Baden Cooke: “It makes you wonder about your sanity”
Three days after an epic edition of Milan-San Remo, riders had begun to thaw out and the swelling of limbs that some suffered because of the freezing conditions was effectively over. But the ramifications are likely to last a while longer yet. Beforehand Baden Cooke and his Orica-GreenEdge team-mates were told by their DS that this race would be “one they’ll be talking about in 20 years time”. ‘Cookie’ didn’t quite understand why Neil Stephens was making such a big deal about it in the pre-race meeting. But he dressed for the cold and set off from Milan in an optimistic mood. His race effectively came to an end on the Cipressa; he did his team duties and then switched into survival mode for the final 25km.
‘La Primavera’ of 2013 was a contest split into two parts. After the start, snow and sleet forced organisers to neutralise a significant portion of the 298km course and riders would get an unprecedented chance for a mid-race reprieve. They climbed back onto their team busses and were transported to the site of a second start.
“There were a couple of us almost in tears in there,” said Cooke about the mood of the riders during the stint on the bus when interviewed for his team’s Backstage Pass. “After a hot shower, it was alright again. Luckily, we’re like goldfish: we’ve got a very short memory and we’ve forgotten all about it. Now we’re just thinking about winning it again.”
The race would take a hefty toll but all GreenEdge’s original starters got back on their bikes again in Arenzano… but a second successive victory was not to be.
The 2011 champion, Matt Goss, had crashed in the first stanza and shortly after the restart the Tasmanian abandoned. The best-placed of the team was Sebastian Langeveld in 23rd. Last year’s champion, Simon Gerrans, was 68th – over five minute behind the German winner, Gerald Ciolek of the South African-registered wild-card team MTN-Qhubeka.
RIDE caught up with Cooke over the phone early on the Wednesday after the race. He admitted that he hadn’t touched the bike since stepping off it in San Remo and that he’d need at least another day to recover. He picked up a cold and lamented that the likely scenario was that he’d miss out on E3 Harelbeke (on 22 March, five days after Milan-San Remo) but he was optimistic that he’d be able to start Gent-Wevelgem on the 24th.
Here is a transcript of the parts of the discussion with Cooke that related to Milan-San Remo. More from the revealing interview will be published in the 15th anniversary issue of RIDE, #60 (due out in May)…
Baden Cooke Interview – Milan-San Remo: the frozen Monument
– 20 March 2013
(Interview by Rob Arnold)
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RIDE: I wanted to talk about this extraordinary day on Sunday, the 104th Milan-San Remo. Had it been a race on Saturday – like has been the tradition has it for Milan-San Remo – would it have been a 298km race?
Cooke: “Oh, it was a beautiful day on Saturday! We went for a nice roll around the countryside and it was spectacular – and we knew what was coming, we were waiting for it to happen.
“In the bus before the start [on Sunday] we knew it was going to be bad – we’ve had a lot of bad weather days lately. But ‘Stevo’ [DS Neil Stephens] said to us in the bus, he goes: ‘Boys this is going to be epic.’ He goes, ‘They’ll be talking about today in 20 years time.’
“I was like, ‘What? What are you f—ing talking about? Why?!’ You know – because you don’t know how bad it’s going to be. But he’s just gone, ‘Mate, they’re going to be talking about it in 20 years’ time…’ And I’m like, ‘Oh shit…’ And he’ll be right!”
RIDE: Perhaps the funniest part of Dan Jones documentary from Sunday [the Backstage Pass] is when you say that you’re like goldfish…
Cooke: “Yeah, well two hours before I’d fallen off my bike into the bus and was freezing my tits off. The soigneurs had to undress me and as they started taking the gloves off and my hands felt the air they just went into sheer agony. I was almost in tears! Then, two hours later, I’m all fired up going, ‘Come on boys! Let’s go and get into it!’ And I just threw myself straight back into it again.
“It makes you wonder about your sanity.”
RIDE: You’ve been doing this for a while now. Has there been another day like this for you on the bike?
Cooke: “Nah. No. I mean… nah! I think I’ve been as cold but it was only because I was not dressed as well. But I’ve never ever been in those conditions.
“In my older age, I’m getting a lot better at selecting clothing on days like that. When I was younger, I just had no clue. I’d often get caught out in just medium-bad conditions but with the different clothes that are available to us now and my experience in selection I made it as good as possible but it was just horrendous anyway.”
RIDE: Can you go through the layering that you actually had on when you left Milan?
