Former World and Olympic road cycling champion, and scourge of the dopers, Nicole Cooke, has added her considerable voice to those aghast at the thought of Lance Armstrong riding the Tour de France route in July.
The American drug cheat has been invited to join 'Le Tour - One Day Ahead', by former footballer and cancer survivor, Geoff Thomas, in a charity ride designed to raise £1million for Cure Leukaemia.
“Geoff Thomas has made his decision but it’s a short-term view, riding on the back of the notoriety of Lance Armstrong,” said Cooke.
“Unfortunately that’s something which is very common in the sport of cycling. Cheats still aren’t seen as cheats. They’re not seen as stealing people’s livelihoods, people’s careers.
“For Lance Armstrong it’s selfishly about what’s good for Lance Armstrong. It’s about image management. I think it slightly tarnishes Geoff’s efforts and what he’s doing is inspirational and credible enough without it.”
Canvassing strong views from the 31-year-old Welshwoman is not the most arduous task in sport. Since the of 12 she’s been an unpaid and often unheeded moral arbiter her sport - on drug use, on sexism, on poor governance - and often her whistleblowing was unwelcome to a sport cosying up to the cheats at its heart.
I still think there are problems in that a lot of former riders - particularly doped former riders who tested positive and admitted to doping - are now team managers or play prominent roles within the pro cycling teams
“I was certainly unpopular in British Cycling. Absolutely. You can find as many articles as you like where I’ve been described as “difficult” by Brian Cookson [former head of British Cycling, now leader of the world governing body, ICU].
“It seemed like the [previous] ICU Presidents were more concerned with the image of cycling, the PR mission of it being a clean sport and Lance Armstrong being the new clean hero. It totally clouded their judgement about Lance and all the doping that was going on and ultimately they ran the sport without morals, without ethics and failed a whole generation of cyclists.
“There is at least recognition now of the problems of the past. Recognition there as been systematic doping among teams and corruption at the ICU. So while cycling might not be totally clean today and we’re still getting riders testing positive for EPO, I think we’re in a much better position to deal with the problem.
“I still think there are problems in that a lot of former riders - particularly doped former riders who tested positive and admitted to doping - are now team managers or play prominent roles within the pro cycling teams.
“Dopers are still in denial. They haven’t understood they are stealing people’s careers, livelihoods, races, everything. They don’t understand they are thieves. People make excuses for them. They’ve “apologised”. Looking coldly at the situation, it still pays to dope. You’ve got much more to gain by doping than by not doping.
“Anyone slightly inclined or morally open to do it will think: ‘What’s the down side? You can be back in the sport in two years, write a book, be feted by the teams and the media.” There should be higher penalties. I think it should be: ‘Dope once and you’re out’ plus huge fines. Wages and prize money should be clawed back - because it’s fraud.”
“I’ve seen it. I’ve had the conversations where team managers are telling me they expect more of me and “there’s a big box over there” - I just need to choose whatever I want to take. And I said no. For me it was very straightforward. The difficult thing was the other consequences. For me, that season, it was not being paid for the rest of the year. The subliminal message: it was very difficult to have clean riders in cycling.”
Cooke’s award-winning autobiography Breakaway, details the lone grief of her guerrilla war against cheats which was made only bearable by the rock solid support of her family - and ultimately the unbridled joy of winning the Olympic gold medal in Beijing in 2008. “It was the dreams of the little kid coming true. An incredible race. An incredible experience. Certainly my highlight.”
And miraculously untarnished by the awkward fact that she was a also, inconveniently, a woman. Has cycling been sexist? It has and it is, says one of it’s greatest champions, male or female.
“At the 2006 Commonwealth Games the Welsh team sent six male riders and me. I got a bronze with no supporting team and not a single male rider finished. That really summed it up. It was absolutely institutional sexism and poor governance. Ridiculous.
“Even now, the biggest issue in women’s cycling is the lack of protection in road racing. There’s a minimum wage for men, but not for women. And the channels designed to protect them don’t work. It’s like they’re outside the normal rules of society. The governing body has a duty to act.
“The way female athletes across all sports are viewed and portrayed has a long way to go. Federations have got so much more they can do in how they support female athletes. Equal prize money is one thing, especially if those Federations are in receipt of public funds. And I’d like to see women’s sport promoted for athletic prowess without having to be wrapped up in side issues like what the athletes are wearing. That just trivialises performances.”
Cooke doesn’t come to accommodation with perceived injustice. She was an all-out competitor on the road and remains a no-compromise campaigner against bendy ethics that drag so many sports into disrepute. In this she was always fully supported by her family and she’s repaying the compliment in the next week, flying out to Australia to be bridesmaid at her brother’s wedding.
Having retired in 2013, her sporting ambition is now simple. “We’re trying to achieve sport that rewards athletes who work hard and want to take part in fair competition.” Aren’t we?
The Breakaway by Nicole Cooke is published by Simon & Schuster, £9.99.