“THE TEN CENTIMETRES THAT CHANGED BADEN COOKE’S LIFE…….”

Baden Cooke is holed up at a Malvern Hospital on this bitterly-cold, late June morning.

He’s half a world away from the celebrated Tour de France. …..184 of the finest road cyclists on the planet are about to undertake their 21-day 3,417 km journey through tranquil villages, picture-book hillside scenery and brutish European mountains – accompanied by the usual fanfare, razzmatazz and extensive caravan of hangers-on……..

He occasionally casts his mind back to his involvement in ‘Le Tour’, but for the last four days, Baden’s attention has been focused on the ‘drip’, which has almost cleansed his body of a strain of the dreaded Golden Staph.

He was in the Outback, recording a TV reality show when a small nick on his arm developed into an infection: “Thankfully, I’m on the improve”, he says ……..

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Baden’s a Benalla boy, born and bred.

His passion for the bike game began around the age of 11: “I was a fairly good runner as a little fellah, but once I climbed on a bike I was hooked. Some kids want to be rock stars, champion footballers, or become the Prime Minister…….I just wanted to ride the Tour de France……..”

Baden came to the attention of Barry Burns when he was competing in a Criterium around the streets of Wangaratta.

“There was something about him that I liked,” Burns recalled, “even though he looked like a camel on the bike. He’d obviously never been shown the right way to ride.”

“I told his mum Brenda that if he needed any help I’d always be available. They were on their way back to Benalla when she told him. He wanted to turn around straight away, and come back to see me.”

Cooke, he says, was a “bit of a wild bugger in his younger days, but his biggest asset was his determination.”

When he moved to Wangaratta to complete Years 11 and 12 at Galen College, Baden ‘shakked up’ with Burns, and his family.

Barry Burns is famous in this neck of the woods for rejigging his life after returning, mentally ‘shot’, from the Vietnam War. He spent 11 years in and out of psychiatric wards trying to cope with his ‘demons’ .

A doctor urged him to return to his first love – cycling – as therapy, to help regain his equilibrium. Single-mindedly embarking on a punishing regime of riding 1000km a week, the veteran went on to win the time-honoured ‘Warrnambool’, a ‘King of the Mountain Classic’, and represent Australia at the 1990 World Road titles.

He maintained a strong connection with the sport upon retirement, by taking a few young riders under his wing.

“ Living with ‘Burnsy’ was a real turning-point for me…..” Baden recalls .”He was a hell of a tough coach, and really taught me how to train hard……..He completely changed my cycling direction…..”

His parents had subtly suggested he channel his schooling towards a more normal career: “But when they realised how fair dinkum I was about being a pro they fully supported me.”……..

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Baden went straight from Galen College to take up a scholarship at the Australian Institute of Sport in 1997. His efforts in winning the Bendigo Tour and the National Junior Points Score title the previous year had placed a bullet beside his name.

Locals had become well acquainted from afar, with the surging Cooke career, but rarely got the opportunity to see him ‘in the skin’…….Until the 21 year-old captured their attention at the Wangaratta Carnival of 2000.

“I remember being in pretty good form when I went back. There was always a contingent of dominant track cyclists that headed to Wang in those days……..(Stephen) Pate was the hot-favourite in the Wheelrace Final that year, but he went out way too early, and I managed to get over the top of him.”

“It was a huge thrill.”

He also won a couple of Bendigo Madisons with Pate, then turned pro not long after, signing with American team, Mercury, and pitching headlong into the challenging European tour.

It proved tougher than expected for the Aussie ‘greenhorn’, but wins in the ‘Prix de Bles d’Or’, and the Points Classification in the (USA) Rapport Tour, were highlights of his debut season, besides picking up three stages on the Herald-Sun Tour.

It was his transfer to French team ‘Francaise de Jeux’ in 2002 that catapulted Baden to prominence in the sport’s toughest arena.

His first start in the Tour de France saw him placed fourth in the Points Classification for the ‘Maillot Vert’ (the Green Jersey). “ It gave me confidence that I could compete with the best.”

I ask if he’d had any exposure to the drug-taking that racked the sport in this era.

“There was a lot of it around at the time, of course,” he says. “I never saw it personally, but I knew it was going on. I was just lucky that all of the teams I was involved with were dead-set against it.”

