On September 11th, 2001, Mercury-Viatel’s Baden Cooke won the 6th Stage of the Tour l’Avenir. To say this wouldn’t be the lasting news of the day is something of an understatement.
l’Avenir is known as a showcase for up-and-coming stars, and that year’s edition proved no different. Future Giro and (sorta) Vuelta winner Denis Menchov took the overall. Cooke’s two stage victories and dominant points competition performance portended his Green Jersey win at the Tour de France two years later.
But for the Australian, the coincidence of that 6th stage may have foreshadowed something else entirely.
Wake Up, Sheeple
While the 2003 Green Jersey was undoubtedly the apex of Cooke’s racing career, he continued as a pro for another decade. In retirement, he’s worn hats ranging from infosec consultant to reality TV star, and provided decently entertaining commentary on all of it through Twitter (archived here as of September 1).
It might have been an isolated incident—let the person amongst us without a Twitter rant cast the first stone. But throughout 2015, 9/11 conspiracy theory was a very definite theme for Cooke. It’s particularly strange because less than a year earlier, he seemed on-board with the official version of events.
Nevertheless, Cooke celebrated 4th of July 2015 with a bizarre musing about False Flag attacks. On the anniversary of 9/11 itself, he launched into a discussion of how “most people don’t know” about Building 7, and posted that Cringe of All Cringe: non-ironic use of the hashtag “#sheeple”.
“If you want to know the truth follow @RealAlexJones”
In August of that year, Cooke tweeted “If you want to know the truth follow @RealAlexJones”, referencing the US-based lunatic and fraudster. Jones’ penchant for spewing inflammatory bullshit for hours on end has since seen him banned from every major video and social media platform, and exposed him to substantial legal liability.
Also on Cooke’s reading list is Jones’ acolyte Paul Joseph Watson, better known as PrisonPlanet. Unlike his erstwhile boss, Watson’s bans are so far limited to Facebook and Instagram. He’s had more than a few thoughts about 9/11, and as it so happens, Cooke found them resonant enough to RT on one occasion.
Cooke has more recently suggested he puts value on consuming media from a variety of sources. He defended his following of two since-suspended climate-change-denying accounts by saying:
Agreeing to Disagree
Of course, Cooke also doesn’t specify the climate-denying accounts as ones he might “strongly disagree with”. And when he does strongly disagree, it’s seldom something one has to wonder about.
Anthony Sharwood—the author of the 9/11 debunking article that first set Cooke off—wrote a longer piece on 9/11 denialism in late 2015. In it, he publishes an exchange of emails with “an Australian sportsman” who I have since confirmed to be Cooke. And Cooke takes it off the deep end immediately:
I wonder if you actually believe the official story or you are simply not allowed to write what really happened. The mainstream media reward journalists like yourself that don’t step out of line.
I’ve never met a sane person that after seeing World Trade Center 7 just fall down still actually believe the official narrative. Yet you refer to people that think buildings don’t just fall down as ‘nutters’. Yet the building owner Larry Silverstein admits that they ‘pulled it’, you do know that?
84% of people are intelligent enough to figure out something is not right about 9/11. I guess the other 16% work for the corporate media.
What’s remarkable, though, is that the discourse doesn’t stay there. Sharwood fleshes out the detail on some of Cooke’s conspiracy talking points (Silverstein’s quote was about getting firefighters out; the “84%” figure comes from a poll about the Bush Administration’s terror preparedness) and Cooke seems to temper himself a bit. His responses become shorter, less angry; eventually, just hyperlinks.
His closing thoughts give some hope that maybe he’s not so invested in this after all.
We will just have to agree to disagree
In the years following 2015’s 9/11 frenzy, Cooke’s tweets became substantially more “normal”. He made a few off-hand references to Julian Assange the following year, but has otherwise kept the tin hat off. When presented with common conspiracy targets these days, his response tends to be humor:
And despite the far-right associations of some of his statements and retweets, Cooke’s follows are indeed as diverse as he says—for every Dinesh D’Souza or Kelly Loeffler, there’s an AOC or a Bernie. As much as I hesitate to suggest those are equivalent, they do represent a broad range of viewpoints.
It can be jarring for the mostly-liberal US cycling fanbase when athletes out themselves as conservative (see Quinn Simmons or Chloe Dygert), but Cooke’s tweets aren’t really that.
He’s supported same-sex marriage in no uncertain terms (despite occasionally using “gay” as a pejorative), and seemed to vociferously sub against Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses.
