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Lawn Tennis: Cooke serves up; Nicole goes it alone to grab bronze or Wales.

Byline: By PHIL BLANCHE

FORGET the talk over handing out medals to the entire team for cycling gold on the road.

What about playing the national anthem for bronze - crazy?

Well, not if you happened to see Nicole Cooke defend her Commonwealth title around the streets of Melbourne.

Pitched against the might of the 'best-ever' Australian women's cycling team in their own backyard - not to mention formidable teams from Canada, England and New Zealand - lone ranger Cooke produced one of the most courageous performances you will witness in sport.

It was not the gold that Welsh trio Michaela Breeze, David Davies and David Phelps will take home and cherish from these Games.

Neither will it be easy to explain down the pub or in the office that bronze is the new gold. After all, Cooke did come third.

But it was a masterful display from a proven champion whose work ethic is unrivalled in Welsh sport. It was one of the greatest displays by a Welsh competitor in Commonwealth Games history.

Outnumbered and outgunned, Cooke reined in the pack who had broken away with Australian gold medallist Natalie Bates and still had the energy to engineer a turbo-charged sprint finish to the line.

She lost silver to Oenone Wood by less than a bike length, but while the 2004 and 2005 World Cup champion was on the podium, Australia was denied its predicted clean sweep.

"For me, it's as good as gold - it really is," said the beaming 22-year-old after just under three hours of hard slog in the Melbourne heat.

"There were 31 riders in the field. Six New Zealanders and not one on the podium, six Canadians and not one on the podium.

"The medal was everything I was hoping for and I made it."

Perhaps it was Cooke's allegiance to the British flag, for whom she will be lead rider at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, which prevented her from remarking that England had six riders in the field as well.

Though perhaps not in accordance with the rules of the Games, Team Wales chef de mission Anne Ellis had criticised England for refusing to help Cooke defend the title she had won in Manchester with the help of two support riders.

So Cooke's charge to the line in front of Rachel Heal (bronze medallist in Manchester and best-placed English com petitor here in fifth) was particularly sweet for Welsh fans who had lined the city course around the Royal Botanical Gardens in their hundreds. Huge cheers greeted the Wick wonder as she took her place on the podium. "It was gold in Manchester and bronze here, but I did everything I could," she said. "I am really proud of myself because you can't help thinking about the sup port and the tactical possibilities that the other teams had. "Just getting on the podium was as good as I could do, but the colour depended on how the race panned out. "Cooke's chances of medalling appeared slim after Bates - one of the unfancied Australians - broke away in the opening 10km with England's Emma Davies-Jones, Canadian Mandy Poitras, New Zealand's Toni Bradshaw and Malaysia's Noor Alias for company. The bad news for Cooke was that each of the big nations had one representative in the break and no-one was prepared to hunt the five-strong pack down, though she did briefly cut the lead to 90 seconds. Cooke knew she could not expendenergy as she would be picked off by the likes of Sara Carrigan and Wood and the Australians were content to slow the pelaton down and bank on Bates bringing home the gold. The tactic paid off as Bates made a decisive break attacking a climb 28km from home, but the failure of the quartet behind to kick on left the rest of the medals up for grabs. "I thought it was over with three laps to go," admitted Cooke. "But then I found out that the Australian had broken away and the others were coming back. It was race on again. "I had to use some of my energy up in the earlier part of the race to stop the gap ballooning. It could easily have gone up to seven or eight minutes if I hadn't started making those moves. "So I really had to go for it on the fifth lap, otherwise I would have been out of it. It was hard and hot, but the support of the Welsh guys kept me going. "I've done a lot of hard work in the last couple of months to get ready for this. I felt I was one of the strongest in the race. "I was lucky enough to get gold in Manchester and here it was the bronze. But I'm pleased with both results. "DON'T MISS POST SPORT TOMORROW FOR A FULL REVIEW OF WALES AT THE GAMES

I am proud of myself because you can't help thinking about the support the other teams had - Nicole Cooke
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Mar 27, 2006
Words:832
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