“For instance, FDJ had been caught up in a fair scandal in 1999. By the time I got there they not only encouraged us to be anti-drugs; you were off the team If you took them……………”

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Along with the other top Aussie riders, Cooke went straight from the 2002 Tour de France to Manchester, for the Commonwealth Games. He finished with a Bronze Medal, behind team-mates Stuart O’Grady and Cadel Evans, in the road race.

His ninth placing in the World Road championships gave some indication of his rapid improvement. But his breakout season also included wins in the Paris-Corrèze, the semi-classic Belgian event, Dwars door Vlaanderen, the one-day Tro bro Léon in Brittany, and a fifth placing in the historic Paris-Brussels one-day Classic.

He returned home to take out the Herald-Sun Tour ( as well as picking up two stage wins), to impress upon the Australian public that he was a genuine star .

“That year the Tour went up Mount Hotham and Baw Baw, so it was no walk in the park. I was fairly versatile, I suppose. I didn’t mind those tough races, and sprinting was my forte’.”

The moment Baden Cooke captured the world’s attention came in the Centenary staging of the 2003 Tour de France.

He’d spent time in the White Jersey ( worn by the outstanding young rider Under 26 ), and throughout the Tour had been engaged in a captivating battle with compatriot Robbie McEwan, for the coveted sprint crown.

He’d taken out Stage 2, by outpointing the Frenchman Jean-Patrick Nazon, but McEwan, who’d won the first of his three Points Classifications the previous year, held a slight lead over Cooke, as they rode into Paris, on the Champs-Élysées. The Aussies had held a stranglehold on the Green Jersey for all but one stage of the race.

“It was extremely stressful, that final day,” Baden recalled. “I was pretty exhausted, and felt the weight of the world on my shoulders.”

“On the first intermediate sprint I beat Robbie, to equalise the Points…….Then he won the second Intermediate, to take back the lead…….So it basically boiled down to who crossed the line first………..”

“There was nothing in it……..It didn’t register that I’d won…….It was only when Robbie came up, shook hands and said: ‘Congratulations, you’ve won it’ that it sunk in.”

He had clinched the Green Jersey by two points.

“Put it this way, the 10 centimetres I won by, changed my life forever. I felt blessed that I’d achieved my childhood dream……….”

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Baden finished 12th in the Tour’s Points Classification in 2004, and headed to his first Olympics as a member of the powerful Road team, comprising Robbie McEwan, Stuart O’Grady, Michael Rodgers and Matt White.

“I didn’t really fire, but I was basically working for the team. I think Robbie McEwan finished 11th…..It was an amazing experience, though.”

After his fourth Tour de France, Baden switched from FDJ to Unibet in 2006, then rode the 2008 Tour in the Barloworld colours.

He moved to Vacansoleil in 2009, then Saxo Bank for two seasons, before joining Orica-GreenEDGE In 2012.

“It was a thrill to get into the Australian-owned team. It had been a dream of mine for that to occur…..I didn’t think it’d be in my lifetime……Then Gerry Ryan came along and it happened……I jumped straight on board…..”

He wore the GreenEDGE colours for two years, including the 2012 Tour de France, but announced his retirement the following year, when he didn’t score a contract with a WorldTour team.

After more than 50 professional race wins – many of them on the tough Continental cycling calandar- it was all over.

“I was 35, and had ridden in the peloton for just on 14 years. Sponsors were tightening their belts at that time. A few teams departed and a lot of top riders were forced out,” he says.

“It was a hard life being a pro cyclist. For 95 per cent of the time it’s not very glamorous……You’ve gotta live and breathe the sport, and you certainly can’t do it half-heartedly……If you don’t love it you just can’t do it……”

Along with many of the world’s top riders, Baden had been living in Monaco for most of the time he’d been a pro, . He decided to move into Sports Management when the curtain came down on his career.

He held a stake in Factor Bikes and Black Inc wheels ( which he’s now sold), but is still involved in Sports Management. Now based in Melbourne, he and his brother Marcus operate a computer networking and engineering company, Hamilton Cooke Network.

Baden gets back to the North-East fairly often. His parents still live there, and he loves the area, .

“I ride the High Country Challenge most years, and I’m good friends with a lot of the boys.”

“Actually, I haven’t ridden my bike for about three months, but I’m looking forward to going out this week-end……….”says one of Benalla’s finest sporting products.

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