The latest cycling book review from SweetSpot is here, this month the much acclaimed autobiography of Olympic Champion Nicole Cooke, a book already on the 2014 William Hill Sports Book of the Year long list.

Read on to find the review, this month by Friends Life Women’s Tour Director Guy Elliott, and don’t forget to check out the links to previous book reviews at the foot of the article.

The Breakaway, by Nicole Cooke
Out Now, Published by: Simon and Schuster, £20
Review by Guy Elliott
Available in all good book stores, and online here from Amazon

The Breakaway is an absorbing and eye-opening account of the trials faced by Nicole Cooke, one of Britain’s greatest ever athletes, culminating in her double crown of winning both the Olympic and World Championship Women’s Road Races in 2008. But what truly sets this book apart from numerous other sporting biographies is seeing from behind the scenes, the sharp differences that exist in sport in the treatment of men and women and a very different perspective on the highly successful British Cycling World Class Performance Plan that has produced so many Olympic champions over recent years. The contents will unsettle even the most partisan of male cycling fans.

The Breakaway follows Cooke from her childhood years and could, simplistically, be viewed as the typical trials and tribulations of a young athlete making their way in a competitive and demanding sport. From the youngest age the reader can sense Cooke’s focus and drive on almost anything she touches – whether it be her academic life or any sports with which she becomes involved. You are left in no doubt that she would have been a high achiever at whatever she had put her mind to – and this is not because she brags in any way whatsoever, but rather the unmistakeable self-belief that is shared by many great athletes and leaders.

It’s Cooke’s account of her reaching elite world level and becoming a multiple junior world champion across different disciplines, followed by living abroad to further her career at such a young age makes that makes for compelling reading. On realising that she might be going to race in Italy she simply persuaded a supportive teacher to teach her Italian from scratch.

The unbreakable self-belief that is needed just to survive at this level of sport jumps out from every page as do Cooke’s totally uncompromising views and moral values – yet she still finds time to recognise how tough it is for others, of lesser natural ability, trying to make their way in professional cycling.

Cooke is also quick to graciously praise many other athletes and support staff although more than once the reader is left with the impression that these people fitted in with her standards rather than any great compromise from Cooke’s side. She can forgive weakness but not incompetence and not, as she makes clear many times, anyone who was in any way involved with performance enhancing drugs. Another of her constant themes is that where there are drug cheats, it is the clean honest riders who soon become the losers.

So far so good but what makes The Breakaway and absolutely unmissable read is how Cooke’s story provides a sharply differing, and far more cynical, view on the treatment of female athletes in cycling and in particular the “gold medal production line” that is British Cycling’s World Class Performance Plan.

The reader can be in no doubt that Cooke must have been difficult to ‘manage’ particularly when she repeatedly challenges management decisions, an approach that would have won her few friends in a system that demands total compliance.

At first her stance could be put down to intransigence but that changes as more details become clear, concisely and factually related, of what appears to be the very different treatment of female road athletes, even though they are also potential Olympic medallists. It is hard not to be left with a sharply uncomfortable taste about how the system that produced so many Olympic medals clearly failed so many female athletes and Cooke in particular.

To back up her case she gives several examples of struggling to obtain equipment and race clothing whilst no stone was being left unturned elsewhere in the quest for marginal gains in British Cycling.

Cooke’s athletic career is now over but she makes the valued point that there is still no structured development pathway for female road athletes and team places at world championships are still being left unfilled despite Britain’s women having succeeded, against the odds, at the very highest level.

At best it could be said that the programme fails to adapt sufficiently to get the best from “complex” individuals but again that seems hard to justify. Many of the world’s top male sportsmen, and particularly within cycling, it sometimes seems, could be described as complex and, yes, a bit difficult on occasions. Cooke never went ‘off the rails’ and, if anything, it appears it was her relentless and totally uncompromising will to win at all costs that sat surprisingly uneasily with British Cycling.

As the book draws to a close you are left with a heightened admiration for Nicole Cooke’s remarkable achievements coupled with a recognition of the incredible successes of British Cycling over recent years. Ultimately one is left with a feeling of “If only they could get together” what might be possible for women’s female road athletes?

But if it was that easy perhaps Cooke would never have broken away from the bunch in the first place….

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