Almost one year ago, after climbing his way to the biggest win of his career on the Queen Stage at the Tour de Beauce, Matt Cooke thought that finally everything was coming together for him. On his second year with the UCI Continental squad, Team Exergy, his future looked bright.
A few months later, the lights almost when out when the Exergy Development Group announced the end of sponsorship of the team leaving Cooke and his teammates to scramble for a job at the end of November. The late date and Cooke’s age, 33 at that point, were all challenges to overcome in a saturated market.
“Believe me, I’ve had many many nights, far too many nights, where I wanted to quit or just thought ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I never wanted to quit but thought I was being forced to. I thought the circumstances were too difficult for me to overcome and I’ve never wanted to but I thought that I didn’t have a choice.” Cooke told podiuminsight.
“I didn’t want to go out with the last race being sort of an average race. I know that I’m a really good rider, I’ve seen it, I’ve done it before. I’m not as consistent as other guys, I think I will be in the future if I get the chance but I’m sure – I’ve seen it in races, I’ve seen it in training – it’s there and if I don’t actually go and try to compete, for the rest of my life I’ll be upset at myself. I’ll never be able to forgive myself if I don’t do everything I can, now, with this young body that I have, because I won’t have it much longer. If I have the opportunity I’m going to keep on fighting.”
Though it was a rough patch and that money is still owed to him, Cooke is not driven by anger. “I’m certainly angry at the situation that happened, that’s gotten me through maybe some training sessions but at the end of the day, my life is pretty good. I’m not going to be too upset about that. And you can’t fuel yourself on anger for months and months and months.”
In 2013, Cooke signed with the elite amateur squad Champion System p/b Stan’s No Tubes. “We’re doing all the big races, we have management behind us who is intelligent and knows how to send us to races,.“
He came out swinging early in the season, with a second overall at the San Dimas Stage Race and two second-place finishes at the Redlands Bicycle Classic. His efforts to achieve consistency seem to be paying off.
“I try to keep on doing all the same things all the time, I feel that I’ve done a lot better. I had a great winter of training, I have a good home life, I try to keep stress to a minimum. I really make an effort to get rid of all of the stressors in my life, to do things as efficiently as possible. There should be no wasted motion or time, I don’t have the energy for that.” he laughed. “Honestly it’s a bit of a mystery why I’m riding better now and more consistently better. In the past, I had these very sporadic blips of great races but for some reason now I’m sort of packing them all up. I don’t know, I’m motivated, I really really want to do well.”
On the last day of the Redlands Bicycle Classic, Cooke made the conscious decision to not defend his KOM jersey in order to go for the stage win but he was not able to follow eventual stage winner Francisco Mancebo (5-Hr Energy)’s counterattack.
“I made a mistake and I should have been with Mancebo at the end, there’s nobody to blame but myself. It’s something that I’m not going to do again, I’m learning. To me, to win a stage, to be an outright winner that day, that’s better than a points jersey. The points jersey is a great thing, I would have been psyched to do it but you can’t do both. Carter won it, hats off to him. That was my goal, I tried it and I messed it up.”
At the Silver City’s Tour of the Gila, Cooke once again came close to that big win on the Gila Monster, the Queen Stage but was outsprinted on the final climb to the finish. He does admit to be looking for that big victory to move him up to the pro level once again.
“Perhaps this team gets bigger next year, that may well happen. But also, I would love to be picked halfway through the year to do the altitude races in the US, Tour of Utah and the US Pro Challenge. I think I’m going to be fit for those races, I’ve done them a couple of times, I’m a heck of a lot better this year than anytime before.”
“My motivation is I want to win. If someone said ‘you know what Matt, you’re going to win and beat the best guys in the country but you still do not get picked up by a pro team’, I’m still going to try to win of course. For the rest of life, I’ll be able to say, potentially, that I won on that day. That’s what I was trying to do at Gila. A mistake as well, but I haven’t been in very many head to head sprints. It was like ‘Oh God here’s 400 meters, when do I go?’ And Paco has been racing for 20 years at the top level, and here I am, still learning. I made it pretty far that day in front of a lot of good guys so I’ll pat myself on the back for that but I definitely kick myself for the sprint.”
He’s not sure exactly what it would take to get picked up by a pro team though he has had discussions with directors and team owners. Some have expressed interest.
“I’m one of the best climbers in the country, I’m not the best, I’m not sure if there is a the best but definitely one of a small handful and I’m only getting better. I want to race, the only thing holding me back I suppose is my age. It’s a silly rule, I started late in the sport, I was a triathlete for a long time.” he explained. Cooke’s first road event was in 2005 at the age of 25.
“I certainly am not a field sprinter, I’ll never do that. I think I can really improve at this and I want someone to pick me up, and if they do, they’re going to get their money’s worth, I can tell you that. I’m a very humble guy, I certainly know who’s better than me, I know how to suck their wheel.” he finished with a laugh.
On the eve of the Tour de Beauce, you can bet that Cookie will be looking for that big stage win once again, and why not on top of Mont Megantic.