, Cooke admits: "We didn't perform to our potential. We were centimetres away from a podium but we could all have done so much better. We've learnt a lot from that race."

Armitstead, however, feels Cooke abandoned her in the melee after the crash, as her hopes of a world title slipped away.

"I was just disappointed that I felt Nicole worked for herself in the final and didn't help me back from a crash," she says now.

Emma Pooley's verdict

Emma Pooley

Emma Pooley won women's time trial silver at Beijing 2008. She helped Nicole Cooke to road race gold at the same Games, and now rides in Lizzie Armitstead's team.

"There are arguments before and after races and there should be discussions about them, but I'm not sure doing it through the media is the best way.

"Before I knew Lizzie, I was pretty scared of her. She looks scary in a race but she's actually really, really nice and professional.

"If the Olympic road race is a bunch sprint, I think Lizzie's clearly our best candidate. But will it be a bunch sprint? Let's wait and see."

"Ultimately, I made the mistake in Copenhagen by being too far back in the field - I needed a bit of extra help. I certainly don't blame my result on Nicole, I just feel that there wasn't a united front, basically."

That front disappeared entirely when, two months after the race, Armitstead told Cycling Weekly magazine of a furious row  once the team had crossed the line, adding: "I've never seen her [Nicole] work for a team-mate. It was a unanimous decision that Nicole didn't do her job properly."

Does Armitstead regret that interview, now?

"I think it was a shame, perhaps, the way it was portrayed in the media. That was my mistake, I said one thing to one journalist and it was all blown out of proportion.

"But I stand by what I said and I think, as a result, we'll be stronger as a team for having the issue aired and not just glossed over as it has been in the past.

"It's difficult. People expect you to be the best of friends in this job but it's like any other job, you're not always friends with every colleague in the office. Me and Nicole have a very professional relationship. That's it."

Cooke, of course, read the article too. "Lizzie and I have spoken about what happened in the race and since. I've forgiven her for what she did, and how she reacted."

One of the two will almost certainly end up riding for the other this summer. Each must be prepared to knuckle down for the team and set their own vision of gold aside.

"I've done many races over the years where I've been supporting my team-mates," says Cooke, the only Brit in her Faren Honda  pro team. "I'm focused on being at my very best so I can be on-course for that gold medal, but we'll be realistic when the time comes."

"Cycling is a team sport and people underestimate that all the time," says Armitstead, who rides with three other top Britons - Olympic time trial silver medallist Pooley, Sharon Laws and Lucy Martin - in her AA Drink  team.

Going it alone

Nicole Cooke describes how she blazed a trail in women's cycling without, she believes, her governing body's help.

"In 2000, in the build-up to the Sydney Games, I was the British champion but a rule came out implementing a minimum age for the Olympic road race. I would be too young.

"A lawyer told me we could fight that rule and win, so he wrote to British Cycling asking if they would support my case.

"They said they wouldn't support it, because my win at the British Championships was a fluke. Two weeks later, at the next round of the British road race series, I beat everyone again.

"There was no path for me to follow. Who was there to advise me? Nobody had been there before - been world number one, won a World Cup, won the Tour de France, won the Giro d'Italia, become Olympic champion.

"If there was a book written on how to do that, I'd have been happy to have it. But there wasn't."

"For me to be able to ride almost every race with the same girls that I could potentially be riding the Olympic road race is definitely valuable."

Armitstead and Cooke have both won pro races in these vital pre-Olympic months and there are more to come before the big decision is made. Ultimately, this issue may only be resolved on the day of the race, in the thick of the action.

"In Copenhagen, I felt I should be the out-and-out leader. In London, I think it's different," says Armitstead.

"London is quite a tough course - the road surface isn't that great, it's soggy and heavy, typically British. The Box Hill climb is harder than people give it credit for and I think, the harder the race, the better it suits me.

"The Olympic road race is a different race to any other, and I don't think it's necessarily the best idea to put all your eggs in one basket. If it does come down to a sprint, I think we should ride for me. I've got a lot of results, and results speak louder than anything else.

"But," she says, moving on to her real grievance, "I think, going into the Olympic Games, I should feel confident that whatever the plan, everybody works towards that plan."

Cooke says: "Come the Olympic road race, there are going to be lots of factors playing their part in the team dynamic. There are hill parts, the final part is flat as we go into London, there are going to be various parts of the race where each rider will play to their strengths.

"You need a rider that can climb, a rider that can sprint and a rider that has the tactical awareness to understand what's going on and make those split-second decisions. I feel like I've got all of those qualities and, together with my team-mates, I think we can come up with hopefully a winning strategy to get a GB rider on top of the podium."

As filming nears a conclusion, Armitstead wants one thing to be clear.

"Make sure you do put that bit in [about Cooke being an excellent rider]. That's the bit that people don't pick up on, she is awesome. I don't want people to think I'm some young upstart thinking she's [terrible] and I'm better, because I don't.

"But I'm faster."