Cooke: “I started with a long-sleeve, thick thermal undershirt. Thermal knicks. Legwarmers. Socks. Thermal boot covers. A jersey and armwarmers. Thermal vest. A light raincoat and a heavy raincoat over the top. Racing mits, long-fingered cotton gloves, and then long-sleeve wetsuit material gloves over the top – to three pairs of gloves. And then a skull cap and helmet. And I had heat patches around my neck area – those things you might tape onto your knee or something to keep you warm, I put them around the back of my neck because there are so many veins there. I’ve been starting to that lately: use the heat patches on my neck. And I also lathered my chest up with Vasoline.”
RIDE: And apparently the first hour of racing was hectic with a fast average… is that right?
Cooke: “Oh no, it wasn’t that bad. It didn’t take long for the break to go. It was fast but it wasn’t hard or anything.
“We started and it was gloomy but it wasn’t actually raining. Then it started spitting soon after. Then it went to rain. Then it got cold. Then it started snowing. But we were still sort of having a joke about it. Then it just got thicker and thicker and thicker and thicker… and it got to the point where my glasses were entirely covered in ice. I had to drop them down a bit so I could see anything. But then the snow flakes were just coming in and hitting me in the eye and it felt like a little knife stabbing me in the eye every couple of seconds. It stings, especially when you’re going at 50km/h.
“I basically couldn’t see anything. I had to ride with my eyes as closed as I could manage and most of the time only one eye was open – but only in a squint – and my glasses were still on my nose to try and protect my eyes a little bit… but I just couldn’t see shit.”
RIDE: With three pairs of gloves and all the clothing that you’re riding in, you couldn’t have felt the bike too well…
Cooke: “Oh, it wasn’t that bad. That wasn’t the problem.
“It’s one thing to be freezing so the reaction time is going to be slower, plus I couldn’t see anything.
“We’d been sitting at the front out of trouble and then Gossie, Jens Mouris and I stopped for a piss and, just as we came back, sure enough about 20 guys went down all over the place. Jens went straight into it, Gossie and I slid into it but held it up and then Gossie got rammed from behind. He went over and tweaked his knee. So, when the restart happened, that’s why he didn’t continue…”
RIDE: And how do you take a piss in that situation? Do you get the old-fella out or are you just pissing in your pants?
Cooke: “Oh, what’s left of it. We stopped when it was not too fast and you had to find the remnants of what your —- used to be – what’s become a little icy pole stick – and you pull it out and try and do a piss.”
RIDE: After the re-start it seemed, more-or-less, like nasty cold and wet…
Cooke: “Yeah, it wasn’t too bad. Obviously, in the interval we got in the shower, had something to eat, and got warm. Being competitive in nature we immediately started to go, ‘Right, let’s fire up – everyone is going to be losing their morale but let’s get out there and give it a red-hot go!’ We were sort of trying to convince ourselves that the trap would be – because you’re so scared from earlier in the day – to get overdressed and then be too hot afterwards. Riders might have been so worried about getting cold again but we were past the hill and over near the beach by then and there was a chance that it would have been quite a bit warmer.
“There was a lot of discussion as to what the right thing to wear for Round Two was. As it turned out, it was almost as cold. You virtually couldn’t have overdressed.”
RIDE: So did you just repeat the clothing sequence for the second stanza?
Cooke: “In the back of my mind I thought, ‘It’s going to be wet but then it might just fine up…’ because we were told it wasn’t even raining in San Remo. So the second time around, I actually wore a skinsuit. We only had a limited amount of clothing in our suitcase; we only brought clothes for a one-day race. I wore jackets over the top of the skinsuit thinking that maybe I’d peel it all off coming into the Cipressa and be all race-ready… but the weather never allowed it and that never came about.
“I finished down the back [124th, 11:56 behind Ciolek]. Once we started again it was a case of finding out who was feeling good. I went around the troops and sort of figured out that there were only two who seemed to be up; Stuey [O’Grady] and Sebastian Langeveld. I did my best to help them into the Cipressa and put them in position, take their rain jackets and what-not… and I pulled the pin on the Cipressa and just rode in so I was down the back of the field.”
RIDE: You’ve done this race a few times and you’ve seen what it’s like on the Cipressa on a ‘normal’ Milan-San Remo. It must have been a completely different vibe this year?
Cooke: “Yeah. Of course. There would have only been a small percentage of people who could actually get past how cold it was and actually think about racing. I think 80 per cent of the field were just beaten and they were out there because that was their job.
“It would take someone being very strong in the cold and being very highly motivated to be able to get over what we were going through and still actually try to ride it like a race.”
RIDE: One thing that didn’t change is that, once they got over the Cipressa, it was compelling. The finish is always one that, near the end, props you up and gives everyone an adrenaline surge… The way Sagan and Cancellara went down the Poggio is another reminder of how remarkable they are…
Cooke: “Sagan is a phenomenal athlete. He’s something really special. I think he basically stuffed it up completely though. He shouldn’t have lost that race.
“Ciolek did very well but he was very lucky that Sagan just beat himself really.
