Nicole Cooke will be the leader of a British-sponsored professional team in 2008 after leaving the Raleigh-Lifeforce squad.

British Cycling’s performance director David Brailsford has agreed a deal with a major sponsor to put Britain’s first professional women’s team on the road.

Brailsford would not confirm the identity of the main sponsoring company but Cycling Weekly‘s sources believe the deal has been done with a major retailer.

The rest of the team – which is likely to have 12 riders – is yet to be confirmed.

In addition to the women’s team, two men will ride in the new team’s colours in domestic events, although this will obviously be separate from the women’s squad. Cycling Weekly understands Tom Southam will be returning from his stint racing in Australia to take one of the places. The other is yet to be confirmed.

As the Beijing Olympics approach, British Cycling has attracted several offers of sponsorship from companies anticipating a successful games for the country’s cyclists.

Cooke, 24, will be the leader of the squad and the goal will be to give her the racing and support she needs to reach Beijing in top condition, ready to contend for a gold medal.

For the first time she will be able to work solely with British Cycling’s management and coaches in the build-up to the Olympics, free from any possible clashes with trade team interests.

The race programme will include all the key World Cup events and top stage races but the team will also have a presence at home.

One rider who will not be joining the team is Emma Pooley, who is settled at Specialized. However, it is believed the new team will have the flexibility to enter races as Great Britain at times, allowing Pooley to be drafted in.

Brailsford wants to give Cooke, Pooley and one other rider as much experience riding as a trio as possible. Great Britain will have three riders in the road race in Beijing and the thinking is that practice riding important races with minimal back-up will pay off in China

Speaking to telegraph.co.uk Cooke said: “It’s absolutely fantastic. This will be the first-ever British professional women’s team, and it’s the biggest step forward in the women’s sport in this country since I don’t know when.”

“Women’s cycling is getting a lot more attention in Europe these days. We have gone from 24 professional squads to 41 in the last year, a massive increase. We would never have been able to put together a British women’s team five years ago.”

The Welsh woman revealed that she has now fully recovered from her recent knee surgery and is already training ready for the 2008 season: “The surgeon is very pleased with the outcome. It feels as good as new.”

There will be further details of the British women?s team in Thursday?s Cycling Weekly.

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