All in all, from a POV of pure political alignment, Cooke’s stance on US politics seems to be amused detachment:
…Or Just Shutting Up?
Still, while Cooke’s tweets specifically have toned down the crazy, his likes—very recent likes—remain problematic. They include a number of Tweets advancing former US President Donald Trump’s evidence-less accusations of election fraud.
He’s also liked tweets that intimate COVID-19—and the vaccines that very effectively prevent it—are part of a broader conspiracy.
(FWIW, The suggestion that China “recovered” without a vaccine is false on numerous fronts. The totalitarian efficiency of China’s lockdown is well-documented; they did have a vaccine, it just wasn’t all that good; and mask-wearing is an established cultural norm. Despite all this, the Delta variant is having an impact—though even taking the reported 300 cases with a CCP-sized dose of salt, China’s still not exactly Fort Lauderdale.)
Again, while these might feel like “conservative” sentiments in 2021, their true alignment is more conspiratorial and anti-fact. They present falsehood as truth, and encourage those with whom the lie resonates to believe the mountain of evidence to the contrary must be the nefarious scheme of a vast, amorphous, and well-entrenched enemy.
You might argue that a Twitter “like” is a bit more nod of personal approval than public endorsement. But it still provides the liked tweet algorithmic amplification that puts it in front of more eyeballs. And as Dygert discovered last fall, a user’s decision to provide that amplification is as publicly visible as anything else.
I’m Not a Businessman—I’m a Business, Man
And honestly, that might be the most confounding part of Cooke’s conspiracy obsession. Even before his star turn on Survivor: Brain vs Brawn, Cooke’s been a prolific and largely sane public figure. For the better part of a decade, he’s brokered deals as a rider agent. As
co-owner former co-owner and chief hype provider of Factor bikes, he’s built a brand that continues to attract high-profile investment.
Dygert, for comparison, has built her persona on self-professed obsessions with domination and authenticity—a brand that almost requires a bad tweet or two. But for Cooke, who casts himself as a strategic, glad-handing hustler with an eye for a deal, it fits about as well as a pair of JNCOs.
The sheer breadth of Cooke’s post-career endeavors suggest he can build and maintain relationships. If anyone would know the value of keeping a public persona with the broadest possible appeal—especially when the cost of not saying crazy shit is zero—it’s Cooke.
So much of what he does tweet seems to “get” this. Cooke’s quick to pass out congratulations to teammates and rivals alike. He pitches corporations on charity rides. Cooke even handles cynical social media replies pretty well. (By cycling industry standards, anyway).
But while Factor athletes like Andre Greipel gracefully appreciate the privilege of being able to complete through a pandemic—or, in the case of Phil Gaimon, present the vulnerability of a personal tragedy in that pandemic to motivate others to help end it—Cooke’s out here boosting tweets that mock mask wearers and question vaccines.
How does the one hand seem to not understand what the other is doing?
Conspiracies for Me But Not for Thee
Cooke never got back to me when I reached out, so unfortunately, I haven’t been able to ask him that directly. And there are so many other things I’m dying to know. Does he still believe 9/11 was an inside job? Does he still listen to Alex Jones? Would he be OK with Factor-sponsored athletes making public statements as divisive and inaccurate as his own? Does he worry his sentiments might reflect negatively on Factor?
What’s particularly curious is that Cooke himself appears in one of modern cycling’s most enduring conspiracy theories. While I remain a skeptic, the suggestion that Fabian Cancellara rode a secretly-motorized bike in the 2010 Spring Classics simply refuses to die. But Cooke—a SaxoBank workhorse of Cancellara’s through the very races in question—declares it all a bunch of “rubbish”.
You’d think being the subject of his own conspiracy might give Cooke more sensitivity around unfounded claims. I’d love to ask if he’s used this experience to put himself in the shoes of a 9/11 firefighter. Or an Arizona election worker.
And if Cooke thinks Cancellara’s teammates couldn’t possibly miss a motorized bike, how much more improbable would this be for the thousands who’d have to somehow not notice a controlled demolition in Lower Manhattan? Or electoral fraud on a national scale?
Given Cooke’s continued prominence in pro cycling, I think these are questions someone with a bigger audience than mine ought to be asking. At the risk of sounding conspiratorial myself, it’s surprising that six years after Cooke’s first 9/11 tweets, I’m the first to put them in a headline. And when they present such stark disconnect with public persona, I can’t be the only one wondering—will the real Baden Cooke please stand up?