“Ciolek rode perfectly and Sagan rode really badly – tactically – but he is that good that he still only just lost.”
RIDE: When you got onto the bus, there’s a sequence in the Backstage Pass when no one needed to speak. Everyone just looked totally hurt. When you got on the bus, did anyone talk or were you all just sitting there trying to manage in your own way?
Cooke: “I remember saying to someone something like, ‘I have no words.’ And then one of the soigneurs came up to me while I was standing there, looking at the ground – like I didn’t know what to do. And she’s gone, ‘Baden, is there anything you need – is there anything you need me to do?’
“I just looked at her and said, ‘Can I have a hug?’
“She sort of laughed but I just kept looking at her so she leaned in a gave me a hug.
“I was sitting next to Gossie and we were both just shivering. They had to undress us one at a time and I was in pain but it was nothing more than what I had experienced on the bike. But as they pulled Gossie’s gloves off he just started yelling in a weird way, really loud: ‘Aaaahrgh! Aaaah – my hands! My hands!’ And I just looked at him like, ‘Jeez man, you’re a bit of a sook. What’s wrong with you?’
“And then he started going, ‘I’m going to vomit from the pain!’ When his hands hit the air, they were all puffed up as well for some reason. And he was just screaming, ‘I’m going to vomit!’ All the way I was just thinking, ‘Man, this is bizarre.’
“Then, about a minute later, they peeled my gloves off and I did exactly the same thing! I was, like, ‘Oooah!’ And I started dry retching. We were both sitting next to each other just one-two: ‘Uuagh!’ ‘Eergh!’ ‘Aargh!’… like that. It was f—ing ridiculous.”
RIDE: At least you can laugh about it now. How sick are you now because of it?
Cooke: “I got home [to Monaco] that night and got a fever. I don’t feel terribly sick now but I’m just stuffed. I’ve got a bit of a blocked nose and I went to the doctor yesterday and he said that it’s not on my lungs. But still, I feel totally nailed.”
RIDE: Have you done those ice baths that they do for recovery?
Cooke: “Yeah, I’ve done those before.”
RIDE: That’s for recovery and it’s deliberately extra cold. Is there any way of comparing that with the sensation you had on Sunday?
Cooke: “No, because you can just jump out of that!
“You couldn’t sit in an ice bath long enough for it get to the point when you felt as frozen as I did on Sunday. I don’t think we were far away from doing some serious damage to our hands. Mine were seriously puffed up and Gossie, for example, where is socks finished his legs were all puffed up like he’d been sitting on a long haul flight. It was bizarre. We were all pretty close to having hypothermia I think.”
RIDE: There’s a fairly substantial pro cycling community in Monaco where you live. Have you seen guys like Thor Hushovd?
Cooke: “Yeah. And I would have thought Thor would have been in his element being a Norwegian but he had nothing to compare it with. He just said that he’s never experienced anything like it. I thought that, being from up in the north in Norway he probably would have had a couple of epic days that would have put this to shame but he said he’s never seen anything like it.”
RIDE: What percentage of the community [who did that race] is now sick?
Cooke: “I know [Jonathan] Cantwell is sick. Gossie pulled up alright. Most of the boys are stuff though. They’re really tired.”
RIDE: How is it going to affect the rest of the Classics season?
Cooke: “It will knock a few people out. I haven’t really seen too many people because I’ve been too busy sitting on the couch looking after my daughter. I’m hoping to ride tomorrow [for the first time since Sunday] and I’m sitting here hoping that I’ll come good.
“If I’m no good, I’ll flick Gent-Wevelgem and do De Panne instead. If I come good, I’ll be there for Gent-Wevelgem.”
RIDE: How long has it been since you last threw your arms in the air for a win?
Cooke: “It’s been a few years now. The last few years I’ve got second about six times. I’ve had some really good second places but actually throwing my arms in the air? That would have been three or four years ago now.”
RIDE: Is it starting to do your head in or are you now settled into the role of working for Gossie and others?
Cooke: “Well, because I’ve been second in some decent races – and sometimes by about the width of a tyre – it’s not like I’m not there. In the past two years, some of the results I’ve got gave me more confidence than the years when I was younger. But I just haven’t actually nailed a win.
“I know it’s still there… I’m not like the animal I was when I was 23 when I could just do whatever I wanted and just win when I put my mind to it, but I can still win on my day – and I still want to.”
(Be sure to get the 15th anniversary issue of RIDE Cycling Review, issue #60, for more coverage on Milan-San Remo and the other Spring Classics of 2013. On sale in May. Also available on Zinio.)
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RIDE Media publishes RIDE Cycling Review, a quarterly magazine all about cycling.
RIDE Cycling Review is now available in a digital format via Zinio.